Geraldine Robarts: A lifetime in art

Emilee Geist

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 […]

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.

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