Artist Robin White's monumental new works celebrate collaboration

Photography Russell Kleyn

The space between

Freshly minted Arts Laureate Robin White finds unity in diversity, and happiness in collaboration in her ambitious new works.

“New Zealand is a Pacific island,” says artist Dame Robin White, newly crowned an Arts Laureate by the Arts Foundation. “It’s a reality that’s gradually dawning on us. And all of us who’ve come here have come here over the ocean. The European mentality is the ocean is a barrier but in the Pacific, it’s your pathway to the rest of the world.”

White, who has Pākehā and Ngāti Awa ancestry, is very much a Pacific Islander. As a young and already well-known painter, she moved to Kiribati, where she stayed for 17 years, switching to prints and working with leaf weavings, piupiu, pandanus mats and tapa. The concept of universality – one people, one ocean, one world – is central not only to her art practice but also to her Bahá’í faith. 

Her recent show at Grey Lynn’s Two Rooms Gallery, Something is happening here, an exhibition of masi (Fijian tapa) works, was ostensibly a solo show – but White doesn’t see it that way. To her, her work is a collaboration between herself, Fijian artist Tamari Cabeikanacea and Tongan artist Ruha Fifita. “We’re all on the same level,” she says. “I don’t make any decisions without talking them through with the others. There are times when I don’t know what to do and Tamari will have the answer because it involves using her tools of trade, her stencils and traditional patterns. So it’s a really misleading thing to say it’s a Robin White show.”

The trio wanted to revitalise natural connections in the Pacific world that were interrupted by colonisation. “There was a kind of hybrid version of Tongan and Fijian traditions and we thought it would be interesting to experiment with bringing them back together again.” In place of traditional geometric patterns, these masi depict still-life objects within living rooms. White hesitates to call the work radical but says it’s certainly novel. “We were working in an urban village situation in Lautoka [Fiji], with very close neighbours all around us. So there’s a lady next door making her tapa, beating it and drying it and painting it and stencilling it. We’d go look at her work and she’d see our work and go, ‘Oh wow, that’s different.’”

The show’s title is taken from Bob Dylan’s song ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, and the rooms are filled with ocean life, Japanese tea sets and a familiar jug and lamp – the inanimate stars of the painting ‘The Blessed Virgin compared to the jug of pure water and the infant Jesus to a lamp’ by Colin McCahon, White’s teacher at Elam art school. “The thing I love about that painting is the spaces in between things. If you analyse the way he’s dealt with the spaces between the jug, the figure and all those shapes, that’s a beautiful thing. It’s very much an element of the Māori aesthetic too, the positive and negative both being equal. If you look at kōwhaiwhai patterns, the space between things really matters.”

White says collaboration can achieve more than the sum of its parts. It can also dissolve cultural divides. “More and more, we are being required to know what are the implications of living in a society that is increasingly diverse, through the arrival of immigrants from all walks of life and very different parts of the planet. I would like to think that our work is a tangible example of what people can achieve when they work together.”

The last of seven children, White was a peripatetic child. Her father, a builder, carpenter and gardener, would find a house, do it up, then they’d move on. Her parents were self-made and self-educated. Neither went to high school, but they had tons of books. They were “the generation of a working class that was erudite, socialist, and proud of being workers”. Her great-grandfather came to New Zealand in the 1850s, where he and his brother both married high-ranking Māori women. White’s father was proud of his ancestry, and though he didn’t speak te reo, was “absolutely insistent on correct pronunciation”. Every weekend he would take her to collect kai moana, or tread the mudflats for cockles – “things which for me were distinctly Māori, but to the rest of Lewin Road, Epsom, were slightly different”.

 

Her parents became Bahá’í in 1948 after seeing an ad in the paper in Whāngārei which mentioned world unity and peace. “My father was attracted by that, having fought in World War One and in a sense losing his faith as a result of seeing the way people who purport to come from Christian countries treated each other. I was the beneficiary of things that are very clearly stated in Bahá’í writing, such as the equality of men and women. If there has to be a choice of educating your son or daughter, you educate the daughter.”

When she reached high school age, the family relocated from the North Shore to Epsom so she could enrol at Epsom Girls Grammar. Having been “a bit of a loner”, school suddenly started making sense to her when she discovered the art department. Her art teacher was known to the students as Mrs Hardcastle, but in the art world as May Smith, one of the leading lights of painting in the middle of the 20th century. When it became obvious White wanted to pursue art as a career, her parents backed her 100 percent. “The kind of advice I was getting was, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, just aim for the top.’”

 

Being made an Arts Foundation Laureate and, more to the point, being awarded $50,000, is “amazing”, says White. She’ll be able to do things she often puts off because of the cost, like getting her eyes checked and going to the dentist. She also plans to visit the Maruki Gallery in Japan to view the Hiroshima Panels, something she’s wanted to do since she was little. And she’ll return to Kiribati to follow up on ideas she started working on two decades ago.

These days, the tiny country faces imminent extinction by climate change, something White foreshadowed in her work back in the 1970s. Does she see any progress since then or have we spent four decades rolling backwards? “The Bahá’í view is that both those things happen in parallel. But what we have is a choice. You can throw your lot in with all of those movements which are in line with a vision of growth, in which we come to understand the meaning of unity in diversity, a oneness of humanity. Because we are one human family.” 

Current works

A selection of masi works from the recent exhibition, Something is happening here, at Two Rooms Gallery.

Past works

White’s charismatic early style, reminiscent of Rita Angus, is highly recognisable