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Following his graduation in 1953, Hotere worked in the Auckland and Northland region as a schools art advisor for the Education Department. In 1961 he was awarded a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship and took up study at the Central School of Art in London under prominent colour field painter William Turnbull. This was quickly followed in 1962 by the receipt of the Karolyi International Fellowship for study in Vence, France. Between 1963 and 1964 Hotere travelled and painted around Europe, during which time he visited the Sangro River war cemetery in Italy where his brother and fellow service men from the WWII Maori Battalion were buried, a pilgrimage that resulted in his Sangro Series of 1962-64. Europe in the early 1960's was plagued with political upheaval and Hotere's experience of life in this part of the world and his concern with the events of the time fomented a voice in his work that continued throughout his career.
Around 1972, Hotere began to focus on expressive elements to his work that commentator Warwick Brown has noted 'move[d] his work from pure abstraction towards the sort of semi-abstract narrative that Colin McCahon was then using.'1 These expressive elements encouraged and reinforced Hotere's artistic 'voice' and Hotere began to develop works in relation to political and social issues important to him, including the Aramoana series protesting against the proposed aluminium smelter in Port Chalmers the Black Union Jack series, relating to the controversial tour of New Zealand by the South African rugby team in 1981 and the Black Rainbow series, in reaction to the 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior.
Hotere utilised text in his painting and lithography from an early stage and his relationship with the New Zealand literary world remained constant throughout his career, evidenced by his publishing four drawings in literary journal Landfall 78 and accepting the task of designing the cover for Landfall 84. Moreover, the use of words as imagery in his work and his affinity for text, language and 'voice' in art saw him fall naturally into collaborations with many notable NZ artists and poets including Bill Culbert, John Reynolds, Bill Manhire and Hone Tuwhare. Many of his series, such as Pine (based on the words of Hone Tuwhare's poem of the same name), celebrate his friendships with well-known New Zealand writers and document both artistic and personal dialogue between the two disciplines of poetry and painting and their exponents.
In 1994 Hotere received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Otago and in 2006 was awarded the Te Taumata Award by Te Waka Toi recognising outstanding leadership and service to Maori arts. He is now recognised as one of New Zealand's most significant living artists and his works have become increasingly sought after by both national and international collectors.