Reviews, News and Commentary

Robin White: A life through art revealed in new book

Reviewed by John Peoples

Robin White: Something is happening Here 

Edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga

Te Papa Press & Auckland Art Gallery
RRP ($70.00)

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

In “Soon the tide will turn” one of her large collaborative barkcloth works Robin White included a small image based on a painting of hers from fifty years before. It is of the building which dominates “Mangaweka” but without the old Bedford truck sitting outside. The two works illustrate her commitment to recognising place and her links to the land across time. For many artists their work is an expression of and a contemplation of their physical, emotional and spiritual connections. With White the images she has created constitute a visual diary of the places she has lived, the environments she has inhabited and the people she has encountered.

As she has previously said of her work “A consistent thread in my work it that it’s made in response to place and what’s happening around me – physical and social environments provide raw material, the inspiration and the starting point”

The new book “Robin White – Something is happening Here” brings together many of her images in a survey of her life’s work greatly expanding the readers appreciation of the artist’s work.

The book follows her career from the early successes, selling work to the University of Auckland and The Dowse through to her relocation to Kiribati. It traces out  the development of a personal style and shows the various influences on her work including her friendship with the poet Sam Hunt, high school teacher May Smith and Colin McCahon at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Threaded  though all these aesthetic influences were the teaching of Bahai which affected her social and political ideas.

Her work up till 1982 when she moved to Kiribati is quite distinctive from the latter work she would produce. Her work of the 1970’s includes images of building and landscapes of the places she encountered – Bottle Creek, Porirua,  Mt Eden, Dunedin and Harbour Cone. Some of these paintings recall McCahons line about landscapes with too few lovers but they also hint at Rita Angus’s Cass.

Robin White, Mana

The large portraits of that time set in landscapes seem to link to the portraits and religious depictions of the Renaissance where the backgrounds perform a symbolic function as well as providing a sense of place.

The work after 1982 when she began living in Kiribati, touring the Pacific and the world have a different style and different outlook. As she says about arriving in her new homeland “You look one way and there is the ocean, and the other way and there is more ocean. It’s just the sense of vastness and the nothingness of space.”

A lot of these works focussed on the domestic and everyday life on the island. A series of woodblock prints from the 1990’s was inspired by a young woman with “Nei Tiein goes for  a walk” and  another of The Fisherman loses his way.” The Nei Tiein works are linked to the poems of Yeats and Blake and the Fisherman series look like Pacific reworking of biblical images and narratives.

Robin White and Ebonie Fifita, Soon the tide will turn

Many of the  significant works she produced were collaborations. The first of these was with her artist friend Claudia Pond Eyley and their set of woodcuts “Twenty-eight day in Kiribati.” Later collaborations were with female artists of the island as well as artists from Tonga Fiji and New Zealand. Some of these large-scale works were on barkcloth , the images made from earth pigments and natural dyes  featuring a range of stencilled motifs of Western and Pacific art. In “Soon the tide will turn” which featured her own work she also includes Henri Matisse’s shoes and hat, a reference to the time the Frenchman spent in the Pacific.

The book provides an insight into a wide ranging and multi-layered  life where everyday life and experiences meld with symbols and metaphors creating work where the deceptive simplicity conceals a depth of enquiry and comprehension seeing order and meaning in the world.

The book itself is a beautiful production  with more than 150 full colour reproduction, numerous photographs. While the main text of the book is  by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga there are also  a number of shorter essays on particular works and aspects of the artist life by other commentators including Peter Brunt  Helen Ennis, Gregory O’Brien, Justin Paton , Linda Tyler and Haare Williams.

Robin White, Clouds, Hill and Claudia

A major retrospective exhibition featuring more than 70 works from across White’s 50-year career – Robin White: Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening Here – will open at Te Papa on 4 June, followed by Auckland Art Gallery in late-October 2022.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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