The Arts

A "world-class" artist who straddles two worlds: painting and development

NAIROBI - It may be coincidence. Or it may be something working through her subconscious. But the theme in most of Geraldine Robarts' recent paintings is water.

"I love the water," said the London-born painter. "So I've been painting the sea and the ocean for the past year."

This is interesting because Ms. Robarts lives in Nairobi, located high and dry some 500 kilometers from the coast, and she spends much of her time these days thinking about a village water project in the semi-arid Kitui District.

But for Ms. Robarts, who has lived in Kenya for more than 28 years, contradictions are more often connections in her intensely active mind. One minute Ms. Robarts is talking about the use of foot-powered water pumps in African villages and the next she is discussing how her latest paintings - which are abstract swirls of paint and glitter that can easily be envisioned as a frothy and foaming seascape - are for her a form of religious worship.

These two worlds, painting and rural development, are certainly well connected in her life and activities. Ms. Robarts' work has been featured in numerous art shows around the world and she could probably easily double or triple her income from painting with a little extra marketing. Yet she spends much of her time, her energy and her considerable clout as an artist to promote the cause of village women in the Kitui District among humanitarian aid agencies here in Kenya's capitol.

This extends to her own pocketbook, inasmuch as she often uses her paintings as barter, either to pay her own bills or bills for the projects in Kitui. "I pay 80 percent of my bills with paintings," she said. For her, it is as if money is just an unnecessary intermediary, something not to trifle with if an artistic short cut will save time.

In 1992, Ms. Robarts - along with two other women in Kenya - founded Rehema, a Nairobi-based non-governmental organization dedicated to helping rural women in Kenya. All three women are Bahá'ís, and they seek to apply Bahá'í principles in their work. "Our theme is the integration of the practical and the spiritual to restore and sustain human dignity through economic independence," says a Rehema brochure.

Ms. Robarts also seeks to express Bahá'í principles in her art. "The purpose of my paintings is to bring joy and life and spirituality to people," said Ms. Robarts. "I try to create peace in my paintings." [View a gallery of Ms. Robart's paintings at the end of story.]

By all accounts, she has succeeded. "She is rated as one of the best artists in Kenya," said Morris Amboso, curator of the Watatu Gallery, the largest private art gallery in East Africa, which has had a number of shows featuring Ms. Robarts' work. "People like her style. They are happy paintings."

Ms. Robarts has had exhibitions not only in Nairobi, but in Uganda, South Africa, Canada, England and the United States. Private collectors worldwide, in countries from Japan to Switzerland, own her work.

"She is a highly gifted world-class artist," said Remi Aruasa, owner of Halpen Gochi Art Gallery in Nairobi. Ms. Aruasa, who is a Buddhist, has also featured Ms. Robarts in a recent exhibition and she has some 30 of her paintings in her private collection. "She is able to portray, in abstract form, what people commonly refer to as the spiritual path. And I've noticed that her abstracts speak to people who are deeply spiritually committed across all religions."

Born as Geraldine Bannister in London in 1939, she was shipped out to relatives in South Africa during the Blitz. Raised to adulthood there, she studied fine arts at the University of Witwaterstrand and later received an M.A. in education from the University of Nairobi.

She became a Bahá'í at the age of 19, a step which without doubt has been one of the major influences on her life. "I had no religious upbringing, but I searched and searched and searched," she said, describing how as a young woman she visited virtually every church in Johannesburg. "I knew there was a God."

At university, she met a young architectural student, Patrick Robarts - whom she later married. Mr. Robarts, a Bahá'í, told her of the Faith's principles. "When he said, 'There is one God, one humanity and one religion,' I just wiped the sweat off my brow and said, 'Whew, that is such a relief.'" She felt she had finally found the truth.

The Bahá'í principles reflected what she had always believed. "In my private school education in South Africa, from the age of six onward, the first lesson of the day was that 'you little white children, in this little white class, are better than any other children because you've got white skin.' And I knew that it wasn't true. Because - and this was the first time I realized that God is one - my mother had let a black family stay illegally in a little guest house we had. And every night they used to sing prayers. And I sometimes went to listen. And I knew that God was in that room. There was a presence of the Holy Spirit in that room that I didn't find at any of the churches I visited."

She married Mr. Robarts in 1962 and, unwilling to raise children in apartheid South Africa, they moved to London and then in 1964, to Uganda. In 1972 they moved to Kenya, fleeing the turmoil of Idi Amin's repressive regime.

While raising four children, she both painted and taught painting. From 1964 to 1970, she was a lecturer in art education at Kampala's prestigious Makerere University. From 1977 to 1982, she taught painting at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, serving for two years as head of the painting department.

It was as an art teacher that her life began to intersect with rural women. Her first foray into development work was with a group of Kikuyu women in Limuru, about 50 kilometers outside of Nairobi. Their attempts at making and selling handcrafts were failing and she taught them how to make simple creations such as baskets and decorative baobab trees from readily available banana fibers.

Susan Mwendwa, chair of the Matinyani Women's Group, heard of how Ms. Robarts had helped the Limuru group and approached her, asking if she might also help them improve their weaving designs and marketing skills.

What began as an effort at artistic training soon blossomed into a full-scale collaboration in rural development, as Ms. Robarts increasingly used her contacts in Nairobi to win aid and recognition for the women of Kitui. Ms. Robarts, along with Kenyans Margaret Ogembo and Catherine Mboya - who were also involved in various forms of rural development work - founded Rehema to formalize their activities.

“What these Kalimani women have given me is a feeling of prosperity in [my heart]. And joy in life. They go through such hardships and they go through them with radiance. I’ve learned from them that we are all dust in the path of God.”

– Geraldine Robarts

Ms. Robarts says she gets more from the development work than she gives. "What these Kalimani women have given me is a feeling of prosperity in here," she says, pointing to her heart. "And joy in life. They go through such hardships and they go through them with radiance. I've learned from them that we are all dust in the path of God."

And so she straddles two worlds, painting and development work, seeing both as training grounds for her spirit.

"Painting for me definitely is worship," she says. "The spirit and subject and inspiration of my paintings are all given to me, I believe, by God. I feel I draw closer to God when I am painting. I feel that tremendous sense of love, of being a hollow reed, through which the power of God is flowing."