Port Waikato artist Robin Ranga has just returned from an arts exchange in China. She’s a motivator in the closely-knit settlement and, as she told ANGELA KEMP, she believes art speaks an international language which binds communities big and small.
A latecomer to art, Robin Ranga has made up for lost time in meteoric style. Since graduating in 2005 from Auckland University of Technology with a Bachelor of Visual Arts, majoring in painting, her works have won a clutch of awards for both painting and ceramics.
These include a finalist in the 2009 and 2010 Portage Ceramic Awards, 2009 Franklin Best Local Artist Award (painting), 2010 Easter Show 2nd (painting on board) and 2011 Easter Show 2nd (open ceramic).
But perhaps her proudest achievement has been to be selected by Ling Zhau of Moonlight Gallery, Auckland as one of only three NZ artists to take part in a prestigious art and culture exchange at NongYuan International Arts Village based in Chengdu, the biggest contemporary arts centre in western China.
Robin and fellow Auckland artists, Nicky Foreman and Myah Flynn, spent two weeks in the huge purpose-built arts village collaborating with seven top Chengdu contemporary artists. It culminated in a joint exhibition: Image and Imagination 2016.
The innovative concept by Moonlight Gallery and Nongyuan “to promote artistic expression and create bridges across cultural boundaries” did exactly that, says Robin. Respect and friendships flourished.
Robin says it was a great privilege to be part of the exchange and it had given her an incredible insight into the Chinese way of life. She enjoyed daily tai chi sessions, visited an operating silk and embroidery museum, attended an opera and sat down to a 99-course dinner (admitting defeat after 46 courses).
“It was an amazing experience to be immersed, surrounded and influenced by beautiful art all around you.”
Back on her home surf at Port Waikato, Robin says she visited China 30 years ago and relished the opportunity to return.
Robin and her husband, Hina, moved from Auckland to Port Waikato nine years ago and she says she is inspired by its rugged natural beauty. “It’s where sea gulls soar overhead in a wild westerly which suits my interest in organic form and design. It’s where art is like osmosis in my life – on it, in it and with it.”
Their hilltop home overlooks a vast expanse of water where the Waikato River is at its mightiest as it flows into the Tasman Sea.
It’s where Robin has her Windsong Studio where she creates covetable ceramic plaques, clay leaves, white clay sea urchins, shells, paintings and sculpture. It’s where she makes her mark.
She grew up on Waiheke Island where a wood carving course was her initiation into her art practice. She says it awakened in her an appreciation for nature’s precision, resilience and fragility. “Port Waikato is a lot like how Waiheke was when I was growing up. It still has lots of small fibrolite baches and a great community feel.”
She and Hina discovered the Port by chance on a pumice-collecting expedition and both fell in love with it. They decided to make it their home. “It’s peaceful, rich, touching nature. Moving here was the best thing we’ve ever done.”
She says she is indebted to her retired school teacher husband for encouraging her to follow her artistic dreams. “He said why don’t you stop work and go and study art. I’d done bursary and school cert in art but nothing since then.
“I’ll be forever grateful to Hina for suggesting it as otherwise I would never have done it, I never felt I was good enough. I thought university would teach me how to paint but they teach you how to think. The more you did the more you learned and the more you realised how little you knew.
“I felt that whatever fell out of my fingers at the end of the day from the study was the sediment from all my thoughts.”
She’s surprised at how well her art has been received and says some of the most praised works have been her minor works.
“I exhibit at Moko Gallery at Hot Water Beach and the hosts said a woman came in and looked at one of my plaques and burst into tears.
“I feel that if my art reaches someone in that way, then that’s what it’s all about, that’s where the pleasure comes.”
Robin’s signature style is that all her figurative pieces – be they paintings or ceramics – have their backs facing the viewer, not a face to be seen.
“The reason I paint from the back, and I was asked this in China, stems from one of my first paintings. It recorded an incredible journey that some people had taken and was all about them moving forward with their lives, not looking back.
“They are meant to be full of hope, full of future, full of new beginnings. You don’t have to show a face.”