Dame Robin White is being recognised anew as one of Aotearoa’s most important artists in an exhibition dedicated to her career. On now at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, then at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from late October, the show is titled Robin White: Te Whanaketanga/Something Is Happening Here and features more than 50 works from a career that has spanned 50 years.
It's been co-curated by Dr Nina Tonga, Te Papa’s contemporary art curator, and Dr Sarah Farrar, head of curatorial and learning at Auckland Art Gallery. In a statement they said, “The exhibition recognises a contemporary New Zealand artist whose imagery continues to shape the country’s national identity and sense of place.”
White, who is of Māori and Pāhekā descent (her iwi is Ngāti Awa), is known for her wide-ranging artistic style, collaborative approach and love of the Pacific. With their flat tones and bold outlines, her famous '70s regionalist-style paintings (such as 1973’s Mangaweka and the 1975 work Fish and Chips, Maketu) focused on small-town New Zealand life and in doing so, quietly celebrated it.
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Having lived on the island of Kiribati for 17 years until she moved back to New Zealand in 1999, White has worked with artists there and in Tonga, Fiji and Japan. This has resulted in striking collaborative pieces, such as woven pandanus leaf mats and large-scale ngatu pieces (designs on tapa, a cloth made from softened tree bark).
But why now for a solo exhibition of this scale? “It’s a good question,” Dr Tonga tells Broadsheet. It was Dr Farrar who started the ball rolling – she was previously at Te Papa in the role Dr Tonga now holds. “Sarah [acknowledged] that there wasn’t a really thorough publication of Robin’s work,” says Dr Tonga. “With over five decades of practice, it felt like it was much-needed – and the book naturally lends itself to an exhibition because you’re doing a lot of the same research.”
She’s talking about the new art book by Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery, edited by herself, Dr Farrar and Wellington art historian and curator Jill Trevelyan. Titled Something Is Happening Here (it’s the title of one of White’s recent barkcloth pieces), it was released in May to coincide with the show and includes over 150 images of her artworks along with essays and interviews with writers across New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.
“I think a lot of people who know Robin’s work will know its breadth and how much it covers,” says Dr Tonga. “So, why now? I think it probably really needed to happen now so that Robin can be celebrated.”
Dr Tonga says White’s work has been widely collected across Australia and Aotearoa, and the process of gathering pieces for the exhibition was a “dream project”. “They’re part of family homes, and people have grown up with them,” she says. “We were able to travel with Robin a few times to visit a few people that have her work, and just being able to hear from families that have particular prints above their dining table, you get to understand the role that Robin’s work in particular – and art generally – plays in the lives of many New Zealanders.”
The show is loosely chronological, but Dr Tonga says they’ve tried to highlight the sense of place that plays such an important part in White’s work – and how she was so influenced by her environment.
It was also important to convey how prolific White still is. “A big thing for us was to signal, quite early in the exhibition, that we’re looking at an artist that is still living and who is still active in practice,” she says. The 2017 work that both the exhibition and book are named for is at the front of the show, which moves to the beloved '70s works, then to her collaborative pieces.
“You start to see and meet other people who are connected with Robin,” says Dr Tonga. “You start to get to know her people, her friends, her collaborators – as well as Robin as an artist.”
Robin White: Te Whanaketanga/Something Is Happening Here is showing at Te Papa until September 18, followed by Auckland Art Gallery from late October 2022.