PROLIFIC CREATIVE

Geraldine Robarts: A lifetime in art

At 81, she still creates every day 'because I love painting and bringing innovation and curiosity to friends everywhere'

In Summary

• She was born in UK, raised in South Africa, worked in Uganda before settling in Kenya

• Her work is a commentary on local culture, sceneries and the natural heritage of her adopted country

Geraldine Robarts
Geraldine Robarts
Image: GERALDINE ROBARTS

Kenyan artist Geraldine Robarts displays industriousness and ever-evolving style that boggles the mind, and artists half her age.

At 81, she still creates every day “because I love painting and bringing innovation and curiosity to friends everywhere”. 

Geraldine attributes her diverse talent to heredity and divine guidance, often saying, “I am a hollow reed through which the inspiration and the paint flows”.

Of course, it helps to have a home studio surrounded by her second love — a beautiful garden created over 40 years ago. It is here that I got a rare glimpse into some of her earliest works: still life in watercolours, figurative sketches and life drawings. She once painted the same female model every day for two years.

Born in London in 1939, Geraldine was raised in South Africa by her Jewish grandmother while her parents worked in the colonial medical service in Kenya during the second World War. She credits her fashion designer grandmother with cultivating her nascent art talent.

Geraldine held her first public exhibition in 1960 at the Everard Reed Gallery as a Fine Art graduate from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Leaving South Africa in 1961, in part to get away from the deplorable apartheid system, Geraldine settled in London.

It was the era of avant-garde arts, and Geraldine thrived here as a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art. Her talent was recognised in 1963 when she was selected to exhibit at “Artists of Fame and Promise” in Liverpool, England.

 

In 1964, she moved to Uganda with her husband and took up a teaching position at Makerere University. Her contemporaries in Makerere were distinguished Seychelles-based artist Michael Adams and Ali Darwish, a Tanzanian-born artist of Persian descent. Together, they developed new styles of contemporary African art characterised by non-traditional animal and landscape illustrations.

Art materials were too expensive for most Ugandan students. So Geraldine introduced the Indonesian craft of batik-making, using local materials like vegetable dyes on Ugandan cotton cloth. Safe to say she pioneered batik art in Uganda and it spread rapidly to Kenya.

A Windy Day, oil on canvas
A Windy Day, oil on canvas
Image: GERADLINE ROBARTS
I am a hollow reed through which the inspiration and the paint flows
Geraldine Robarts

ESCAPING IDI AMIN'S RULE

 

As the repressive rule of Idi Amin advanced, the Robarts family moved to Kenya in 1972 and Geraldine has lived here ever since, becoming a Kenyan citizen. While teaching Fine Art and Education at Kenyatta University, she obtained an MA in Education, while continuing with her private practice and renting studio space in a kiosk at Kariakor market.

It was an unconventional move but one that exposed her to ordinary Kenyan life and new friends, with whom she shared her work over lunch of maize and beans. An iconic image from this period is Blacksmith, showing a metal artisan crouched among his tools in a surreal blue setting, an amber fire glowing in one corner.

A great lover of the ocean, in Kenya, Geraldine became known for watercolour seascapes and coastal scenes in semi-realism style and bright colours, images evoking sentimental emotions. “I know of nowhere more beautiful than the Kenya coast and I still go as much as possible, for relaxation and inspiration,” Geraldine says.

Later, Geraldine returned to oils, with glorious use of colour, painting semi-abstract landscapes and images of African masks, which were very popular in the 1980s. Firmly established in the Kenyan art scene, she went on to paint large murals for local hotels.

Her paintings were chosen for the Jomo Kenyatta Airport lounges and vivid acrylic illustrations were commissioned by Air Kenya for their Wilson Airport lounge. Today, her works are in institutions, public spaces and private collections worldwide, and over 60 years, she has exhibited in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, China, Europe and North America.

Outside of formal teaching, Geraldine has enjoyed sharing her creative skills through craft workshops, especially for underprivileged communities. Employing a knack of resourcefulness, she utilised locally available resources to train in spinning, weaving, paper-making, candle-making, palm fibre and wire products.

In the early 1980s, she made necklaces from giraffe droppings embedded in resin, sold to raise funds for the then newly opened Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. The ubiquitous baobab trees made of wire and palm fibre, and commonly seen in craft markets today, originated from prototypes by women’s groups in Limuru tutored by Geraldine in the 1970s.

EXPORTING KISII SOAPSTONE

While a visiting professor in fine art at McGill University, Canada, she organised the meeting of two stone sculpting traditions, the Gusii of Kenya and the indigenous Inuit people of Canada. Veteran sculptor Elkana On’gesa was one of six artists in this collaboration and together with Geraldine, they toured Canada and USA, pioneering the international export of Kisii soapstone.

The 2000s saw more experimentation and abstract work, both brilliantly coloured and in dark, moody shades. Geraldine’s work is often a commentary on local culture, sceneries and the natural heritage of her adopted country. It is a common theme among Kenyan artists but her technique is unique, giving the work complexity and empathy.

When not painting, Geraldine loves discussing art and culture, but often reflects on the human condition, suffering caused by economic imbalance and, lately, the coronavirus pandemic.

As a follower of the Baha’i faith, which encourages active involvement in socioeconomic causes, she has long supported initiatives to boost the capacity of rural women. Whether it is building sand dams to store water for villages, helping to raise funds for health centres, or accessing drying equipment to make sun-dried fruit products for sale, everything aligns with her ethos of service.

In 1998, she won a worldwide competition to design the exterior of the African Pavilion at EXPO2000 in Hanover, Germany. The multi-coloured dhow sails with African textile designs looked magnificent surrounding the building in the sunlight.

But all has not been smooth sailing. “The artist’s life is very tough”, she says. Aching back, painful feet from standing all day, and skin affected by years of handling toxic pigments has been part of the price of prolific creativity.

Visual arts is a materially expensive career, something that dogged Geraldine during the years of raising her four children. She gave art lessons to wives and children of diplomats for extra money, and sold ‘the roof over her head’ to pay for school fees. “If you can live without art, then choose something that is not so hard,” Geraldine states frankly.

Consequently, she is empathetic to the plight of emerging Kenyan creators struggling to make a living and points to the need for more support of artists from the state, private companies and wealthy individuals.

The soul of a nation is in its art, says Geraldine. She would like to see a public-private trust that subsidises overseas exchange programmes for local creatives. “Young artists need to travel because it is a very important way to grow,” she says.

Dhow at Lamu
Dhow at Lamu
Image: GERALDINE ROBARTS

HOW TO GET INSPIRATION

'Young artists need to travel because it is a very important way to grow. Look at nature and people and draw what you see. Many people look but see very little. We are all conditioned to see differently. What is it that attracts you?'

ADVICE TO ARTISTS

Nonetheless, Geraldine encourages upcoming artists to search deeper in themselves and discover their unique voice, saying, “Look at nature and people and draw what you see. Many people look but see very little. We are all conditioned to see differently. What is it that attracts you?”

Walking through her gallery, you notice the progression in style over the years, becoming increasingly conceptual and giving us a window into her complex mind. Her art forces you to pause, reflect, identify the emotions aroused and make your conclusions.

In recent years, a passion for nature has matured into concern about environmental sustainability. An assortment of partially melted dustbins decorated in vivid colours were found after a fire on her property in 2019. Now they form an installation called Environment and Culture - The Death of Plastic where Geraldine analyses people’s propensity for waste and plastic pollution.

During the months of Covid-19 restrictions, Geraldine has produced no less than four series of paintings, one being a collection of nine-foot-tall oil portraits called Spiritual Giants. Some feature slender, delicate female forms and others depict dark, chunky masculine figures.

Most recently she created a ghost-like figure from cement mix on a black surface. Called How we feel about Covid-19, it sums up how many of us feel after six months of restrictions. At 200cm tall, it is a large piece but Geraldine has never been afraid of big works.

Another collection of paintings has soulful imagery, done in limited colour palettes or sombre shades, which not all viewers like. “This is where I am now and for me, this is very exciting,” Geraldine says, adding that there are still plenty of colourful paintings available in her gallery. But she is revelling in a “wonderful feeling of letting go”.

Turning 80 last year was a pivotal point of her self-liberation. It was also the year her 19-year-old grandson, an architecture student, fell ill with cancer and subsequently died, and you can see this painful loss in her art. Throughout his illness and demise, she painted some partly abstract acrylic images in soft colours, with very sympathetic or spiritual tones.

For several years now, Geraldine has threatened to stop holding shows altogether but thankfully, she stills puts on one or two events annually. Her next solo exhibition will be at the Nairobi National Museum in October, to feature both installations and paintings.

Edited by T Jalio