Artistfacts: Lisa Reihana
One of the pleasures of a mega-show like the Venice Biennale is the encounter with artists from countries other than Europe or the United States in the national pavilions, artists that may never be shown at a gallery or fair in the United States. In 2017, New Zealand was represented by such an artist, Lisa Reihana, born in 1964, a multi disciplinary artist of Maori descent with a wonderful work, ” Emissaries”.
“Emissaries” includes a 32 minutes entrancing and immersive video titled “Pursuit of Venus (infected)” that deals with issues of colonization, identity and ownership of history and was accompanied by photographs and sculptures. I am including a link to a short part of the video from the Alberton House website as it is worth watching, although unfortunately the small screen does not have the same immersive effect as the 23.5m long by 3.3m (77 feet by 10.8 feet) projection in Venice did and I could not find a link to the entire work, It took the artist 10 years to complete.
The setting of the video is a panoramic view of a well known 19th century wallpaper ” Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” or “The Savages of the Pacific Ocean” made by the french firm Joseph Dufour and Cie. that depicts a romanticized and idealic Pacific Island. Lisa Reihana added live action scenes to the film to portray a more realistic and historically accurate view of colonization. Easily recognized figures within are Tupaia, a gifted Tahitian navigator, the botanist Joseph Banks and the explorer Captain Cook.
We live in a time when historical narratives are being tested and challenged be it:
- who is represented in the monuments and the appropriateness of monuments to confederate generals or Christopher Columbus as a few examples;
- the way museums present ethnographic artifacts that were taken from third world countries;
- the issue of the repatriation of artifacts and artworks to their places of origins;
- the issue of reparations to be paid to African Americans for slavery or
- the way colonial history is taught in schools to name but a few.
History as they say is written by the victors and our knowledge of history is shaped and influenced in a political process that has presented a narrative of progress emanating from Europe to civilize the “primitives” and ignored how this history allowed for the exploitation if not decimation of the colonized countries and people. Continuing to learn the colonial past without looking at it based on the fact and evidence of the colonized, plays on exoticism but continues a legacy of discrimination and racism.
In 1769, Captain James Cook berthed the Endeavour in Tahiti and observed and recorded the astronomical phenomenon known as “the transit of Venus”. He then continued on a secret mission to find and claim a hopefully rich southern continent in the name of King George III. First landfall on the Australian continent was at Botany Bay. The arrival of the Europeans in Australia and New Zealand had terrible effects on the Maori population as did most colonizations of indigenous people.
Lisa Reihana’s work unfolds slowly with a muted sound track and no dialogue an, as we watch, what appears to be an ideal island paradise, evolves into clashes of cultures, growing moments of tension and then violence.
Pursuit of Venus (infected) is unfortunately the only work by Lisa Reihana I have had the pleasure of seeing live, though she is well known in New Zealand for other video installations such as:
Native Portraits n 19987 an ongoing project is started as a multimedia installation using video and sound that reconceptualizes historic photographs, and continues with a series of color photographic prints on aluminum dealing with issues of identity, dignity (or the lack thereof) and representation. Dandy (2007) borrows the trappings of a british gentleman. Diva explores ideas associated with sexuality and gender in a 1930s way, in the vein of singer Billy Holiday.
Tai Whetuki / House of Death from 2015 is a two-screen video that depicts the crossing over of the spirit from life into the land of the dead with a ghost figure that beckons and protects the passage. Lisa Reihana uses rituals from various traditions and times to merge and lure the viewer into the mythology. It was inspired by a historic collection piece at the Bishop Museum.
Lisa Reihana, Tai Whetuki – House of Death, 2014. Dead Ringer(installation view, PICA), 2015. Photo by Alessandro Bianchetti.
Discussing Tai Whetuki- House of Death which unfortunately I have not seen in an article for Heart of the City in Auckland, Lisa Reihana mentions how costume was historically an important element of the mourning process. Tai Whetuki- House of Death features an intricately and beautifully handmade 8ft tall traditional Tahitian mourning costume which was in use at the time that Captain Cook visited Tahiti and that the artist recreated for the piece.
Lisa Reihana’s talent is to draw the viewer into her video works in such a way that instead of the cursory, 2 minute max viewing of a video one often observes I hate to admit, the viewer sits/stands rapt watching for the entire time or, in the case of “Pursuit of Venus (infected) re-watching so as not to miss the details, drawn into the history, the mythology and the tale, almost like a full length commercial movie. I look forward to her video works coming to museums here for us all to enjoy.