• Lisa Reihana with 'In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]' at the 57th Venice Biennale, Viva Arte Viva (Supplied)
Multimedia artist Lisa Reihana reclaims the imperial history of Europeans' voyages to the Pacific at the 57th Venice Biennale in Italy.
By
Georgia Mokak

5 Sep 2017 - 10:19 AM  UPDATED 5 Sep 2017 - 10:19 AM

Aotearoa’s, Lisa Reihana is of Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine and Ngāi Tu, connected to the Far North of New Zealand and is known as one of the most accomplished multimedia artists of her generation.

In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] is the main piece of Reihana’s solo exhibition at the New Zealand Pavilion, titled 'Emissaries'. Here she presents an adaptation of the most ambitious work to date to share the true encounters between Captain James Cook and his crew and the First Nations peoples of the Pacific.

Reihana’s restaging of the event showcases the widely distributed early 19th Century French wallpaper by Joseph Dufour. Her use of Les Sauvges de la Mer Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific) is the perfect counter-colonial assertion to expose the apparent incomprehension of European society and means to reclaim the imperial history to the northern hemisphere.

Dufour’s interpretation of the Pacific was based off the sensationalised illustrations and narratives of the journals and records of Louis de Bougainville, Captain James Cook and Jean François de Galaup La Pèrouse's voyages to the region. Claiming to be a historical representation, the Indigenous peoples are all dressed in Grecian-like cloth and cast in Hellenic poses, is in fact, completely disconnected from the true diversity of Indigenous cultures throughout the Pacific.

Reihana’s original encounter with Dufour’s wallpaper found no connection to the South Pacific landscape, or its peoples. Hardly a depiction of the South Pacific, instead for Reihana, the wallpaper presented a highly exoticised utopian landscape - a nowhere-land. While attempted references were visible (tapa wrapped bodies; bark cloth used for funerary ceremonies, for example) there was an enormous seperation from the true culture of the South Pacific, the diversity of its first peoples, and the accurate encounters with Captain Cook and his crew. Even the colonisers - 19th Century Brits - were depicted as Roman gladiator-like and the glorified heroes of a fantastical expedition.

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Interlacing together a visual, audio and performative forms of cultural representation for both historical and contemporary sources, Reihana re-examines and recoups this narrative of colonisation of the Pacific and does so from an Indigenous perspective.

“For me it was really reclaiming our stories and making us more real again. Talking about the past, talking about now and how we can think of ourselves in the future,” Reihana says. 

“For me it was really reclaiming our stories and making us more real again. Talking about the past, talking about now and how we can think of ourselves in the future.”

After more than eight years in the making, Reihana has reshot the episode of Captain James Cook’s travels to the Pacific, reminding and disrupting the colonial memory of the 19th Century that is still strongly embedded in today's society.

The original work has been circulated widely in Australia, shown at galleries including the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). For the Venice Biennale, however, Reihana has expanded on the original work to include Aboriginal experiences to complete the narrative. These stories and experiences include the story of Gweagal warrior, Cooman, directly referencing the shield that is currently in the British Museum along with numerous other stolen pieces from the first encounters with the South Pacific.

A number of scenes at the New Zealand Pavilion draw on Reihana’s ongoing investigation into colonial photography, particularly in exposing the uncomfortable nature of taking a particular kind of image, the staged exotic other. As the animated landscape slowly scrolls across a 26 meter long panel for 32 minutes, enabling the viewer to become a passenger on a consuming and infinite journey - a witness to the events of colonisation.

The idea of the ‘infection’ speaks to the moment that 'once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it'. The idea that once humans have made that encounter, history changes forever. It’s that moment when everything shifts and changes – the hybridization of knowledge. This is the ‘infection’.

The idea that once humans have made that encounter, history changes forever.

Including around 65 different accounts and stories of these first encounters, we can see humanity in its myriad of forms, bringing together an incredible education tool that brings a colonial wallpaper to life and reclaims these experiences from an Indigenous perspective. Humorous, violent, sensual and uncomfortable, Lisa Reihana resurrects the imperial history, illustrating a myriad of complex engagements through a contemporary lens.

Lisa Reihana's Emissaries is currently on show at the 57th International La Biennale di Venezia (The Venice Biennale in Italy) 13 May - 26 November 2017

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