Robin White in Kiribati

CLAUDIA POND EYLEY

Claudia Pond Eyley recently spent a month visiting Robin White, who is now living in the Republic of Kiribati, the former Gilbert Islands in the Central Pacific While she was there she recorded the following conversation.

CLAUDIA POND EYLEY: How did you and your family come to be living in Tarawa in Kiribati, this remote atoll on the equator?
ROBIN WHITE We were asked to consider coming to Kiribati by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is in New Zealand to assist the existing Gilbertese Baha'i community here with its work. There are no clergy or professionals amongst the Baha'is so it is the responsibility of each member to teach others the faith, although we are not missionaries in the traditional sense.

Kiribati sculpture

There are a lot of Baha'is in Kiribati. With no writings in Gilbertese, there is a need for individuals to help. We have no authority, are voluntary, and receive no payment, so we must support ourselves once here. The things I do as a Baha'i are over and above my family life and activities as an artist.
C.P.E.: You have built a studio here and have been working on a series of woodblocks called Beginner's Guide to Gilbertese. They seem to relate thoroughly to your position as an I-matang (white person) coming to this new country.
R.W.: When I first arrived it was a real shock; coming from Dunedin especially. What you can't anticipate is the scale of things. In some ways it appalled me, it really threw me; I was exploring my new environment bit by bit, little by little, as well as endeavouring to learn the language.

Getting to know the place went hand-in-hand with naming things as in a picture book. These prints were a beginning-they depict things in. my house, things that we do: Mike asleep on the mat, the mosquito net, the wall of upright and criss-cross pattern made from coconut midribs, lava lavas with bold flower designs.

ROBIN WHITE I am doing the washing in the bathroom 1984
woodblock, 148 x 198 mm.

A young Gilbertese girl called Florence came and worked in our house everyday and kept me company. I Would draw something, ask Florence its name and then write it down.
C.P.E.: Would you like to talk about each of the woodcut prints?
R.W.: This is a print of Florence. I'd put her on the beach in front of a coconut tree. I named parts of the body, especially the parts that I associate with the dance. The Gilbertese dance is very beautiful, with subtle movements of hand and eye. Florence is a very good dancer, she moves very gracefully. What is her name? The Name of this Girl is Florence.

Then there is me doing the washing, and all the terrifying creatures that share the bathroom. What you don't see are the crabs from the beach. I am doing the washing in the bathroom.

When I signed the prints I translated the gist of the message down at the bottom. The Maneaba - the people meet in these houses, and I suppose in a sense they are like the meeting-houses of the Maori. This particular Maneaba depicted is actually used by the Baha'is as their meeting place.

It is built entirely from the materials of the coconut tree and the pandanus, with log supports for the roof, thatching and a coral pebble floor; there are coconut mats to sit on and a fine sleeping-mat. The string that holds all the timber together is made from the coconut husk. You get a sense of these buildings melting into the natural environment.

ROBIN WHITE The Name of this girl is FIorence 1984
woodblock, 148 x 198 mm.

The Canoe is in the Bareaka. People really look after their canoes here. These boats are their meal ticket. The canoe is used by the man to go fishing. You usually do have to have an outrigger canoe to get out into the deep water over the reef to get the big fish, such as tuna. The Gilbertese canoe uses a sail and I believe that it is the fastest in the Pacific. The men are superb seamen, extremely skilled, and they go out over the reef far away from the sight of the land in these boats.

They paint the boats bright colours and make little shelters for them by the side of the lagoon - open-sided structures with thatched roofs. They treat the boats with great respect.
C.P.E.: Has the physical environment here affected your use of colour in the hand-coloured prints? The natural colours are so intensely rich.
R.W.: The most striking colours here are in the clothes that people wear. I look at the washing on the lines. The people here wear lavalavas; the women wear a blouse that has evolved from the original Mother-Hubbard that the early missionaries forced them to wear.

They have a way of throwing colours together, so what 'I enjoyed with the Florence print and Mike's lavalava was combining the different colours. In Dunedin people just don't wear colours like that, and I approached this very tentatively.

ROBIN WHITE The Canoe in the Bareaka 1984
woodblock, 148 x 198 mm.

I think that in New Zealand I was very concerned with form. Where I was living in Portobello we were surrounded by hills that were very imposing, sensuous and shapely. For about a year before I left New Zealand I was working in black-and-white, tone and no colour. Here, it is quite different.
C.P.E.: What do you like about living here?
R.W.: It is a very unpressured environment. Day-to-day schedules do not exist. That whole habit of schedules and deadlines gets knocked out of you very fast.

In New Zealand, if you run out of drawing pencils, you leap into the car and rush out to the shop. In Kiribati, it could be anything. It might be a loaf of bread. We went for four weeks without bread. It could be a packet of nails. You might be lucky, you might not. You can't assume it'll be here.

You quickly learn to adapt to that aspect of life. If you don't, you'd go nuts. A lot who can't take that just leave. You soon learn to relax, to go with it.

The things that assume importance here are really the human things: material things don't matter to the Gilbertese. They live on a subsistence level: they get all they need from the sea, what little grows on the land and a little money earned from selling copia. Tea, sugar, rice and corned beef are a real treat.
C.P.E.: How do the Gilbertese regard you as an artist? Does your work relate at all to their own handicrafts?
R.W.: I haven't revealed my art here. When I meet with them or socialize, it is as a friend or fellow Baha'i. My activities as an artist are a fairly private affair. They know that I work and they respect that. 
C.P.E.: What local handicrafts do the men and women make here?
R.W.: If you live in a Gilbertese house there is a lot of maintenance: mats for the walls and floors, thatch to repair against the rain. There is always a lot of work to do. If you're a woman you probably have a string of children to care for as well.

ROBIN WHITE Michael is asleep on the bed 1984
woodblock, 148 x 198 mm.

The men cut the toddy which is gathered every morning and night - that is the sap of the coconut tree used for drinking. It's tapu for the women to go fishing - over the reef, anyway. Sometimes you see women helping with the nets in the lagoon here.

The women collect shellfish at low tide, as well as food from the bush: they are responsible for the ongoing care of plants. They tend for the things that grow like the kids and the plants. Women weave different forms of mats, coarse or fine depending on the mat's function. There is no tradition of painting or carving here.

The great creations of the Gilbertese people could be the maneabas or meeting-houses. Some are vast. I stayed at one maneaba in Tabiteuea and there was a tradition that the building had been flown there by a mythological person. It arrived out of the sky. It had been there for so long.

Each family in the village will be responsible for a certain section of the maneaba, to replace the thatch and the support structures. Over two or three hundred years the structure will remain, but be constantly renewed.

The physical presence of the maneaba is very tied-in with the cultural activities of the people of that villagethe gatherings that they have, the dancing, the speeches. It is a totally interwoven society where nothing is separate.

The woven objects are very special and each island has different pattern designs. The men traditionally wear finely-woven mats wrapped around the loins and tied with a thick, plaited rope. This is made from women's hair-of a wife, mother or grandmother. The women have beautiful hair. When it is cut off, it is kept in, a box and then woven for the appropriate person.
C.P.E.: How does your day-to-day life here differ from home in New Zealand?
R.W.: My usual daily routine has been disturbed at present by having a baby. Mike doesn't have regular employment; a house-keeper helps with the cleaning and dishes.' Florence comes and helps to care for the baby every day, so between nine and one I can work.

The middle of the day is time for a rest, something to cat and then from three to six p.m. is another work time, after a bit of a siesta. As for the evenings. I haven't had electricity or insect proofing in the studio - I'll have to sort that one out.
C.P.E.: What sort of equipment do you have here?
R.W.: I transported the contents of my studio here. I stocked up two or three years supply of what I thought I'd need, put it on a ship and sent it here. I've got to rely on this stock because there is no such thing as art supplies, unless I am actually using local materials.
C.P.E.: How has that influenced your work?
R.W.: The very fact that I used wood. It seemed most appropriate at the time. My etching press had not arrived, and there was no space to set up the screenprints equipment. I needed a medium that I could use in a confined space and was easily transportable. Wood was also practical and appropriate to the images that I was tackling.

ROBIN WHITE The Maneaba 1984
woodblock, 148 x 198 mm.

I was looking at some reproductions of mediaeval woodcuts in which there is a very close connection between the verbal and visual images. Much of the subject matter of the early English carvings was biblical and tried to convey an idea of a story image. The graininess of the wood suited my feeling of this place.

This is a rough, raw place, with no pretty additions to make life easy.

We live in a Gilbertese house with thatched roof, coconut-rib walls and concrete floor. Our first year here we slept on mats on the floor, but now we have a wooden platform. We have a fridge and electricity which costs a fortune but we have an electric light at night-also a shortwave radio, so we hear the BBC news. We know exactly, what silly nonsense is going on in the rest of the world and who is likely to blow up whom - which all seems so bizarre from here. it is a theatre of cruelty on an international scale - it is all so absurd.

Our New Zealand contacts are dependent on Air Nauru and we the mail once a week.
C.P.E.: You speak the language easily with the people and seem to be comfortable with it.
R..W.: I've got survival Gilbertese, but I can't express anything very profound yet.
C.P.E.: What are your future projects?
R.W.: The most immediate is an etching project that involves images of my mother's house, working directly from photographs of the interior of her house taken the morning after she was buried.
C.P.E.: Are there any other projects using Gilbertese content? Any painting?
R.W.: I haven't had a place that I felt secure enough to work in here. I find painting such a personally intensive thing. I like to shut myself away. Now that the studio is finished I first want to print those images of my mother's house. As far as painting is concerned, I've got some stories of Gilbertese myths that I've had translated.

They have this strange, incredible feeling of emptiness. This is one of the feelings when I first came here. It is summed up in an extract about standing on the beach at Nonouti. You look one way and there is the ocean, and the other way and there is more ocean. It's just the sense of vastness and the nothingness of space. It's very unsettling for a while and I'm just starting to get used to it. Living on this island is a bit like living on a ship. You're crowded together on a tiny strip of coral in the middle of this vast ocean.

When you read the myths of these people, there is a strange interconnection between the world of the sea, and the land and air.

Robin White 1984
(photograph by Claudia Pond Eyley)

Certainly the one thing that is very real here is the connection between this world and the life after death. it is not a shut-off thing; the ghosts are real. the spirits of those who have died still walk around and people see them as a physical presence and talk to them. There are no black-and-white compartments here: it is all inter-connected. The calling up of the whales has a close connection with those who have the supernatural power to call the dolphins on to the land. This is an astonishing power, and no amount of Western scepticism can cover up the fact that it happens. It is a magical place and I'm just coming to terms with it.

We'll be staying here indefinitely. I feel that we've just begun and I'm still finding my way.

Photographs By Claudia Pond Eyley

The woodblock prints above are all taken from Robin White's Beginner's Guide to Gilbertese

Originally published in Art New Zealand 31 Winter 1984