Robyne Latham

By Nathan Paramanathan

Richard Birmingham welcomed Robyne Latham. Robyne paid respect to and acknowledged the Wurundjeri people, the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet. She also paid respect to the Elders past and present.

I had looked forward to hearing Robyne Latham and seeing her recent work. I was not disappointed.  I first saw her work at the exhibition in Manningham Gallery, as part of Reconciliation Week in 2012 and later at her Solo Exhibition in Blak Dot Gallery.  Robyne, began by tracing her life, when as a young girl, she learnt to play the cello. Though the cello made beautiful sounds its attraction gave way to the blazing fire of an outdoor kiln. So, Robyne’s art studies began in Western Australia with a Diploma in Advanced Ceramics and culminated in a research-based based Master of Fine Arts at Monash University.  But her love of the cello and the underpinnings of vibration and wave patterns were  to remain with her and find expression in her visual art. 

Robyne is totally dedicated to creating forms that convey her deep feelings about her personal identity as well as actively promoting the well-being of the Indigenous people of Australia, for whom she is an ambassador of distinction. She brings together an impressive array of skills which she applies to her heroic task.  She is an artist, a political activist and art therapist. The various elements of her life woven feelingly into her work become the fabric of her life.“The Gap”, an egg-tempera painting on canvas exemplifies this. She has noted that this work is dedicated to all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have graduated from the Family Therapy Program with which she has been associated. The lines radiating from the painting represented the influence of the graduates on their Communities.

For more than thirty years, Robyne Latham has been working with paint, clay, fibres, metal and space.  She is widely represented in Australian galleries.  During the last ten years she has heroically sought to integrate all aspects of life with art in a larger metaphysical context.  Her first love in the visual arts, was ceramics, but an accident which impaired her shoulder made her change over to a less physically demanding process – painting. She discovered egg-tempera and found that the texture and fluidity of the medium suited her needs. The painting “ The first twelve years” shows the fine strands of life’s connections and the whitish markings represent significant locations in her early life. The coolamon shell which Indigenous women use as a cradle has become an important symbol in her work.  Empty coolamons become a dramatic statement of  “the stolen generation.”

More recently Robyne has engaged in a dawn to dusk ritual process of art where the work is ephemeral and impermanent and the process lingers as a significant experience.  In one enactment she spend a day making coolamons of clay and decorated them.  Though she enjoys cognitively analysing art, she is impelled to produce by a powerful force that she playfully refers to as her “goblin” whose screams she cannot ignore and has to placate with her art.      
Words and concepts that arise, when I reflect on Robyne  and her art are,  intense , preoccupation with surfaces, texture, shaping, smoke, occupying, earth-colours , forming, becoming, origination, awe & foreboding, copper, bronze, snake, eggs, duck-egg blue, strands, egg-tempera, sensuous, organic, stickiness, life, fluidity, contrasts, coolamon, pain, space, and enfolding.
At the end of the talk Richard Birmingham, the Event Organiser, invited questions and this led to a long and thoughtful discussion on the many demands made on an artist.  Robyne acknowledged that sometimes she found it difficult to co-ordinate all her activities. However she will remain an artist because she loved beauty and there was always the possibility she could bring about some change in society.