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Book of the Week: Life of Robin

A review of the year’s most beautiful art book

The weatherboard hotel building is still there in blink-and-you’d-miss-it Mangaweka, near Taihape, not too different to when Dame Robin White committed it to paint in 1973, though the veranda is long gone, there’s no 1930s Bedford truck parked out front, and she wasn’t a Dame then. It’s a location in a similar class to the little red station building at Cass imortalised by Rita Angus – most New Zealanders have never been there but it’s a firm part of the national imagination.

White, then a recent Elam graduate, was living in a tiny worker’s cottage at Bottle Creek near Porirua. She had made friends with local writers Fleur Adcock, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Jack Lasenby, Michael King, and Sam Hunt. The latter appears a lot in White’s art of the period, and consequently the first part of the new illustrated retrospective of her career, Robin White: Something Is Happening Here. I love this so much.

Hunt was an occasional visitor to Mangaweka, describing it in a poem, “No place more I’d like to bring you than / this one-pub town / approached in low gear down / the gorges through the hills…” Local legend has it he won the Palace in a game of pool. He and White made a visit to Mangaweka in 1971. The truck out front caught her eye. As she would later recall to art historian Jill Trevelyan, it “blended with the lines of the building and the curves of the hills beyond … I saw the painting before I ever painted it.” She took some photos to work from and the rest is art history.

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

The resulting painting Mangaweka is in the collection of Te Papa, cementing its reputation as a national icon, and encapsulates the phase of artistic style for which White is best remembered – crisp, flat, stylised and naïf, but capturing the essence of place and time. White had translated the technical constraints of her screen-printing practice into paint.

How wonderful, then, to have Robin White: Something is Happening Here, the book that accompanies the touring exhibition of the same name, to put this amazing artist into context for posterity.

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Some of the media flannel about White’s neglect is over the top – she was made a Dame in 2009 after all. She was highly celebrated, even ubiquitous, in the 1970s and early 80s. But over the 1980s and 1990s the art world shifted attention elsewhere, in no small part because much of her output was in printing, weaving and tapa. Such things were considered deeply unsexy in the post-structuralist years where ‘new history’ paintings and conceptual installations got most of the attention. Neither was she interested in the hustle and chasing fame, and indeed, she was in Kiribati out of public awareness for much of that time.

Once we get past the introduction, the story begins with White’s parents, Albert and Florence. This also serves the necessary purpose of asserting the artist’s Ngāti Awa whakapapa and introduces the Baháʼí faith in which she was raised, which she continues to practice, and which informs an important role in her art and the worldview behind it. Developing in Iran and the Middle East in the nineteenth century, Baháʼí is predicated on the unity of God (all religions worshipping the same God under different names), the unity of religion, and the unity of humanity, while explicitly rejecting racism, sexism, and nationalism.

There was a lot of moving around the North Island for the Whites in the early years before the family fetched up, slightly out of place, in suburban middle-class Epsom. White was a dreamy child with much older siblings and strangers assumed to be her grandparents. Her father was ambitious for her and pushed her. The family’s Baháʼí faith insulated her from the expectations of gender in 1950s and ‘60s Aotearoa.

In 1965 White entered the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts. She encountered Colin McCahon who was teaching there – though “teaching” might give the impression he was more involved and hands on than he actually was. From him came a reverence for the Old Masters, but also his essentialised vision of the New Zealand landscape.

After graduating, in 1969 White moved to Bottle Creek to teach art at nearby Mana College. This was long before New Zealand artists were able to support themselves with their artmaking. There, in her tiny batch up a steep, macrocarpa-lined track linking Seaview Road to Pāuatahanui inlet, she began drawing and painting the Porirua hills.

At this point the work still struggled to free itself of McCahon and the legacy of that copy of G.A. Cotton’s The Geomorphology of New Zealand he’d gotten as a wedding present. It has the same reduction to the essential irreducible of the land, seeking the bones of the earth beneath the skin and dividing them up in abrupt compartments.

There were perceptible differences developing though – White’s creases and gullies were more crisply ironed and starched than McCahon’s, her palette in a more piquant key. The McCahon influence never remits entirely. It’s overt in the multiple 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 point in her life, the early 1970s, art, and for much of the book, Hunt is ubiquitous in the first part, sharing their platonic, almost sibling-like relationship. The painting Sam Hunt, Bottle Creek (1970, University of Auckland Collection) has the poet as a diminutive figure, half length, standing in front of his house and almost lost in a prospect of macrocarpas, tiny hints of blue sky peeking through at the top. To my eye there’s almost something religious about it. It’s a triptych – a three panel painting – making it feel a little like a Renaissance altarpiece. The way White compartmentalises the image into areas divided up by dark lines, gives the impression of stained glass with Hunt as a strange prophet.

Linda Tyler describes him in an accompanying mini-essay: “You imagine his hands, out of sight, might be jammed into the pockets of his trademark stovepipe jeans, pushing his elbows out awkwardly. Is he diffident about having his portrait painted, or is it winter with a cold wind blowing?” Hunt makes for a scruffy sort of saint, overwhelmed by looming trees. The scene captures a peculiarly New Zealand quality of anxiety.

That year White made two screen-prints of the exterior of the Paekākāriki pub, both in the collection of the Turnbull Library. A screen-print is made by forcing ink through a prepared silk screen with a squeegee. For multiple colours you need to have a separate cut-out template for the screen or factor in the colour layering. As a process it favours simple forms, pictorial flatness and a restricted palette.

The industrial, commercial screen-printing process was a huge influence on pop art, particularly Andy Warhol and Sister Corita Kent. It also influenced the direction 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 grey. The buildings and background hills are all squished together into one layer like they were laminated.

And then in 1971 White paints Jerry at the Paekak Pub, purchased by The Dowse that same year. In this work she goes back to the screen-prints and translates that flat, stylised pop aesthetic into oils on canvas. Jerry – I’m not entirely clear who he is – is in the foreground, executed in a more traditional manner with more shading and modelling, but still quite flat in discrete patches of colour.

Something clicked. The overweening presence of McCahon is at last exorcised, or at least put in its place. Other artistic influences linger – I get strong vibe of Rita Angus’s paintings of the removal of Wellington’s Bolton Street Cemetery in White’s Concrete Angel works of 1973-4. I also detect a hint of Michael Smither in White’s deeply moving, vulnerable depictions of her mother Florence.

But we have to talk about the Buzzy Bee.

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The Buzzy Bee, designed and first produced in Newton, Auckland in the 1930s, by Maurice Schlesinger, is a genuine icon of Nappy Valley baby boom kiwiana. A decade before Prince William played with one on that blanket in front of Government House, White had already turned into a strange kind of punctum in her art at the time. When I say “icon” I don’t mean in the overused media influencer sense of “wow, that’s iconic” – I mean in the way the paint and gilt of a religious painting gives it a kind of aura or inner radiance of truth and significance.

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

It’s there in the curious memento mori screen-print of Michael at Allan’s Beach (1975, Te Papa) as seated on a bier of black bull kelp, White’s dungareed young son contemplates a dead seagull, and again in the Smither-esque screen-print Michael at Home (1978, Te Papa) with yellow gumboots and a cheeky picture-within-a-picture of Harbour Cone haloing his head. This trajectory culminates in the Buzzy Bee’s apotheosis, soaring to heaven over a cottage in a landscape, washing on the verandah, in a gentle snook cocking at White’s friend Don Binney in A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao (1977).

I think for anyone of my generation that touches some deeply ingrained chords – a pre-internet, sleepy and solipsistic time. Is it my 1970s/1980s childhood or did White just invent it and implant it in my memory like something out of Blade Runner?

One of the interesting features of the book’s format is the prevalence of micro-essays for individual works, especially when illuminating the many familiar and beloved images. The painting Fish and Chips, Maketu (1975, Auckland Art Gallery) is such a pristine snapshot of the last of the golden weather, an elegant rendering of the humble, quotidian mundane that characterises an aspect of broad New Zealand identity that belongs to no one culture. Justin Paton’s micro-essay for this work is poetic and forensic High Paton style, viewed through the lens of distance and mild longing as Head Curator of International Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. “I’m not here to say that it’s symbolic,” he writes, “or metaphysical. It’s the fish and chip shop, Maketū. But the quietude and emptiness Robin built into her painting are why it is enduring. It holds a moment for us to be in.”

That silence, stillness, emptiness, even when there are people in the scene, and luminosity is so characteristic of White’s work. It reminds me of the first time I say Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery in London. The stillness transfixes you and amplifies the sound of your heartbeat.

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In 1982, White and Fudakowski left Dunedin to go live with the Baháʼí community in Kiribati, but shortly before she left New Zealand, she produced a series of five monochrome screen-prints, The Standard over Victory Beach (1981).

A lot was going on at the time. A book had been published about her – a rare accolade for a woman artist at the time. But plenty of terrible things were happening as well. The Springbok tour and responding protests were in full swing. A couple of years into the revolution in Iran and Baháʼí there were being violently persecuted. Victory Beach, site of a bloody historical encounter between Kāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe, across Otago Peninsular from her home since the 1970s, brought it all together.

These black and white images really deserve to be better known and Gregory O’Brien’s accompanying micro-essay illuminates them wonderfully. At first glance they look a lot like McCahon depictions of Murawai – sea, sky, looming promontories and ominous oblong clouds and cursive script. The texts are Baháʼí, representing five stages of Baháʼí history. The tents which appear in some of the prints seem almost as large as the cliffs and headlands themselves and are a Baháʼí symbol for the trappings of worldly vanity and material possessions. It’s the shedding of an old skin in five pieces in preparation to grow a new one.

In Kiribati, White’s style metamorphoses again, a combination of being far across the ocean from the anxiety of influence, and by the non-arrival of her printing press. She turned to woodcut prints – having bought some basic tools on impulse on her last day in New Zealand – and wood being in plentiful supply. By now her work was entirely Pacific-focussed, or at least the Pacific – that vast, wet, blue continent – that New Zealand frequently fails to recognise itself as part of.

There’s an undeniable hint of Gauguin’s forms and inertia in the work of that period, still metaphysical and archetypal, but anchored in the practicalities of modern island life, empathetic rather than erotic. This isn’t an artist squinting from behind a sketch pad, but a friend sharing life. That’s not to say White doesn’t employ the lofty register of the symbolic and quasi-mystical when she felt the need.

It led to her presence in 1990 with Fatu Feu’u, John Pule, and Michael Tuffery in the seminal Rangihīroa Panoho-curated touring show Te Moemoeā no Iotefa The Dream of Joseph. The allusion is to Pasifika people being like the exiled Hebrews in Egypt and whether escaping home or recognition in the court of Pharoah is the more desirable outcome.

White appears to have been included with Pālagi artists such as Ian Scott, Tony Fomison, Barry Lett and Glenn Jowit for their response to encounters with Pasifika cultures. This raises the thorny issue of how White’s relationship to indigenous Pacific culture, despite her Ngāti Awa whakapapa, is perceived. It becomes more pertinent in discussing White’s more recent tapa-based work. She is, after all, a person of Polynesian descent, born in the Pacific, living in the Pacific, yet there’s some sort of ontological muddle in trying to make that connection, an unstated category mistake in locating her in that framework. We are not quite there yet.

Nei Tiein goes for a walk: On the beach at Bikenibeu (1992), hand-coloured woodcut, 420 × 210 mm. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Christchurch Art Gallery Trust collection.

Jill Trevelyan writes movingly of Along the Way of Sorrows, the 1993 series of etchings White made of the Via Dolorosa, the path Christ walked to Calvary, on a short visit to Jerusalem. She was in Israel attending centennial of the death of Baháʼu’lláh, the founder of the Baháʼí faith, at the Baháʼí World Centre in Haifa. The work is partially in tribute to Baháʼí Australian photographer Effie Baker, who travelled Iran in the 1930s recording Baháʼí sites in danger of destruction, at great risk to her own life.

I know when I’m in the presence of sacred art, and those telescoping dark spaces in their architectural setting touches me in my lapsed Catholic, right in the spine and plays it like a harpsichord.

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In the latter half of the 1990s White was frequently away from Kiribati. In 1995 she was artist in residence at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the next year she participated in the show Women Hold Up Half the Sky: The Orientation of Art in the Post-War Pacific at Monash University Gallery. She also had her first survey exhibition – not, as you might expect, in Aotearoa, but at the Isla Centre for the Arts at the University of Guam. She thought it fitting that this should happen in Micronesia.

While White and her daughter were travelling from Canberra to Guam, her studio back in Kiribati burned down, leaving her only a camera and her daughter’s felt-tips. Ever resourceful, on her return White produced an atmospheric series of photographs of the abandoned, heavily graffitied Japanese WWII bunker on nearby Betio where 300 Japanese soldiers had burned alive during the battle of Tarawa. White also began collaborating with local Kiribati women on woven pandanus mats as the basis for delicious gems of folk-cum-pop art.

Let no one deny that the lady has range. Again, it’s that Bahá’í radical empathy. Many artists might find Japanese wartime atrocities an impenetrable barrier to seeing the human in them, let alone transitioning to something so collaborative, playful and life affirming shortly after.

By 1998 all three of White’s children were living in Aotearoa and in 1999 she and Fudakowski returned to Aotearoa, settling in Masterton. But even as she returns from the Pacific, she brings the Pacific with her, or rather brings us back to the Pacific. Since then White has continued to collaborate with Pacific artists, most notably to produce tapa-based works. In the 2000s she worked with Fijian artists Leba Toki and Bale Jione. In 2010 White met the respected Tongan artist, Ruha Fifita. They, Fifita’s sister Ebonie Fifita, and a kautaha koka’anga (women’s tapa-making group) based in Haveluloto, Tonga, have continued to collaborate on contemporary ngatu (Tongan tapa).

These breath-taking compositions in sepia, brown and burnt sienna combine elaborate traditional geometries and Japanese print-like figurative elements, have not been without controversy and accusations of appropriation. For the most part, though, I think people have responded to the earnestness of White’s intent, and the collaborative nature of making. It’s interesting to consider how this sits in relation to, for example, Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015), which was likewise a case of a wahine Māori telling other Pacific peoples’ stories to high acclaim.

White is the perfect artist for this time of war and political upheaval, working in the space between cultures in the metaphorical ground in front of the meetinghouse. She is teaching us profound truths and to share and play nicely together.

 

Andrew Paul Wood’s review concludes our week-long coverage of the year’s best illustrated book, Robin White: Something Is Happening Here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga ($70, Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), available in bookstores nationwide. On Monday, Steve Braunias wrote about “the beautiful collaboration” between White and Sam Hunt; on Tuesday, New Zealand’s best art writer examined White’s famous painting of a fish and chip shop; and yesterday, White wrote about her religious faith.

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