[In my] work … the act of making is a process of experimentation leading to new knowledge.1 See Lisa Reihana, ‘Re-staging Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique: theoretical and practical issues’, unpublished thesis submitted for the Degree of Master by Design, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, 2012, p. 5.Lisa Reihana
Lisa Reihana is a leading Māori new media artist based in Aotearoa / New Zealand whose work in film, video, installation, photography and performance has been extensively exhibited in New Zealand, Australia and internationally. As seen in her remarkable live-action video work in Pursuit of Venus, 2015, Reihana astutely weaves together visual, aural and performative forms of cultural representation from historical and contemporary sources to re-examine the European narrative of colonisation of the Pacific from a First Nations perspective. In providing modern accessibility to Māori oral history and customary belief, and by presenting it through the lens of contemporary culture, Reihana bestows respect and prestige upon this powerful indigenous culture.
The two-channel video in Pursuit of Venus re-stages the celebrated early nineteenth-century Enlightenment wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, 1804‒05. This large hand-blocked, scenic wallpaper illustrated by Jean-Gabriel Charvet for French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour measures ten metres long by more than two metres high and comprises twenty separate panels. It was designed as a delectable ‘entertainment’ to embellish the interior of a wealthy European or American stately home, transforming it into a lush Tahitian paradise. Charvet sourced his illustrations from scenes of indigenous life and stories of encounter detailed in the records and journals of the Pacific voyages of exploration undertaken by Captain Cook, Louis de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse. Les Sauvages claims to be historical but the Māori, Pacific and First Nations peoples featured in the wallpaper are cast in Hellenic poses, outfitted in Grecian drapery and disconnected from their cultural, political and historical reality. In locating the indigenous communities within a fictional utopia, Les Sauvages reflected Enlightenment humanist values of the noble savage, espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and mirrored widespread European fascination for Pacific voyages, ‘exotic’ themes and ritual practices and Pacific Islander people.
Reihana recalls being amazed by Les Sauvages in 2005, when she first viewed it on display at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; however, her initial wonder turned to disbelief when she realised that ‘this fascinating concoction was a fabulation located in someone else’s elsewhere’ that had nothing to do with her Polynesian roots.2 ibid, p. 10. Compelled by the need to correct the historical inaccuracies inherent in Les Sauvages, Reihana sought to bring the static wallpaper ‘to life’ and invest it with more complex understandings of Pacific Islander cultural practices and the enormous ramifications of their first encounter with Europeans. Subsequently the artist embarked upon a mammoth six-year project of painstaking research, extensive cultural engagement, planning and technical design which she termed in Pursuit of Venus. The title alludes to the idea of voyaging or discovering, and specifically references Cook’s official orders to record the Transit of Venus.
Reihana employs twenty-first century digital technologies to reimagine the wallpaper and re-examine its conceptual framework, ‘providing a different focus for postcolonial discussion, one that uses the experiential and visual language of the post-cinema encounter’.3 ibid, p. 30. The artist’s use of contemporary technologies enables her to shift perspectives: the change from frozen two-dimensional images into embodied performances re-enacts the European past from the perspective of the indigenous present.
The video is enlivened with the sights and sounds of ritual songs and dances performed by graduates from Pacific Islander Performing Arts, Auckland, and other Pacific communities. Through extensive collaboration with Māori and other First Peoples she devised clothing, tattoos, choreography of song and dance, and scripting that gives each performer in her mise en scène an undeniable vitality and authenticity. These actors on Reihana’s vast panoramic field give voice, dance movement and substantial bodily presence to the artist’s cinematic wallpaper, parodying the frozen Grecian figures in the French Neoclassical original that it answers. Furthermore, Reihana sets the action against a carefully researched historical Tahitian landscape, encompassing customary architecture and sculpture that is punctuated by inaccurate drawings of Pacific flora, so that ‘in Pursuit of Venus [becomes] a palimpsest providing sidelong glances and investigating truths absent from the original work’.4 ibid.
Reihana gives new voice to the risks, cultural conflicts and consequences of encounter by offering Māori and other First Peoples opportunities to resist stereotypes, answer back and embody their own agency. Such re-imagining from the inside is a critical and essential aspect of decolonisation. By bringing forth visual poetics of indigenous culture and knowledge, the Māori and Pacific Islander performers recalibrate colonial history from their own standpoints. Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus returns the colonial view with a speculative twist anchored in the lived experiences of First Peoples.
See Lisa Reihana, ‘Re-staging Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique: theoretical and practical issues’, unpublished thesis submitted for the Degree of Master by Design, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, 2012, p. 5.
ibid, p. 10.
ibid, p. 30.