Robin White (born in Te Puke, 1946, Ngāti Awa) was told by Colin McCahon that she needed to get out and paint instead of trying to stay at Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts for a better qualification than her Diploma. So she did.

She attributes her confidence, determination and hard-work ethic to the stern encouragement of her parents, especially her father Albert Tikitu White with his very large kumara patch that needed a lot of attention. Her first steps on the road to a life of art-making were encouraged by an art teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar School, May Smith, after early years at Raglan District High.

But when you’d been studying at Elam on a Ministry of Education studentship, you had to spend time as a teacher yourself. Teaching art at high school was an opportunity for Robin to learn screen-printing, a craft not taught at Elam in the 1960s.

Robin’s brief career as an art teacher at Mana College soon morphed into full time work as an artist when she went to live on the Otago Peninsula and by 1972 Robin was becoming known as one of a group of New Zealand regionalists characterised as the hard-edged realists. After a ten-year career as a distinctive painter and screen-print maker in New Zealand Robin moved to Kiribati, where the different nature of the physical and social environment introduced some changes in the works that she produced from her studio beside the Tarawa lagoon.

Her love of Pacific culture took a new direction into collaborative art-making after a fire in 1996 unexpectedly destroyed her home and studio. With nothing to work with and nowhere to work she found ways to merge western art practice with Pasifika ways of getting the job done.

Robin’s subsequent collaborative works have traversed a range of unexpected materials, beginning with woven pandanus-leaf images made with the help of some Kiribati women. Back in New Zealand since the end of 1999, she has collaborated with local experts in producing images including tagged fadges, mixed-media piupiu and even a series of fruit-bats made from “tapa-mâché,” but she is most recently regarded for a range of large works on tapa (known as ‘masi’ in Fiji) with the help of Tongan and Fijian collaborators and their meticulous observance of best traditional practice.

Robin White has been living back in New Zealand since 1999. Robin was received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2017.

Image credit: Lynda Feringa 2017


Robin White, 2017 Laureate Award recipient, spoke to Simon Bowden, Arts Foundation Executive Director about receiving the award, her art practice and what future projects are on the horizon.
Born in Te Puke and taken to parents' farm in Kerikeri.
1948 -1950
Parents join the Bahá'í Faith in Whangarei and move to Mt Maunganui. Earliest memories – shell paths, the beach.
Moves to Hinemoa St, Birkenhead with view across the harbour. Learns to swim.
Leaves the North Shore to live in Lewin Rd, Epsom. Taken by father to meetings of the Peace Council. Sees a film of the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima. Starts having nuclear nightmares.
Goes with parents to the Auckland Art Gallery to see the Hiroshima Panels.
Third Form at Epsom Girls Grammar School. Art teacher is Mrs Hardcastle (May Smith). Spends all her spare time in the art room.
1961- 1962
Parents move to Raglan. Lives beside a tidal estuary with views across the harbour to the sandhills. Does fourth and fifth form at Raglan District High School. Gets her driving licence.
1963 –1964
Boarding at Epsom Girls Grammar for lower and upper sixth form. Passes Art Prelim and enrols at Auckland University Elam School of Fine Art.
1965 –1967
At Elam specialises in painting. Taught by Colin McCahon.
One year at Secondary Teachers College, Epsom. Learns to screenprint. Meets Sam Hunt and moves to Bottle Creek, Paremata, at the end of the year.
1969 -1971
Meets Peter McLeavey at his Cuba St gallery. Buys a car. Leaves Bottle Creek at the end of 1971.
1972 -1973
Buys a house on the Otago Peninsula. Marries Michael Fudakowski. First child, Michael, is born.
First visit to Australia. At the National Gallery of Victoria sees painting by Hans Memling and, in a Sydney bookshop, finds examples of the “Tin Sheds” posters.
Sells the house at Portobello and starts planning departure from New Zealand to live in Kiribati.
1982 -1983
Settles in Bikenibeu village, Tarawa. Gets involved in activities of the Bahá'í community and starts learning Kiribati language. Figures out how to do woodcut printmaking and starts working on first set of prints, “Beginners Guide to Gilbertese”.
1983 –1984
Second child, Conrad, is born. Studio is built beside the lagoon at Bikenibeu. Claudia Pond-Eyley visits with daughter Brigid and work begins on the “28 Days in Kiribati” series.
Second visit to Australia. Introduced to some of the “Tin Sheds” artists. Visits the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and sees the Jackson Pollock “Blue Poles” painting.
Work exhibited in the Sydney Biennale. Participates in opening activities of the Biennale and meets more Australian artists and writers.
Bahá'í activities extend to making regular visits to outer islands of Kiribati. Third child, Florence, is born.
Stranded for four weeks in Nauru. Explores the phosphate diggings and makes drawings. Offered hospitality by prominent Nauruan family who become friends.
1989 –1990
Creates the “Postcards from Pleasant Island” series of linocuts. Designs stamps for the Nauru Philatelic Bureau.
First visit to the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israel.
Participates in the first Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Four weeks as artist in residence in the painting department at the ANU Canberra School of Art. In this, and later residencies, makes regular visits to the NGA. Studies the Charvet and Dufour wallpaper “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” in the NGA collection.
Begins the first of three consecutive five-year terms of service on a Bahá'í institution with duties that include travelling to other Pacific Island territories and nations. Becomes interested in the art of masi (tapa) when encountering examples displayed in the transit lounge of Nadi airport.
Fire destroys house and studio in Bikenibeu village. Begins collaboration with the women at Te Itoiningaina (Catholic Womens Training Centre) to make the “New Angel” series of woven mats.
Starts a conversation with Leba Toki (friend in Fiji) about collaborating together to make an art work on masi. Returns with family to NZ, buys a house in Masterton and begins to learn about the pre-colonial and post-colonial history of the Wairarapa.
Works with Leba Toki in Masterton studio to make “Cakacakavata”, a set of three masi that are exhibited in Canberra and purchased by the NGA.
Starts collecting reports and information about child deaths in the Wairarapa. Finds out about the Japanese POW camp when visiting the Featherston Heritage Museum. Meets Keiko Iimura and is introduced to other Japanese living in the Wairarapa. Collaborates with Keiko in the twelve-panel painting, “Summer Grass”.
Uses materials associated with the local Wairarapa wool industry (woolbales, stencils and woolbale branding ink) to make art works.
Travels to Europe for the first time. Sees works by Duccio, Giotto and Piero Della Francesca. In Poland visits Auschwitz.
Works in Lautoka, Fiji, with Leba Toki and Jone Bale to create a masi installation for the Asia Pacific Triennial. A conversation starts about the gatu vakatoga (tongan tapa) tradition in the eastern islands of Fiji.
Uses accumulated information to create works for the “Sorry” exhibition about cases of child deaths in the Wairarapa. Collaborates with Holly Jackson and Robyn McFarlane.
Goes on pilgrimage in July to the Bahá'í World Centre. In December meets young Tongan artist, Ruha Fifita, at a Baha'i Summer School in Hamilton. Discusses the possibility of them working together on tapa, in Tonga.
Invited to join 8 other artists to visit the Kermadec Islands. Travels on HMNZS Otago to Raoul Island then on to Tonga and meets again with Ruha Fifita. Collaboration with Ruha begins.
Meets Tamari Cabeikanacea in Fiji and works with her and Ruha Fifita on a masi project. Resumes conversation about the vakatoga tradition. Plans for a Tonga/Fiji collaboration are discussed. Receives Arts Foundation Laureate Award
Has continued to show her work regularly in one-person exhibitions in NZ and Australia