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Robin White - Something Is Happening Here

‘Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path’

Dame Robin White was recently awarded an Icon Award in recognition of a remarkable fifty-year career during which her painting and printmaking have helped to shape a distinctive visual language for life in Aotearoa. For White, the award means “business as usual, but with a heightened sense of responsibility and, as the intimations of mortality become more insistent, a growing sense of urgency to get things done.”

White has exhibited widely in local and international exhibitions including the Sydney Biennale and the Asia-Pacific Triennial. In the 2003 Queen's Birthday Honours, she was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to painting and printmaking, and in 2009 she accepted redesignation as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Born in 1946, White is of Maori and Pakeha descent. After studying under Colin McCahon at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, she produced a series of works depicting provincial life - fish and chip shops, flat-bed trucks, and isolated figures in landscapes. In 1982, her family moved to Tarawa, a small coral strand in Kiribati, where she collaborated with the Baha'i community for seventeen years, fashioning works based on traditional weaving processes and woodcut prints. After her atoll studio burned down, she continued to explore traditional tapa techniques in both Fiji and Tonga, revivifying an indigenous craft and enthusing a younger generation of women with a passion for the properties of naturally-occurring pigments.

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It took several years of work with Tongan artist Ruha Fifta and the women of Haveluloto to complete ‘Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path’ - four large-scale fabrics constructed from barkcloth, earth pigments, plant dyes, and tutu. Their technical skill is overwhelming, involving a lengthy process of fabrication, transfer printing, and hand-painting that was an intensely spiritual experience for those who participated. As ethnographic evidence, they document a process of art production that is both communal and collaborative, suffused with a deep sense of Polynesian spirituality. The result is a fascinating hybrid of historical and contemporary iconography, patterns, and references that range from Europe, across the Middle East, to the Pacific.

Cementing her status as one of New Zealand’s most important artists, White is the focus of a refreshing and well-deserved retrospective developed jointly by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Te Papa, ’Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening Here’ is a retrospective exhibition of her work that takes visitors on an intimate journey across place and through time, showcasing the remarkable breadth and continuous innovation in her artistic practice. Starting with her iconic New Zealand landscapes and portraits of the 1970s, the exhibition then explores the White’s collaborations with artists from across the Pacific (including Japanese artists Keiko Iimura and Taeko Ogawa) and her large-scale tapa works with Tongan artists, Ruha and Ebonie Fifita, and Fijian artist, Tamari Cabeikanacea.

A project of national importance, the exhibition features works from across her career and builds on over a decade of research. It is accompanied by a handsomely illustrated survey of her career from Te Papa Press, edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga. It is the first book to be devoted to her art in forty years and not only includes fresh perspectives by twenty-four writers and interviewees, but also over a hundred and fifty of her artworks, from early watercolours and drawings through to her recent collaborations with Pacific artists. A plethora of photographs capture the life of this courageous and driven artist whose practice engages with the world and wrestles with its complexities.

White’s attraction to abstraction is evident in the perpendicular verticality of her early compositions which favour the depiction of strangely deserted, depopulated landscapes, following firmly in the footsteps of Rita Angus (though not as florid). When people do appear, they have the placid flatness of cardboard cut-outs, a kind of composed composure. White clearly isn’t too concerned about perspective, but much more interested in line, colour, and surface texture.

‘Mangaweka,’ for instance, effortlessly captures the scenery and feeling of a tiny rural New Zealand community. White knew the Rangitikei town from childhood and in 1971 her friend, poet Sam Hunt, wrote ‘A Mangaweka Road sSong,’ capturing the town just as she remembered it - “this one-pub town / approached in low gear down / the gorges through the hills.” White’s characteristic composition of layered planes of crisply edged colour is heightened by strong horizontal lines, particularly the line of the veranda that divides the painting and the shadow that just appears under the Bedford truck.

In its stylised linear forms, flattened space, and brilliant light, ‘Mangaweka’ clearly shows the influence of Rita Angus, an artist whom White greatly admired for both her work and her dedication as a woman artist. It is structured according to a taut, irregular grid, and bisected by the dramatic line of the veranda. All unnecessary detail is suppressed, as we focus on the crisp geometric form of the building sandwiched between the truck and hills. White signs and dates her name on the door (rather than her preferred top of the canvas), a self-referential allusion to the painter’s role in transforming the way we see the world, while Mark Amery sees the windows as nods to Gordon Walters and Mark Rothko.

White’s depiction of her local inhabited landscape has affinities with the New Zealand regionalist painting tradition. White was taught by Colin McMahon at Elam School of Fine Arts and she credits him as another important influence on her development and commitment to her art. Her work became more political over time.

After moving to Bottle Creek, north of Wellington, in 1969 White taught herself screen printing in order to make her imagery both more affordable and accessible. She adopted a Linotype style reminiscent of the Grosvenor School linocuts and often made screen prints after paintings, saying “If I get a good image, then I like to reproduce it. To confine it to one painting, one oil, is to block it off from other people.”

After living in Kiribati, at the heart of the Pacific, for almost two decades, White has become increasingly concerned with climate change. Often working in collaboration with other women artists from across and around the Pacific, “melting traditions and iconographies … working collectively across faiths and cultures,” as Amery perceptively observed in a recent Dominion Post review. The underlying message of her collaborative work on chthonic barkcloth (the importance humanity working together) is a reflection of her Baha’i faith. Her use of textiles and printmaking involves equal doses of intense care, interconnection, and creativity. White reveals mana in the comforting patterns of our lived environment, from the Portobello pub’s stucco walls with Hunt plonked in the foreground to the complex geometries of her large barkcloth prints.

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