The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Geraldine Robarts' Fresh Stream of Consciousness

Artists who paint every day, with paintings stacked sky-high in their studio, still feel the pressure of an upcoming exhibition. Sometimes it's negligible, a subconscious worry.

Other times, they experience a creative block or the fabrication of bizarre artwork that's completely out of character. It seems that free spirits, sincere in their impulse to paint, will fade a little when there is a limit to their exploration.

A deadline can sometimes curb the creative process. What happens when, after a big show, when an artist says she won't exhibit for a long while to come?

Definitely it's the exhaustion talking, but perhaps the artist plays a trick on the mind to unconsciously salvage her talent. May be she tells herself she won't show again to liberate the mind from a time limit.

Unbound, she can revert to the essence of creation, to what allured her to fine art in the first place; the pleasure of painting the desires of her heart.

Speaking with Geraldine Robarts, a well-known Kenya based artist, who was born in the UK and raised in South Africa, she shows us what happens when you create without the angst of an impending show; with only the sweet and genuine compulsion to create delightful stories.

A recent visit to her studio in Karen revealed a flash flood of sensitive paintings. With hamlets in vigorous colour and granular seascapes of blue and silver, we observe a surge of inspiration manifested using only a palette knife, her ten fingers and the palms of her hands.

The last time I visited Robarts was in May this year, for a sneak preview of "The Spirit of Africa," which took place at The Village Market. Again, it was amazing to see artworks in the environment they were conceived, before they had title or price.

Studying the paintings of masks, I contemplated the idea of disguise. Back then, Robarts had it in mind that, after the show, she would take a break from exhibiting for a while.

A few days ago, on my recent visit to her studio, I was happy to see that her feelings had transformed and that she was painting more than she ever has at one go.

"This is the easiest flow I've ever experienced," she smiles. "Once the pressure was off, I began painting a diary of my life. In fact, I painted all the thirty days of September." Racy banter can be expected at every trip to the Robarts residence, and this time she compares painting works to a relationship. "It's kind of like finding a boyfriend," she laughs. "When you least expect it, the perfect man appears!"

Familiar to all Geraldine's art fans are more of her sprightly scenes of Lamu and Watamu, carried out in her household style of thick oils, one colourful layer on top of the other.

Always lovesick for the village, there are a handful of painterly images from life in Dagoretti and Kikuyu. We see a man sharpening his knife, the blade of which is a mirror stuck to painted canvas.

There is a small, charming image of a bicycle repair shop outside a market and another of boda-bodas parked beside kiosks. "These types of scenes, a thatched hut in a Ugandan village, for example, make me stop and stare. I believe I once lived there. I've always been a peasant at heart and feel very connected to village life."

Particularly fascinating are Robarts' three new works that look like fragments of detailed people and places spaced almost evenly in lines on a background of Michael Harding unbleached white oil paint. Upon closer inspection, what you come to realise is that the mind indeed plays tricks on you, or that you let it anyway.

Staring at these new-fangled works, you come to realize is that the colourful little flotsams that can look like interesting figures, and in one place a triple decked mabati house in the slums, are in fact the background...not the foreground.

Robarts has taken old paintings full of colour and drizzled over them in a grid format that has been allowed to drip. The paint used to create this effect, is a muted colour associated with a setting rather than a tangible object, making the positive space look negative and negative (but colourful) background look positive.

For the final touches, "to pull back again what was once underneath," Robarts runs a light layer of paint over the little colourful figures to bring them slightly forward. More details from Robarts ' life diary can be viewed in her paintings of a lovely boat in Sri Lanka, where she recently visited, vivid flowers from her garden at home and the finches she sees every morning feeding outside her bedroom window in Karen.

Headed back to The Star offices, I catch a ride with Robarts. On Ngong Road, she is preoccupied by the furniture and the busy dukas by the side of the street. She points her sweet, crinkly fingers at all the people going about their day. "This is what I like," she says, "Everything that's going on. It's beautiful."

The anxiety of an impending exhibition is something that most professional artists, who chose the career out of a genuine desire to conjure sensitive images, can empathize with. It needs to be clear however, that although an approaching deadline makes artists nervous, the compulsion to create, to see beauty in the world around us, can never be curtailed.

With a few months of boundless creativity, Robarts has produced more joyful scenes from both her travels and home life. We see jaunty villages, teeming markets and all things Geraldine.

Around the corner, that villainous deadline approaches and the cycle continues. Naturally, Robarts is wondering what you will think of her fresh stream of consciousness. Come see her work at "Making your Mark," running at the Talisman restaurant in Karen from December 4th until December 21st.

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