E-book of the Week: Lifetime of Robin




A evaluation of the yr’s most stunning artwork e book

The weatherboard lodge constructing continues to be there in blink-and-you’d-miss-it Mangaweka, close to Taihape, not too completely different to when Dame Robin White dedicated it to color in 1973, although the veranda is lengthy gone, there’s no Thirties Bedford truck parked out entrance, and she or he wasn’t a Dame then. It’s a location in an analogous class to the little crimson station constructing at Cass imortalised by Rita Angus – most New Zealanders have by no means been there nevertheless it’s a agency a part of the nationwide creativeness.

White, then a latest Elam graduate, was residing in a tiny employee’s cottage at Bottle Creek close to Porirua. She had made buddies with native writers Fleur Adcock, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Jack Lasenby, Michael King, and Sam Hunt. The latter seems rather a lot in White’s artwork of the interval, and consequently the primary a part of the brand new illustrated retrospective of her profession, Robin White: One thing Is Taking place Right here. I like this a lot.

Hunt was an occasional customer to Mangaweka, describing it in a poem, “No place extra I’d prefer to deliver you than / this one-pub city / approached in low gear down / the gorges by way of the hills…” Native legend has it he gained the Palace in a recreation of pool. He and White made a go to to Mangaweka in 1971. The truck out entrance caught her eye. As she would later recall to artwork historian Jill Trevelyan, it “blended with the strains of the constructing and the curves of the hills past … I noticed the portray earlier than I ever painted it.” She took some pictures to work from and the remainder is artwork historical past.

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Mangaweka (1973), oil on canvas, 1016 × 1016 mm. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, bought 1984 with New Zealand Lottery Grant Board funds

The ensuing portray Mangaweka is within the assortment of Te Papa, cementing its fame as a nationwide icon, and encapsulates the section of inventive fashion for which White is greatest remembered – crisp, flat, stylised and naïf, however capturing the essence of place and time. White had translated the technical constraints of her screen-printing follow into paint.

How great, then, to have Robin White: One thing is Taking place Right here, the e book that accompanies the touring exhibition of the identical identify, to place this wonderful artist into context for posterity.


Among the media flannel about White’s neglect is excessive – she was made a Dame in 2009 in spite of everything. She was extremely celebrated, even ubiquitous, within the Seventies and early 80s. However over the Eighties and Nineteen Nineties the artwork world shifted consideration elsewhere, in no small half as a result of a lot of her output was in printing, weaving and tapa. Such issues had been thought of deeply unsexy within the post-structuralist years the place ‘new historical past’ work and conceptual installations bought a lot of the consideration. Neither was she within the hustle and chasing fame, and certainly, she was in Kiribati out of public consciousness for a lot of that point.

As soon as we get previous the introduction, the story begins with White’s dad and mom, Albert and Florence. This additionally serves the mandatory objective of asserting the artist’s Ngāti Awa whakapapa and introduces the Baháʼí religion during which she was raised, which she continues to follow, and which informs an essential function in her artwork and the worldview behind it. Growing in Iran and the Center East within the nineteenth century, Baháʼí relies on the unity of God (all religions worshipping the identical God below completely different names), the unity of faith, and the unity of humanity, whereas explicitly rejecting racism, sexism, and nationalism.

There was plenty of transferring across the North Island for the Whites within the early years earlier than the household fetched up, barely misplaced, in suburban middle-class Epsom. White was a dreamy baby with a lot older siblings and strangers assumed to be her grandparents. Her father was formidable for her and pushed her. The household’s Baháʼí religion insulated her from the expectations of gender in Fifties and ‘60s Aotearoa.

In 1965 White entered the College of Auckland’s Elam Faculty of Effective Arts. She encountered Colin McCahon who was instructing there – although “instructing” may give the impression he was extra concerned and arms on than he really was. From him got here a reverence for the Outdated Masters, but in addition his essentialised imaginative and prescient of the New Zealand panorama.

After graduating, in 1969 White moved to Bottle Creek to show artwork at close by Mana Faculty. This was lengthy earlier than New Zealand artists had been capable of assist themselves with their artmaking. There, in her tiny batch up a steep, macrocarpa-lined monitor linking Seaview Highway to Pāuatahanui inlet, she started drawing and portray the Porirua hills.

At this level the work nonetheless struggled to free itself of McCahon and the legacy of that replicate of G.A. Cotton’s The Geomorphology of New Zealand he’d gotten as a marriage current. It has the identical discount to the important irreducible of the land, searching for the bones of the earth beneath the pores and skin and dividing them up in abrupt compartments.

There have been perceptible variations creating although – White’s creases and gullies had been extra crisply ironed and starched than McCahon’s, her palette in a extra piquant key. The McCahon affect by no means remits completely. It’s overt within the a number of panels of Seven Hills (1979-1980) with its clear echoes of Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950) and the Northland Panels (1958).

At this level in her life, the early Seventies, artwork, and for a lot of the e book, Hunt is ubiquitous within the first half, sharing their platonic, virtually sibling-like relationship. The portray Sam Hunt, Bottle Creek (1970, College of Auckland Assortment) has the poet as a diminutive determine, half size, standing in entrance of his home and virtually misplaced in a prospect of macrocarpas, tiny hints of blue sky peeking by way of on the high. To my eye there’s virtually one thing non secular about it. It’s a triptych – a 3 panel portray – making it really feel a bit like a Renaissance altarpiece. The best way White compartmentalises the picture into areas divided up by darkish strains, gives the look of stained glass with Hunt as a wierd prophet.

Linda Tyler describes him in an accompanying mini-essay: “You think about his arms, out of sight, may be jammed into the pockets of his trademark stovepipe denims, pushing his elbows out awkwardly. Is he diffident about having his portrait painted, or is it winter with a chilly wind blowing?” Hunt makes for a scruffy kind of saint, overwhelmed by looming timber. The scene captures a peculiarly New Zealand high quality of tension.

That yr White made two screen-prints of the outside of the Paekākāriki pub, each within the assortment of the Turnbull Library. A screen-print is made by forcing ink by way of a ready silk display with a squeegee. For a number of colors it’s essential to have a separate cut-out template for the display or issue within the color layering. As a course of it favours easy varieties, pictorial flatness and a restricted palette.

The commercial, business screen-printing course of was an enormous affect on pop artwork, notably Andy Warhol and Sister Corita Kent. It additionally influenced the course of Roy Lichtenstein’s aesthetic. In White’s screen-prints the pub is a stylised set of interlocking white planes with the shadows and weatherboards picked out in gray. The buildings and background hills are all squished collectively into one layer like they had been laminated.

After which in 1971 White paints Jerry on the Paekak Pub, bought by The Dowse that very same yr. On this work she goes again to the screen-prints and interprets that flat, stylised pop aesthetic into oils on canvas. Jerry – I’m not completely clear who he’s – is within the foreground, executed in a extra conventional method with extra shading and modelling, however nonetheless fairly flat in discrete patches of color.

One thing clicked. The overweening presence of McCahon is eventually exorcised, or at the very least put as a substitute. Different inventive influences linger – I get sturdy vibe of Rita Angus’s work of the removing of Wellington’s Bolton Avenue Cemetery in White’s Concrete Angel works of 1973-4. I additionally detect a touch of Michael Smither in White’s deeply transferring, susceptible depictions of her mom Florence.

However we have now to speak in regards to the Buzzy Bee.


The Buzzy Bee, designed and first produced in Newton, Auckland within the Thirties, by Maurice Schlesinger, is a real icon of Nappy Valley child growth kiwiana. A decade earlier than Prince William performed with one on that blanket in entrance of Authorities Home, White had already became a wierd form of punctum in her artwork on the time. After I say “icon” I don’t imply within the overused media influencer sense of “wow, that’s iconic” – I imply in the best way the paint and gilt of a non secular portray provides it a form of aura or inside radiance of reality and significance.

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A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao (1977), screenprint, 546 × 267 mm. Auckland Artwork Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, bought 1977.

It’s there within the curious memento mori screen-print of Michael at Allan’s Seaside (1975, Te Papa) as seated on a bier of black bull kelp, White’s dungareed younger son contemplates a useless seagull, and once more within the Smither-esque screen-print Michael at Dwelling (1978, Te Papa) with yellow gumboots and a cheeky picture-within-a-picture of Harbour Cone haloing his head. This trajectory culminates within the Buzzy Bee’s apotheosis, hovering to heaven over a cottage in a panorama, washing on the verandah, in a mild snook cocking at White’s buddy Don Binney in A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao (1977).

I believe for anybody of my era that touches some deeply ingrained chords – a pre-internet, sleepy and solipsistic time. Is it my Seventies/Eighties childhood or did White simply invent it and implant it in my reminiscence like one thing out of Blade Runner?

One of many fascinating options of the e book’s format is the prevalence of micro-essays for particular person works, particularly when illuminating the various acquainted and beloved photos. The portray Fish and Chips, Maketu (1975, Auckland Artwork Gallery) is such a pristine snapshot of the final of the golden climate, a sublime rendering of the common-or-garden, quotidian mundane that characterises a facet of broad New Zealand id that belongs to nobody tradition. Justin Paton’s micro-essay for this work is poetic and forensic Excessive Paton fashion, seen by way of the lens of distance and gentle longing as Head Curator of Worldwide Artwork on the Artwork Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. “I’m not right here to say that it’s symbolic,” he writes, “or metaphysical. It’s the fish and chip store, Maketū. However the quietude and vacancy Robin constructed into her portray are why it’s enduring. It holds a second for us to be in.”

That silence, stillness, vacancy, even when there are individuals within the scene, and luminosity is so attribute of White’s work. It jogs my memory of the primary time I say Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ within the Nationwide Gallery in London. The stillness transfixes you and amplifies the sound of your heartbeat.


In 1982, White and Fudakowski left Dunedin to go stay with the Baháʼí neighborhood in Kiribati, however shortly earlier than she left New Zealand, she produced a collection of 5 monochrome screen-prints, The Normal over Victory Seaside (1981).

Quite a bit was happening on the time. A e book had been printed about her – a uncommon accolade for a girl artist on the time. However loads of horrible issues had been occurring as nicely. The Springbok tour and responding protests had been in full swing. A few years into the revolution in Iran and Baháʼí there have been being violently persecuted. Victory Seaside, web site of a bloody historic encounter between Kāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe, throughout Otago Peninsular from her dwelling because the Seventies, introduced all of it collectively.

These black and white photos actually need to be higher identified and Gregory O’Brien’s accompanying micro-essay illuminates them splendidly. At first look they appear rather a lot like McCahon depictions of Murawai – sea, sky, looming promontories and ominous rectangular clouds and cursive script. The texts are Baháʼí, representing 5 phases of Baháʼí historical past. The tents which seem in a few of the prints appear virtually as giant because the cliffs and headlands themselves and are a Baháʼí image for the trimmings of worldly self-importance and materials possessions. It’s the shedding of an outdated pores and skin in 5 items in preparation to develop a brand new one.

In Kiribati, White’s fashion metamorphoses once more, a mix of being far throughout the ocean from the nervousness of affect, and by the non-arrival of her printing press. She turned to woodcut prints – having purchased some primary instruments on impulse on her final day in New Zealand – and wooden being in plentiful provide. By now her work was completely Pacific-focussed, or at the very least the Pacific – that huge, moist, blue continent – that New Zealand often fails to recognise itself as a part of.

There’s an simple trace of Gauguin’s varieties and inertia within the work of that interval, nonetheless metaphysical and archetypal, however anchored within the practicalities of recent island life, empathetic moderately than erotic. This isn’t an artist squinting from behind a sketch pad, however a buddy sharing life. That’s to not say White doesn’t make use of the lofty register of the symbolic and quasi-mystical when she felt the necessity.

It led to her presence in 1990 with Fatu Feu’u, John Pule, and Michael Tuffery within the seminal Rangihīroa Panoho-curated touring present Te Moemoeā no Iotefa The Dream of Joseph. The allusion is to Pasifika individuals being just like the exiled Hebrews in Egypt and whether or not escaping dwelling or recognition within the courtroom of Pharoah is the extra fascinating consequence.

White seems to have been included with Pālagi artists comparable to Ian Scott, Tony Fomison, Barry Lett and Glenn Jowit for his or her response to encounters with Pasifika cultures. This raises the thorny challenge of how White’s relationship to indigenous Pacific tradition, regardless of her Ngāti Awa whakapapa, is perceived. It turns into extra pertinent in discussing White’s newer tapa-based work. She is, in spite of everything, an individual of Polynesian descent, born within the Pacific, residing within the Pacific, but there’s some kind of ontological muddle in making an attempt to make that connection, an unspoken class mistake in finding her in that framework. We aren’t fairly there but.

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Nei Tiein goes for a stroll: On the seashore at Bikenibeu (1992), hand-coloured woodcut, 420 × 210 mm. Christchurch Artwork Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Christchurch Artwork Gallery Belief assortment.

Jill Trevelyan writes movingly of Alongside the Means of Sorrows, the 1993 collection of etchings White product of the By way of Dolorosa, the trail Christ walked to Calvary, on a brief go to to Jerusalem. She was in Israel attending centennial of the loss of life of Baháʼu’lláh, the founding father of the Baháʼí religion, on the Baháʼí World Centre in Haifa. The work is partially in tribute to Baháʼí Australian photographer Effie Baker, who travelled Iran within the Thirties recording Baháʼí websites in peril of destruction, at nice threat to her personal life.

I do know after I’m within the presence of sacred artwork, and people telescoping darkish areas of their architectural setting touches me in my lapsed Catholic, proper within the backbone and performs it like a harpsichord.


Within the latter half of the Nineteen Nineties White was often away from Kiribati. In 1995 she was artist in residence on the Australian Nationwide College in Canberra, and the subsequent yr she participated within the present Ladies Maintain Up Half the Sky: The Orientation of Artwork within the Publish-Warfare Pacific at Monash College Gallery. She additionally had her first survey exhibition – not, as you may anticipate, in Aotearoa, however on the Isla Centre for the Arts on the College of Guam. She thought it becoming that this could occur in Micronesia.

Whereas White and her daughter had been travelling from Canberra to Guam, her studio again in Kiribati burned down, leaving her solely a digital camera and her daughter’s felt-tips. Ever resourceful, on her return White produced an atmospheric collection of pictures of the deserted, closely graffitied Japanese WWII bunker on close by Betio the place 300 Japanese troopers had burned alive through the battle of Tarawa. White additionally started collaborating with native Kiribati ladies on woven pandanus mats as the premise for scrumptious gems of folk-cum-pop artwork.

Let nobody deny that the girl has vary. Once more, it’s that Bahá’í radical empathy. Many artists may discover Japanese wartime atrocities an impenetrable barrier to seeing the human in them, not to mention transitioning to one thing so collaborative, playful and life affirming shortly after.

By 1998 all three of White’s youngsters had been residing in Aotearoa and in 1999 she and Fudakowski returned to Aotearoa, settling in Masterton. However at the same time as she returns from the Pacific, she brings the Pacific together with her, or moderately brings us again to the Pacific. Since then White has continued to collaborate with Pacific artists, most notably to supply tapa-based works. Within the 2000s she labored with Fijian artists Leba Toki and Bale Jione. In 2010 White met the revered Tongan artist, Ruha Fifita. They, Fifita’s sister Ebonie Fifita, and a kautaha koka’anga (ladies’s tapa-making group) primarily based in Haveluloto, Tonga, have continued to collaborate on modern ngatu (Tongan tapa).

These breath-taking compositions in sepia, brown and burnt sienna mix elaborate conventional geometries and Japanese print-like figurative parts, haven’t been with out controversy and accusations of appropriation. For probably the most half, although, I believe individuals have responded to the earnestness of White’s intent, and the collaborative nature of creating. It is fascinating to think about how this sits in relation to, for instance, Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015), which was likewise a case of a wahine Māori telling different Pacific peoples’ tales to excessive acclaim.

White is the proper artist for this time of conflict and political upheaval, working within the house between cultures within the metaphorical floor in entrance of the meetinghouse. She is instructing us profound truths and to share and play properly collectively.


Andrew Paul Wooden’s evaluation concludes our week-long protection of the yr’s greatest illustrated e book, Robin White: One thing Is Taking place Right here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga ($70, Te Papa Press and Auckland Artwork Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), obtainable in bookstores nationwide. On Monday, Steve Braunias wrote about “the gorgeous collaboration” between White and Sam Hunt; on Tuesday, New Zealand’s greatest artwork author examined White’s well-known portray of a fish and chip store; and yesterday, White wrote about her non secular religion.



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