Being in the Pacific.

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Being in the Pacific.


White, Robin.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Conference paper



Countries of context

Aotearoa New Zealand | Australia | Kiribati

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Being in the Pacific.
by Robin White

In 1980 I went on my third journey outside of New Zealand. The first had been to Hawaii, the second to the Cook Islands and this time I was going to Australia — armed with a list of dealer galleries to check out and very excited at the prospect of being in a big country with big cities. I imagined my experience of Australia would be somewhat in proportion to the scale of the place and I was bracing myself for it.

I made the rounds of the art dealers. They didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them, which was a new experience for me and one which emphasised, during that visit, the distance I felt between who I was and what I was seeing. I realised that I knew little about art in Australia and, at the time, I was more or less content to leave it that way. What I didn’t realise was how this was to change.

It began with a chance encounter with a strange image that I found when browsing through a bookshop on Oxford Street in Sydney. There I came across a poster with an extraordinary message. It was telling me that the hand grenades were hidden in the frozen chickens. I found I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two old ladies peering into a frozen food bar in a supermarket and I had no idea what was going on. This poster didn’t fit the usual Hendrix-in-a-purple-haze category and other visual relics of psychedelia still current in the poster racks of many bookshops in New Zealand. And it didn’t occur to me that it might be considered as art because it was too cheap — and I was in a bookshop and not in an art gallery. There was no doubt that the image was very compelling, but it was also rather weird and obscure and, seeing no reason to own it, I left the shop empty-handed, and after a few days I was back with the hills and harbour of Dunedin in the deep south of the South Island.

It was comforting to sink back into familiar surroundings. There were no explosive devices lurking in the supermarkets of this orderly little Scottish outpost, and the image of hand grenades in frozen chickens lingered merely as a faintly disturbing memory associated with all that was odd and distant and different about my first encounter with Australia. I carried on painting.

Two years later, in May of 1982, life for myself, my husband and son, underwent a radical upheaval. We were leaving New Zealand again but this time it wasn’t just for a visit. We were heading off to live on an atoll about two degrees north of the equator in the middle of the Pacific. We had sold our house and car in Dunedin, we had packed all our possessions and, because there were no plans for our return, I imagined that we were going for good. Prior to our departure we had researched whatever information we could find out about what was to a be our new home in the Republic of Kiribati and we reckoned that we had a pretty fair idea of what we were in for. But nothing could have prepared us for the actual shock of arrival. As I looked down from the plane on a barely discernable thread of land dividing a turquoise lagoon from an endless ocean I wondered if there was life after hills in a land where the highest point above sea level is sixteen feet.

We were given a house to live in beside the lagoon of Bikenibeu village on South Tarawa — walls of coconut leaf, midrib, pandanus thatch on the roof and a rough concrete floor. It was essentially one large room partitioned to form living, sleeping and cooking areas, and with a bathroom tacked on one end. The stick walls let in a cooling breeze, and the thatched roof, rising steeply to a high ridge, protected us from the fierce sun directly overhead. However, despite these obvious advantages of being in a local house, I felt very vulnerable. The neighbourhood children peered at us through the stick walls, and then gradually eased through the doorway into our house to sit and gaze and eventually to explore. Termite and lizard droppings fell constantly from above, cockroaches and rats scampered about the house at night and chickens and crabs came and went at will. Settling in to live with these distractions was easy enough but finding a place to work presented problems. I simply couldn't visualise myself painting in that environment. But somehow I had to keep on working and so I began to draw, hoping that a solution would eventually present itself. Well, it did.

On the Friday night before leaving New Zealand I had raced into Queen Street in Auckland on a last minute ‘What would you take to a desert island’ shopping spree. In the art department of Whitcoulls I spotted a mall set of woodcutting tools. I’d never made a woodcut and had no intentions of doing so but at only $6.12 I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take them. I figured they might come in handy — you never know. So I had them with me there on Tarawa and it occurred to me that woodcuts would survive curious little fingers and I doubted that rats or cockroaches would be interested in devouring wood, given the choice of other more delectable items in the house. I continued drawing, having in mind a series of prints borrowing from the old woodcut tradition of visual/verbal images, and the outcome was the Beginners Guide to Gilbertese — a response to my arrival in a new country and my efforts to learn the language.

The Beginners Guide was editioned in New Zealand. I had ordered a printing press which was languishing on a wharf somewhere between Cromwell and Auckland and, in any case, I was pregnant and craving for mutton and mashed potato, so I needed a break. With the editioning finished and the prints distributed to my dealers I returned to Kiribati, wondering if I dared to hope for a positive response to my new work. The response was guarded. ‘They’re good’, said my Wellington dealer. So why aren’t more of them selling, I wondered? Our only source of income at the time was from what I earned as an artist so naturally I was a bit concerned. My dealer explained. ‘New Zealanders want icons of place’, he said. Well, too bad. Kiribati was my place, and the images I was producing were about being in that place; about being in the Pacific. I was advised not to worry, to carry on with what I was doing and maybe the Kiwis would come around in the end.

By mid-1984 I had embarked on a second series of woodcuts, but not because I was still doing battle with rats and cockroaches. By this time I had a new rat-proof studio built upstairs and away from curious gazes and constant interruptions. Woodcut printing seemed a logical and appropriate choice of medium for what was shaping up to be a series of works that had a distinct narrative quality and that eventually became the bookwork Twenty-eight days in Kiribati, a visual diary documenting the visit of a friend and her daughter. In 1985 I was back in New Zealand again with the newly completed 28 days, timing my visit to coincide with ANZART in May of that year.

I arrived in Auckland just in time to hear the keynote speaker at the Feminist Art Network conference associated with the ANZART event giving her paper which dealt with issues relating to feminist art and post-modernism. This was heady stuff for me, coming in out of the Pacific blue. Kiribati has no tradition of painting or carving. There had been mild interest in what I was doing but no expressed desire to get involved and so, as far as art goes, my interaction with I-Kiribati has been and still is, very much on their terms — mainly through participation in traditional dance. And there were no expatriate artists, apart from myself, living in Kiribati. So there I was back in Auckland in the midst of a western art dialogue and settling in to enjoy the keynote speakers presentation of slides of current work from Australia from which she had chosen to concentrate on screenprinted posters and, in particular, those produced by women.

I was suddenly jolted by the recognition of a familiar image. There were those damn chickens again — the ones with the handgrenades hidden inside them. I learnt that my discovery in an Oxford Street bookshop was one of a series of six posters titled Taking Markettown by Strategy, printed in 1977 by Toni Robertson. I also learnt that this series was part of a large genre of works, many of them produced by women, several of whom were working in a place called the Tin Sheds. These works, although printed in a medium commonly associated with commercial production, had been produced, as I understood it, without any commercial intentions and displayed in a way that defied all the rules associated with the correct presentation of work that could rightfully be described as serious visual art. No art work in New Zealand that I knew of was anything like the work being produced in the Tin Sheds. Apparently there was a place called the Wellington Print Workshop run by a City Council access scheme in the mid-Eighties but it was short-lived and lacked visibility. I certainly knew nothing about it.

My education had just begun and, excited at the prospect of learning more, I accepted an invitation to stay with newly-made friends in Australia. That visit, in August of 1985, was the beginning of what has become an ongoing, and for me at least, an extremely rewarding connection. My encounter with the loaded chickens has been, on the one hand, a challenge to my provincial notions of art marketing strategy and, on the other, a continuation of a figurative approach to image-making in which message is what matters. And one of the most sustaining factors for me over the last seven years has been my association with an art community where printmaking is taken seriously as a means for conveying ideas.

Ten years ago, when we left New Zealand to live in Kiribati, I was known as a New Zealand painter. Now I am more likely to be described as a printmaker. But not necessarily as a New Zealand printmaker. Whole-hearted approval of my shift to the mid-Pacific has never really happened. My dealer puts it to me another way ... ‘New Zealanders are a tribal people’, he says. Apparently we don't like it when one of the tribe defects. I suggest to him that there is a sense in which I never really left New Zealand. It wasn’t a quest for greener grass. My market is still in New Zealand, and my bones are there, as we refer to our relatives. But he says I can never really come back and maybe he’s right. You can’t leave behind all that is safe and known and familiar without being changed.

It seems, anyway, that I may have become a printmaker. I trust this has not been the one-night stand that many painters enjoy with printmaking via the print studio. What might have been a brief or occasional encounter has, I believe, become a long-term relationship that shows no sign of falling apart, and making prints has become more than just a logical choice for the communication of ideas that have an obvious narrative and sequential nature. Maybe there is something in my own personality that responds to the element of detachment in the production of the transferred image, in a partnership where the artist is required to accommodate the demands of a print medium. Sometimes I am asked when I will paint again and I don’t know the answer to that. Wait for the next loaded chicken ...

© Robin White, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.