At 81 years old, Kenyan fine artist Geraldine Robarts paints as though her life depends on it. On a visit to her home studio, I found all the rooms filled with paintings in vibrant colours and eye-catching illustrations. A storage room was stacked with hundreds more pieces which is why, Geraldine jokes, she needs to “get rid of it” and make room for more. Some of her work is now selling at half price on an online exhibition, a first for Geraldine.
Geraldine has been working every day during the Covid-19 pandemic. When I asked where she gets her stamina she said, “Out of love of painting and the enthusiasm of discovering something new every day.”
Born in the UK and raised in South Africa, Geraldine believes that every artist has a legacy of creativity in their family lineage. For Geraldine, it was her grandmother who was a designer.
As a child, Geraldine was not much of a scholar but always revelled in art, going on to study fine art at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Royal College of Art in London. To earn extra money while at university, she gave private lessons to children, which probably inspired her other passion of teaching art.
In 1964, she lectured at Makerere University. In later years she taught at McGill University in Canada and Kenyatta University, where she was Head of the Painting Department. Various training consultancies have taken her to rural communities across Kenya to teach spinning, weaving, tie-dye batiks and other styles.
Environment and culture
Besides the prodigious amount of art, I am amazed by her variety of styles. There is representative work, semi-realism, sculptures and, in more recent years, purely abstract works. Oil is her favourite medium but she is not afraid to experiment or to repaint over a piece until she is satisfied. But she admits painting can be a difficult endeavour especially when “nobody understands your work or you don’t sell your work.”
Her studio has an abstract black-and-white photo print called The Elephant a lot like a quirky elephant’s head. Geraldine says the original piece, a large plastic dustbin partly destroyed by a fire. It turned out to be a happy accident.
She painted several partially melted bins to produce a collection of colourful sculptures called Environment and Culture — The Death of Plastic. They are her statement to the culture of waste and the hazardous effects of plastics to the environment.
“The sculpture installation was supposed to be exhibited at the groundbreaking of the new Godown Arts Centre by the President,” said Geraldine.
She wastes nothing, even reusing the caps from paint tubes on her art pieces. Later this year, Geraldine plans to hold a recycled art session for children during a long-delayed sculpture exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum. “Each child will bring something to recycle and there will be different ways of using dyes, tools, paints, brushes and natural materials,” said Geraldine.
A recent painful experience was the passing on of her 19-year-old grandson. “My best friend and critic. He was also a spiritual giant and architectural student with wisdom way beyond his years.”
The loss inspired an emotive painting The Bird Flies Out of the Cage, a semi-abstract in muted colours; a human figure in a flowy robe and outstretched arms looking up to the heavens.
So instinctive is her creativity that Geraldine will often start with no illustration in mind, just pouring different paints onto a canvas. Stepping back for a long, look something jumps out such as a flower, a frog or a human figure. Then using a dark colour, she outlines the subject to draw out the “accidental” image.