Life and Danger Reflected Through Art: Q&A with Canberra Artist Robin Errey
On December 12, 1963 Kenya in Africa declared its independence from Britain after 11 years of revolting against colonial rule, known as the Mau Mau Uprising.
Artist Robin Errey’s grandparents were encouraged to buy land and settle in Kenya from Britain after the second world war which saw her mother, herself and her whole family grow up in Africa. They became a part of the white tribe known as the Wasungu Tribe, meaning ‘other’ and grew up speaking Swahili. As the revolting against British settlers began to increase, Kenya became a very dangerous place to live for Robin and her family, it also saw family and friends who she knew killed as a result.
After years of waiting, her family’s land was bought out by the British government allowing them to leave African and relocate. In 1972 when Robin was nine years old, they moved just outside of Canberra to Collector NSW. During this incredible lifestyle change in Australia, she experienced many challenges and adjustments, some of which she decided never to fully take on.
Her past childhood experiences influenced Robin’s life in many ways, including her decision to attend arts school in 1988. There she studied three majors: illustration, painting and sculpture. The themes reflected through her work demonstrate feelings and emotions she has around the world and how that differs to people who grew up knowing only life in Australia.
Robin shares what life was like in Africa and how her viewing of the world is reflected in her art.
Q: Did you fully comprehend why you had to leave Africa? Did you see how life there was changing?
A: At the time I didn’t quite know why we had to leave but it always seemed like something that was going to have to happen, like a white women couldn’t go anywhere on her own without a gun and a large dog, or a man. While we were waiting for our land to be bought out I was at boarding school most of the time because it was safer there. But I did notice a change, especially when my godfather’s brother and my mum’s best friend were shot, even though at the time I wasn’t told exactly what had happened, you get that real sense of danger and fear when you see a change in your parents behaviour towards how we were going to live. Like you know, how many people do you know who have been shot? It took a big toll on my family.
Q: What are your favourite memories of living in Africa?
A: My favourite memories would be being in my mum’s dingie and boating around on Lake Baringo…and just being free. I had a lot of time on my own when I was a child, because I wasn’t allowed to play with the African kids and we were on a farm. I also had my iyah, which is what they call nanny, who I spent a lot of time with. She was very loving and provided me with this really deep sense of emotional safety, I really got some of my emotional map from her.
Q: How did your life differ when you moved to Australia?
A: In Africa I had adapted to extreme solitude being a minority, being a white African I stuck out and coming to Australia I stuck in. It wasn’t until I was older that I looked back and thought wow, I really went from one dangerous world to living in one of the safest places in the whole world. It was a big change and I went from a place where there were no rules except one, stay alive, to a place where there were a lot of rules and a lot of social conventions that I had to learn. For instance, my mother had been a pilot in Kenya, so I had the experience of being very adrift from rules and social conventions, coming here I slowly saw I was meant to be playing a very small role. I was told if I wasn’t willing to do the cooking that I probably would never get married. Even though it was the 70’s it didn’t feel like that in Australia. It felt like it was the 50’s and people were still wearing hats and gloves and women were still trying to be ladies and worrying about all the things women are meant to worry about.
Q: How has your time in Africa affected your career and life choices?
A: Once I got to arts school there were barely any social conventions there and I always had a very strong sense of inner world, which as an artist is something you need. I feel I would not have gotten that without my time in Africa. I’m a sculptor and Africans are probably some of the best sculptors in the world, some of the traditional masks they make have influenced Picasso. If you speak that visual language of sculpting you would have to say that their work has the most strength and power. My choice to also not conform with the traditional roles of a women came back from my sense and life of freedom in Africa, I’ve always felt that I never wanted to give up being as empowered as I possibly can. Social pressures are huge and they really affect us, but people who travel from one society to another when they are young can actually see which ones are not real.
Q: How has your childhood experiences been reflected through your art?
A: My time in African hasn’t influenced my art in a literal way, like oh here’s a lion, but it’s changed the way I see the world. The idea that you’re in danger is always with me, physical danger is the only thing that matters to me and when I think about life I’m also thinking about death. I don’t have a very strong adhesion to safety which I think Australians have. In Africa there was always danger, not just for white Africans, it’s a very brutal place. For instance, the paintings I’m working on now is about the sun, the smoke and fire of last year (see below). The figures are leaping into the water and there is that sense of danger and the sense of the fires through the light. As a viewer your also not sure if they’re going to land safely, I like that sort of pull of vitality against death. A lot of my sculptures also have that force of life in them, like their pushing up away from the ground as that sort of defiance against death. I also often do landscapes in watercolour and that’s a lot about place. For me it’s a real thing, that place, in that moment. From my experiences I’m very aware of the place I am in and its sort of a companion, for others they are so used to having people around them all the time.