Robin White: Between culture and tradition

Robin White’s teacher at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1960s, Colin McCahon, said, “We are all students.” The idea that life is a continuous process of learning shaped her development as an artist. Paula Savage talks to White about how her history informed her latest project.

A life-changing move for Robin White in 1982 to the equatorial atoll of Tarawa, Kiribati, to assist the local Bahá’í community, was a step into the unknown, full of opportunities and risk, leaving behind an established career to live for 17 years in a very different environment. Then, in a devastating fire in 1996, White lost her home, studio and art materials. This forced her once again to re-evaluate her practice: “I began working with a group of weavers in Tarawa, learning how to adapt my ideas to their traditional art practice.”

White went on to engage in a series of increasingly ambitious collaborative tapa projects in Fiji and, more recently, in Tonga. White says: “This collaborative approach reflects a communal way of working common throughout the Pacific. It’s a way of working that has become increasingly important to me.” Many of her collaborative projects with Pacific women are represented in important public collections in Australia and New Zealand.

White and young Tongan artist, Ruha Fifita first met in 2010 at a Bahá’í summer school in New Zealand. This fortuitous meeting marked the beginning of an important collaboration. Working together, they have taken the traditional art of ngatu, Tongan painted tapa into new territory, moving beyond tradition to find new forms and styles.

The following year White was invited by the PEW Environment Group to join eight other artists on a voyage to the oceanic region known as the Kermadecs. HMNZS Otago followed the Kermadec Ridge to Raoul Island then north to Tonga, where White met once more with Fifita. This encounter was the catalyst and inspiration for their first collaborative tapa project, Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean, from which the title of their upcoming exhibition in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria is taken.

Robin White with Ruha Fifita, Seen Along the Avenue, from the series Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path, 2013-16, earth pigment and plant dye on barkcloth, 24 x 3.8 metres. Photo: Virginia Were
A defining moment for White, long interested in learning about the process of making Tongan tapa, was the surprising discovery of a very old, fragile kupesi (design/rubbing template) in the Tongan National Museum. It depicted a tennis match. “It wasn’t something I expected to see. It reinforced my awareness that Tongan tapa has story-telling possibilities that are open to change and adaptation”.

White and Fifita see development as a continuum, taking the best of what can be learnt from the past and aligning it with new ideas and current realities. “We have created a hybrid artwork that integrates ancestral patterns and traditional design with contemporary imagery and pictorial narrative. The past is an anchor, a marker by which you can navigate forward.” White says she likes to operate in the space between culture and tradition. “I enjoy the challenge of learning how to work in that space.”

Work began on the making of the Siu i Moana tapa in Fifita’s village, Haveluloto, Tongatapu, in August 2011, and was finished in New Zealand. White and Fifita were assisted by Tuna Fielakepa, a respected Tongan elder, who advised them on the finer aspects of ngatu. Fielakepa oversaw the initial stages of the work and helped to arrange the making of high quality white tapa. She also organized for a team of women to carry out the koka’anga, the traditional process of preparing the tapa for painting. The koka’anga is an intensive activity. It involves a team of ten or more women working at a long table on which the kupesi are secured. In a marvellously orchestrated and seamless sequence of actions, the women stretch and paste together two layers of tapa over the kupesi, wiping the upper surface with a cloth moistened with dye so that the embossed kupesi patterns appear as lines, ready for painting. White and Fifita used traditional black plant dye and red/brown earth pigment; the resulting shades and tonal variations create the appearance of an exquisite, multi-coloured tapestry.

Robin White with Ruha Fifita, Siu i Moana, Tonga to New Zealand, 2011, earth pigment and plant dye on barkcloth, 459 x 558 cm. Courtesy of the artists

Siu i Moana celebrates the practice of reciprocity and exchange that has always been a feature of life in Oceania. There is a strong sense of movement in Siu i Moana; the triptych maps patterns of migration the length of the underwater volcanic ridge that joins Tonga and 
New Zealand. A vaka (canoe) carrying produce and cultural items dominates the pictorial plane in each of the two figurative tapa. It mirrors the movement between Tonga and New Zealand of people, animal and plant species and produce. One tapa presents elements of exchange and trade from Tonga such as the kava bowl, the logo of the national rugby team and the ubiquitous 
umu pak—an empty container into which Tongan people pack freshly cooked food to send to family in New Zealand. The companion work traces the exchange of Palm corned beef and canned mackerel from New Zealand back to Tonga. It also includes the Bell tea brand, teacups, and an earthenware teapot, playfully referencing the pioneering Bell family who settled on inhospitable Raoul Island in the late 19th century.

Rangitahua (Raoul Island) the third, centrally-positioned black tapa, symbolises the geographic location of the largest of the Kermadec Islands. The vertical red section which divides the tapa, replicates the island’s geological structure of volcanic rock and molten lava, signifying the fault-line and the convergence of different worlds. Fielakepa arranged a ceremony for the traditional preparation of the rare and precious black pigment—the soot gathered from burning candlenut. It’s a complex and time-consuming process not often carried out these days. In Tongan tradition the colour black has associations with the unknown and the unknowable. A ngatu ta’uli (black painted tapa) is therefore normally made for royalty, or very formal or solemn occasions such as funerals. Rangitahua thus serves as a memorial to all those who never left Raoul Island—from the 19th century settlers and the Tokelauans taken as slaves and left to die at Denham Bay, to the two Department of Conservation workers whose lives were lost in recent times.

Robin White with Ruha Fifita, Rangitahua (Raoul Island), 2011, earth pigment and plant dye on barkcloth, 456 x 534 cm. Courtesy of the artists

We are the small axe (2015) contains imagery and design elements which link it to the Siu i Moana installation. It is, however, a separate work with unique elements that relate to the history of New Caledonia. A Bob Marley lyric, “if you are the big tree, we are the small axe ready to cut you down,” provides the title for this work. It refers to the struggle against colonial control and is a recognition of the power inherent at the ‘grassroots’ level to effect social change.

In four massive tapa, collectively called Ko e Hala Hangatonu (2013–16), White and Fifita have created a parable exploring the interface between culture, faith and hope. Assembled in one place these works have a massive sculptural presence. At an incredible 3.8 x 24 metres, Seen Along the Avenue is the largest of the works. This floor-based tapa was inspired by a well-known Tongan design called the Hala Paini (the Pathway of Pines) that represents the road, fringed with Norfolk Pines, leading from the King’s palace in Tongatapu to the royal tombs. “We have taken the essential idea of a path, and all that this word implies in a non-material sense, as the conceptual underpinning of the works in this series,” White explains. Seen Along the Avenue also has a literal geographic reference. The avenue referred to is Ben Gurion Avenue, in Haifa, Israel, which leads from the shores of the Mediterranean to the foot of Mt Carmel—an area rich in history. Stylised motifs and symbols of crisis and victory, hope and fulfillment, appear along the length of the Avenue, reflecting Bahá’í concepts of tolerance, equality and unity in diversity. Intersecting patterns and images, animated by the rhythms of everyday life, include a dove bearing a symbolic olive branch, and a hybrid coat of arms combining iconography from the Tongan, New Zealand and City of Haifa coat of arms. A serpent, owl, black crow and white bat imbedded in the Avenue have more negative connotations, symbolising the temptations and vicissitudes of human life, while an Israeli jet fighter alludes to the constant threat of the desolation and destruction of war.

As a companion work The Garden links the everyday world of Seen Along the Avenue to the transcendental. It continues the central pathway, with steps ascending through the Bahá’í formal terraced gardens, a famous pilgrimage site and a place of meditation. The extensive use of black pigment confers a spiritual dimension and sense of gravitas to the work. The overwhelming beauty and perfection of these gardens are an optimistic vision of a transformed society where people from different cultures and beliefs coexist in harmony and peace.

Two relatively smaller tapa complete the installation. 
In My Father’s House honours ancestry, parents, physical and spiritual, and mentors that nourish, teach and protect. The enigmatic black tapa, The Crimson Sea, symbolises that which is beyond our reach—a life beyond this life. It also represents completion.

White and Fifita’s majestic contemporary tapa installations, evocative and contemplative, with their finely-detailed, sophisticated patterns and imagery are deeply engaged with people and places, and infused with mythology, memory, history, identity and belief. Displayed in the pristine gallery spaces of Melbourne’s major art museum, Siu i Moana: Reaching Across the Ocean, will be an overwhelming sensory experience for visitors.

Published in Art News Winter 2016

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