In August, members of the Friends and the Foundation enjoyed a very special evening with Dame Robin White, in conversation with author and curator Jill Trevelyan and Te Papa Senior Art Curator, Sarah Farrar.

In 2020 Te Papa is planning a major retrospective of the work of Dame Robin White. The exhibition will survey Dame Robin’s fifty-year practice, from art school and art teaching beginnings; the decade working as a full-time artist on the Otago Peninsula; the move to Kiribati where her work began to evolve in entirely different directions; her return to New Zealand in 1999; and recent work in collaboration with Pacific artists. Te Papa Press will also launch a new book on Dame Robin’s work, written by Jill and Sarah.

Living in a material world, 2017. Dame Robin White

Dame Robin gave us fascinating insights into the creation of three large tapa or bark cloth artworks, known as masi in Fiji; Something is happening here; Hear the voice; and Living in a material world, all dated 2017. We learnt of the intensive preparation and processes that go into the making of these beautiful artworks, the symbolism of their patterned panels and the multiple layers of meaning they carry. The works are a mixture of techniques, beginning with rubbing in the patterned panels using templates or stencils, then completed with painting.

The works are truly collaborative, both in the method of their making and expression of content, Dame Robin worked with a team including Fijian artist Tamari Cabeikanacea and Tongan artist Ruhan Fifita. The side panels depict a mix of traditional Pacific patterns, local flora and fauna, and symbols of colonialism, such as Chelsea Sugar Factory, recognisable on every sugar packet. All the works speak of a concern for humanity, a concern that things are going awry in the world. Referencing Heironymus Bosch and human destruction of our earthly paradise; toads have invaded the taro patch and weeds are encroaching. ‘Something’ is certainly happening, we don’t yet know exactly what, we can’t quite see, but little thorns have overrun the taro patch.

During the evening we went up to Toi Art where we were treated to a floor talk by Dame Robin on the three iconic and much-loved works currently on view from her time in Otago.

The Friends are thrilled to learn of the retrospective of Dame Robin’s work in Te Papa in 2020. We are keenly supportive of the Foundation’s project to raise $200,000 to fund the acquisition of Dame Robin’s magical three masi artworks and encourage you to generously support the project (see links below):

Elizabeth Kay

Photograph by Elizabeth Kay