Learning all through life

By Adam Gifford

Artist Robin White's new works of huge tapa have been made with a collective of women from Tonga. It's all about risk and adventure, she tells Adam Gifford.

Robyn White with Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Robyn White with Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Ben Gurion Avenue runs in a straight line from the shore of the Mediterranean to Mt Carmel. Lining the avenue are terraced houses built in the 19th century by German Templars, an Adventist sect who moved to the spot to await the imminent return of Christ.

At the end of the road is the Baha'i Gardens, with steps leading up the 19 terraces to the golden-domed Shrine of Bab. Pines flank the route, as they do the path to the royal palace in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. The Tongan pines are depicted on thousands of ngatu, the Tongan name for the finished tapa, in the kupesi or pattern called hala paini.

The Haifa pines, the Templar houses and other kupesi drawn from Baha'i beliefs, art history and artist Robin White's experiences and imagination appear on a launima, a 50-row ngatu which is the centrepiece of her installation at Two Rooms. With it is another tapa with patterns drawn from Mt Carmel's formal gardens.

It's the second major work White has completed with young Tongan artist Ruha Fifita and a collective of women from Haveluloto village on Tongatapu, the first being ngatu based on her experience of the Kermadec Islands.

White and Fifita made raised plates and delivered them to Haveluloto, where the women beat the tapa together from strips of mulberry bark and rubbed on the designs. Two women from another village came to paint the patterns.

"I stepped back and let them interpret the designs in their own way. No two parts are the same because it is two women working, and they have different ways of dealing with things," White says. "Because it is hand-painted, some of the lines left by the rubbing were indistinct, so they had to make things up as they went."

It's a far cry from the flat houses and landscapes that earned White a place in New Zealand art when she emerged from Elam art school in the late 1960s, but that was a long time ago. In 1982 White, her husband and young son went to live on Kiribati to support its Baha'i community, and ended up staying until 1999. Travelling back and forth via Fiji, she became interested in tapa as a medium.

"In Fiji it's known as masi, and having done screen printing I could see the link with working with stencils. I got to know some women who were happy to introduce me to the tradition and the craft. I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to learn Tongan tapa because it was more painterly."

The idea of collaboration appealed. "Towards the end of my stay in Kiribati I got to experience working collaboratively with local weavers at the Kiribati Catholic Women's Training Centre and I really liked that. It allowed me to detach myself more and work in a wide, open head space.

"I liked the sense of risk and adventure, where you can never tell what the outcome will be. I liked the whole process of getting to know the women and discussing things with them and working things out together. I enjoyed the whole environment of working together, so working with tapa is an opportunity to explore that, because it can't be done on your own, not on this scale.

"This work here, especially the launima, I have taken the idea of collaboration further and decided I am not going to tell them how to interpret these designs. I want them to own it. I said, 'I trust you, do it the way you feel it should be done.'

"It's like learning to grow up. You don't have to feel you are in control and you don't have to worry about things like originality and authorship, those are really European constructs in many ways. Those things don't matter in the Pacific when it comes to making things. I am fascinated by pattern - what is pattern, how pattern works, how pattern can be used to convey a narrative, to carry ideas, to carry symbols and messages."

Other artists, such as Fiona Hall, use tapa materials and techniques for what is essentially contemporary art practice, but White has aligned her process with traditional practice. The visual framework is old, but the themes and symbolism are new. She hopes to contribute to that tradition.

"The Kermadec work was a new experience for me and also for the women I was working with. They asked if they could have some of my kupesi, and I said sure, that's a lovely idea. It becomes like DNA. In a sense you patent it by giving it a name, but that is all you do and then it becomes common property really."

The Haveluloto women's group comes together every week and makes a tapa, which then belongs to one member of the group. In this way they can keep the supply of tapa renewed for gifts, sale or dowry in what is an essential commodity in Tongan culture. Advice on the project came from Tunakaimanu Fielakepa, a senior adviser for the Langafonua Women's Handicraft Association, which was founded by Queen Salote in 1953.

"When Ruha and I needed to understand situations in order to facilitate collaboration along productive lines, she would be the one we would talk to on the proper approach and the correct use of materials."

White never regretted moving to Kiribati, which may have seemed like an interruption or exile from her New Zealand art career.

"[Her teacher] Colin McCahon said a wonderful thing when I was at Elam. He said, 'We are all students.' It stayed with me, that idea you carry on learning. That's how you stay alive, stay fresh. It's easy to keep on doing the same thing, because you know people like it, it will sell, it's safe territory, but that's another reason to do this, to learn.

"There is also how it influences other people. The fact I am collaborating with a young Tongan woman of incredible intelligence and ability, I guess she's learning stuff from me, I'm learning stuff from her, and then these women, our lives are never the same after. You are aware of something that is evolving, changing. Or maybe I just don't want to grow old."


What: Ko e Hala Hangatonu: The Straight Path - Robin White with Ruha Fifita
Where and when: Two Rooms Gallery, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to April 6
Plus: Robin White will give a lecture at the Auckland Art Gallery Auditorium at 11am tomorrow

- NZ Herald

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