Robin White

Robin White's 'Seen Along the Avenue' is currently on show at Japan's Mori Art Museum, as part of 'Another Energy: Power to Continue Challenging - 16 Women Artists from around the World.' Recognising that many women artists began their careers later than their male peers in the 1950s and 60s, the exhibition celebrates women artists in a global context whose practice continues to evolve in and beyond their seventies. In Artist Profile Issue 50 (2020), White spoke with Dr Kirsty Baker about her peripatetic practice, and her reciprocal, intergenerational mode of collaboration.

Robin White (Ngãti Awa) first came to prominence in the 1970s with her distinctive figurative representations of the landscapes and people of New Zealand. The clarity and figurative concentration of her paintings from this period, such as 1974’s Fish and Chips Maketu, translate the local specificity of an apparently mundane subject into something both talismanic and joyful. Since then, White’s practice has evolved as she has lived and travelled throughout the Pacific. In 1982 the artist moved to Kiribati, where she lived for seventeen years, leading her to experiment with a range of new media and techniques and, perhaps most significantly, opening the door to collaboration. Since moving back to New Zealand, the evolution of this collaborative mode of working has allowed White to foster a rich range of reciprocal relationships, expanding both the material and cultural parameters of her work. 

It’s clear that place has played a crucial role in the evolution of your practice … 

Well, place isn’t just a physical thing. It’s also the social context, it’s the people that I’m engaging with in that particular place – their way of life, their environment.  

It strikes me that you don’t take those things lightly; there’s a long-term development of a relationship to a place and to its social and cultural context. 

Yes, that’s true. Also a familiarity with its physical features. The place provides a visual vocabulary for addressing wider concerns, broader themes. An example would be the last woodcut series I did in Kiribati, The fisherman loses his way (1995). It’s very distinctly created within that atoll environment. You can tell from the imagery, but the theme is universal. That notion of a process of advance and growth running side by side with a process of disruption and decline within a society.   

Can you talk a little about the voyage you made to the Kermadec Islands in 2011?

It was a very interesting experience for me, although I was a little uncertain to start with. I’d spent all those years living and working at a distance from the western art scene, so I was wondering how I’d manage sharing an adventure at such close quarters with my artist contemporaries from New Zealand, and one from Australia. I also had some concerns about the time frame for making work. The voyage took about three days to get to Raoul Island. We had a couple of nights on Raoul Island and then back on the ship and about the same amount of time on to Tonga, because the ship had duties out in the Pacific. They weren’t going to bring us back to New Zealand and that suited me very well because I’d made contact earlier in the year with a young Tongan woman whom I had met at a Bahá’i summer school and it was a chance to catch up with her again.  

And that was Ruha Fifita, who you went on to collaborate with in a number of projects, including 2015’s Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path?  

Yes, and I was so impressed with this young woman. When we first met, I’d spent time conversing with her and I could tell from the way she spoke that we had a lot in common. She was twenty at the time, and I was in my sixties. I asked her if she would be interested in working with me and she said she would love to, and so being dropped off in Tonga was a wonderful opportunity to continue those conversations. 

That seems to have begun a rich working relationship for you. There’s something powerful in a mode of working contingent upon human connection and reciprocity, especially across cultural and inter-generational lines. The conversations that unfold are quite rare … 

And so much fun. Actually, the first experience I had working collaboratively was in Kiribati. I was propelled into doing it because I’d lost everything in a fire that destroyed our house and my studio. I just simply had to work with what was locally available. It was an obvious decision to work with my I-Kiribati friends, on their terms and with their skills, putting their skills together with the ideas that I had. I needed them, and they enjoyed the adventure of the process, breaking away from their set ways of doing things and learning different ways of making imagery and so on. That experience was mutually very helpful and immensely enjoyable. So I came back to New Zealand after that collaborative project and I was looking for opportunities to carry on working in that manner in the Pacific. 

Your most recent collaboration also stretches across the Pacific, and resulted in the exhibition ‘The Day The Sun Came Down To Earth,’ at Wellington’s McLeavey Gallery in late 2019. How did you find the experience of developing a collaborative relationship in a Japanese context?  

That was wonderful! Six of the paintings that I made with Ogawa Taeko – actually it was two triptychs, so two sets of three – the overall title for them was The day the sun came down to earth, which was a reference to the Atom bomb in Hiroshima. Three of those works were on bark cloth from Fiji and three were on paper, and they each convey a very different atmosphere. One set of works is very hopeful, the other is pretty dark. The words that Taeko san has painted have come from the hibakusha – the survivors of the atom bomb whom she worked with back in the 1980s.  

That’s incredible – so all of the imagery was created by you, and the calligraphy which has been overlaid was created by Taeko? 

Yes. I created the architectural spaces that I invited Taeko to inhabit with her words. The hibakusha she had worked with were adults who, at the time of the bomb, were children and they had not been able to go back to school, so they were illiterate, and she was teaching them how to read and write. She was deeply moved by their stories and their passion for writing, and that influenced her approach to calligraphy. Taeko was trained in the Kyoto University School of Calligraphy, but she sort of moved away from – out of – that traditional mode and set herself free from the constraints of tradition in order to bring that passion to the way she works. Which has made her an outsider in a sense, you know, she’s broken the rules …  

It must be such a privilege to invite people like Taeko into collaborative conversation. Is that a relationship that you’d envisage developing in the future? 

I hope so, yes. And the thing about Japan, it all ties in with place as well, the significance of places in my life. Japan is a place that has been on my radar for many years. My father was a member of the New Zealand Peace Council and used to take me to meetings when I was a kid, in Auckland in the 1950s. I saw a film about the bombing of Hiroshima when I was only about eleven years old, and that’s when my nuclear nightmares started. So I’d always wanted to go to Hiroshima and address those ghosts. And I also wanted to view the Hiroshima panels painted by Toshi and Iri Maruki. My parents had taken me to see those paintings in 1959 when they were exhibited at the Auckland Art Gallery, but I had been too scared to look at them. So I finally got to see them.  

That’s a remarkable full circle story! 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020.
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