Emily Harriet Bulbring Robertson is a painter, who uses paintbrushes to stir tea when she can’t find spoons. She loves giving people what they want but never in the way they expect and pursued art as a contingency plan after realising she no longer wished to be a crocodile wrestler. Her meticulous pieces reference pop culture phenomena alongside ancient religious icons and interrogate the daily roles women are expected to play. She’s young and funny and even though fear is the driving impulse behind her amusing creations, she’s not scared of currently pursuing her Masters at the Michaelis School of Fine Art or asking us to re-imagine a history where Joseph may have been better at making school lunches.
Did you have a creative upbringing?
I didn’t do art in school until grade 10, I did French. My grandmother was the one who really nurtured my creativity and bought me books to write stories in and taught me how to collage. That being said, my parents did hang prints of Monet’s water lilies over my crib as an infant. I think they had read somewhere that early exposure to colours, texture and fine art would inspire creativity. I bet there are some regrets there.
As a young artist, in the early stages of your career, what have you found most challenging?
Learning how to “art”. I think making art is easy enough. The harder part is trying to wedge yourself into the close-knit artistic community. I am possibly the most useless at networking and making a lasting impression. I’ve made a deal with one of my friends, also a recent Michaelis graduate, to try to become real artists, who aren’t too afraid to be the first to take a glass or two of the free wine at gallery openings.
Stylistically, which artists have been particularly inspirational to you?
You may think I am joking but Monet. I have always considered myself a painter in spite of the fact that I never use paintbrushes. I see painting as the use of tiny things (in my case pictures and sad bits of stuffed toy fur) to make up big things (sunrises, giant fluffy birthing vaginas or scary depictions of the virgin Mary). I don’t think I ever quite recovered from my infantile encounter with art and it probably didn’t help that the first real exhibit I saw was the Impressionist section in the Musée d’Orsay. I also quite enjoy the “joke” in saying I am a painter, who doesn’t use paint. Every year my father asks when I am going to paint again (he is the Impressionist lover in our family) and I always answer, filled with rebellion and the sick satisfaction that comes with giving someone exactly what they asked for but not how they expected it, that I already am.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, is a recurring figure in your collages. Why have you centered the series around this female icon?
For this body of work I was considering the societally accepted roles of women and how often when women choose to take on these roles, all other accomplishments and interests they had had in their lives are forgotten. They are labelled and seen solely as ‘mother’ or ‘wife’. I took interest in the Virgin Mary as she was the most famous woman of my upbringing. I went to a Marist catholic school, which for the layman means, we love Mary. The only thing dear old Maria is known for are two attributes: her virginity and for being Christ’s mother. She could have been a pioneer in all manner of fields. She may have been an excellent hip-hop dancer or had a gift for healing. She may even have made a mean beef Stroganoff or been able to fit 82 pitas in her mouth. But nothing to this effect has ever been recorded. It would appear that nothing beyond a woman’s skill in all things related to stereotypical gender roles or female archetypes matter.
The only thing I know about this woman is that she was a virgin, wife and a mom. Which is cool, I guess, but I am certain she was, as most virgins, wives and mothers are, more and thus I created scenarios where she was and had accomplishments other than those associated with societal ideals of what a woman should be. In my collages Mary always has the face of my own mother, I do this in acknowledgement and gratitude for the sacrifices she made to have me.
Your collages are meticulous and detailed. How much forethought takes place before their creation or is the process more fluid and spontaneous?
I tend to start them with a singular idea that amuses me and then I research every single useless bit of information on it. Eventually I formulate an idea of what I would like the work to look like and then I play. I collect images or hunt through my database (whenever I see something that makes be giggle I cut it out and save it). At this point one can imagine how bored with the collages I would have become and so while making them, to keep me awake, I collage jokes into the works; animals in disguises in the South Pole, fake plants in a garden show, all of the signs of the zodiac, tons of booze and drugs, outraged professional chefs, fast food in a Michelin star restaurant, altar bread and dips for snacks, a snowman and hundreds of movie and popular culture references. I know the majority of people will never get all of the jokes, in fact every time I look at one of the collages I rediscover some little tit-bit I thought was a hilarious at the time. I think that may be the reason why people like them.
The work interrogates the roles women play in society. In your experience, do you think there are different expectations placed on the role of male and female artists and the subject matter they explore?
This is a tough question, not because I don’t have an opinion on it but rather because I know I have been so well bred and groomed to be a part of our patriarchal society that I don’t really know how to answer it. What I do know and what I have seen is how many young black artists are pushed and herded into making art about their identity and race, even if it is not their cup of tea, because it’s more interesting etc. I believe female artists have been similarly limited and herded into certain subject matter but then again I don’t ever recall being hinted at or told what to do. I think we (women) are programmed our entire lives to be polite and spill as few bodily fluids as possible and the same principles are extended and expected of our art making. Men seem to be trained, on the other hand, to think its ok to ejaculate on everything. Fun.
Have I been brainwashed? Probably. Do people want me to make work about birthing vaginas? I don’t know, I’ve been brainwashed. Do people want women to paint babies and kitchen scenes? I don’t know. Do we have to/ do they want us to make emotional abject messy work? I don’t think so or maybe they do, it’s a conspiracy. I don’t really think “female art” is or has ever been particularly sexy to the big guy upstairs (who is the big guy upstairs in the art world?!).
At the end of the day, what I’ve experienced as a “young female artist”, and I think it is worth noting, is that 5/6 of art school graduates are women (I just guestimated that from my graduating class). At the beginning of first year they tell you that only one of the class of 64 will become an established artist or some other nonsense to that effect. Basic maths tells us it’s probably going to be a chick…Well? We live in a broken society. Our art world is also broken. It doesn’t seem to be getting much better for anyone. And let’s be honest who really wants to look at slimy vagina art all day? I’m being snide, I like vaginas. Anyone want to buy a giant fluffy one??
The title of this body of work, “What if Joseph were better at creating sandwiches?”, alludes to competition. Within the context of your collage series, what fascinates you about ambition and accolades?
It’s not the ambition and accolades I’m interested in, I am fascinated by the untold stories. What if Joseph was actually better at making school lunches for baby Jesus? What if Mary was the better carpenter? What if she sucked at the whole maternal thing? People and women in particular are limited by gender roles and stereotypes.
A woman can be more than a bride and mother and just because she has chosen to adopt those roles it should not limit her entire existence or how she is seen to within the parameters of the label. I can spew example after example of how professional women are asked “How they do it all?” (because women can’t have families and jobs?) and how other women are guilted by their communities because they don’t have time to make gourmet lunch boxes and attend netball matches. Do dads get the same? I must sound like a broken record by now but how do we as a society still not see the injustice and idiocy in putting people into singular boxes and categorising, labelling and treating them as if we aren’t all horribly complex, messy, chaotic creatures.
How does fear inform your art?
I make the art I make because I am so afraid that I will lose what makes me who I am to my own “womanliness”. I started this project because of a story my mom told me about a lunch she had been to with a friend of hers that she hadn’t seen since university. Despite the fact that my mum was a top journalist, has had 6 books published and had just won a literature prize the only thing her friend asked her about was her husband and kids.
The idea of being reduced to only one dimension of myself and being enslaved to that role terrifies me. I have all the symptoms of the disease, I have a vagina, I am brilliant with kids, I am a fabulous cook, and I can sew and knit. Any day now I could no longer be considered as “young artist” and will rather be known and seen as only “MOM”. I work with my fears and play with them to understand them fully. I have tried to turn the horrific into something colourful and amusing. In the hope that if I poke fun at my fears and toy with them enough I will finally have enough courage to confront them. Perhaps when I finally look under my bed or behind my cupboard door, I will find nothing that scares me.
How important is the role of humour in your work?
VERY! Not only does humour help me remain interested in making the work but when dealing with such serious, almost hopeless, subject matter you have to be able to laugh about it or at least try to.
The usage of objects like teddy bears has connotations of comfort, yet in Child’s Play (Origin of the World) they seem like an overwhelming avalanche. What prompted you to create this work?
I wish I could insert a screen shot of my Facebook wall here. I was 21 when I made the work. 3 years out of high school, only one of the youngest in my class by a few months and yet my Facebook wall was, and still is, polluted by girls I matriculated with and younger announcing baby bumps and showing off engagement rings. Every time I see one of these announcements I almost weep. Sure, babies and weddings are great but these girls don’t have a clue what they are signing up for. Do they even know what an episiotomy is?? These women haven’t yet had a chance to know themselves and then at the tender age of fucking 16 they will be branded WIFE and MOTHER and will never ever be able to be seen as anything other. That is the society we live in. The horror of Child’s Play is the atrocities I see every day happening to the women I grew up with.
You graduated from Michaelis last year and Child’s Play (The Origin of the World) has already been exhibited at AVA’s Best of 2015 show in February. Where to from here?
Next year I might try to be the first woman on the moon. Until then I might attempt doing what I tell everyone I am doing, which is working on my Masters in Fine Art at Michaelis. I don’t think we’re supposed to divulge what we’re working on so I’ll just hint. As you know by now, I am a bit afraid of being trapped into “female” gender roles and stereotypes and I am, finally, tired of being afraid.
When I am done with the Masters, I might try for a PHD (if any institution will have me) not for any other reason than to be able to rub it in my parents’ faces and tell them that 10 year old me wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to be a doctor. I try always to give people exactly what they want but never in the way they expect it.