Lisa Reihana’s historic reckoning
Captain James Cook is dead, stabbed in a skirmish with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay in February 1779. What happens next is horrific or honorifical, depending on whether you are coloniser or would-be colonised: a tribal elder in a red and yellow headdress presents a rolled-up rug to Cook’s crewmen, which contains the British explorer’s blue hat with embroidered gold trim, as well as a tightly coiled blanket – unwrapped now to reveal Cook’s severed leg.
“Oh God!” shouts one British character, recoiling. “Jesus Christ,” says another. “What’s the meaning of this?” The dismemberment of Cook, who nine years earlier first set foot in Australia’s Botany Bay, meant he was being honoured at death with the respect due a high chief.
“From a Pacific perspective,” explains artist Lisa Reihana, “to revere those who have passed on is to have a relic.” The British saw only barbarism.
Auckland born and based, Reihana, 53, is sitting at Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney with her partner and artistic collaborator James Pinker. She spent several years casting and filming Pacific Islander and Aboriginal actors performing rituals, dances, communal joyousness and conflicts with European colonisers against green studio screens, then placing and combining their performances into a seamless, wall-sized 32-minute live-action rolling animation depicting Cook’s voyages, which she called In Pursuit of Venus (Infected).
Her video work is inspired by the panoramic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet in 1804 and held at the National Gallery of Australia. Charvet’s woodblock-printed, stencilled and hand-brushed wallpaper also takes the Endeavour’s voyages among “the natives” as its subject, but depicts Cook’s death in a scene only an inch tall. Such reality would never be acceptable writ large in the stately homes for which such art was originally made.
The French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, who commissioned Charvet, wrote disparagingly of Pacific peoples, and Melanesians and Indigenous Australians are virtually absent from the wallpaper’s depictions. Likewise, Cook’s journal entries reveal he and botanist Joseph Banks couldn’t relate to Aborigines as they had, for instance, the Maori.
Reihana, who describes herself as “native two times over” – meaning as a Maori as well as an Aucklander – first ventured overseas in 1988 at age 24, after graduating from art school. She came to Sydney for a residency at the Australian Centre for Photography during our Bicentenary year, and made her first film work, Wog Features, here.
Encountering portions of the Charvet wallpaper held in Canberra, Reihana began thinking about how colonialist attitudes of entitlement and racial superiority, as well as literal pathogens, infected the colonised, and set about recasting the propaganda scroll to more realistically depict the cultures of its Indigenous characters.
Reihana’s video work rolls right to left across the screen for a length of 22 to 25 metres – depending on the venue – and was New Zealand’s acclaimed entry at the Venice Biennale last year. It is currently being exhibited at Campbelltown Arts Centre, in her Sydney Festival show Cinemania, and will also feature at the Perth Festival from February as part of her show Emissaries.
The artist calls the animation “IPOV” for short, suggesting “point of view”. An earlier version, shorter in width and running time, is held by the National Gallery of Victoria, but it lacks an Aboriginal Australian presence. Reihana remedied this with the longer work. In 2016, on a trip to Sydney, she met with Dharawal elder Aunty Glenda Chalker, and began learning stories of the Indigenous people around Campbelltown. She then cast five members of the Aboriginal art and performance team Koomurri – a portmanteau of Koori and Murri – led by songman Cecil McLeod, who offered to perform a welcome to country dance for the work. As McLeod chants and plays clap sticks, four dancers in red and yellow ochre sway their arms side to side and above their heads. In another scene, Aboriginal basket weavers make a shy appearance.
If you watch the work for its second 32-minute loop, you will see a significant difference: a woman plays Captain Cook in a new version of one scene. Reihana explains that, to some Pacific cultures, whose tribal dress purposely revealed genitals, his gender would have been unclear, given he wore breeches.
“I have them all getting on, and drinking rum together,” she says, “and then one of the Pacific Islanders pulls [Cook’s] pants down. I recorded it twice, because I really wanted to think about point of view, that you don’t necessarily know what you’re seeing.
“It was because I met a woman, Julia Waite, who’s a curator, and she said, ‘Oh, Cookie was my name at high school.’ She turned to the side and showed her profile: she’s very tall, a gay woman, and she’s 6'2", which is the same height as Cook, and I just loved that idea. I thought, ‘Okay, people thought she was Cook; there is this idea that Pacific people weren’t sure if Cook was male or female.’ I wanted to queer it up.”
There is much other playfulness in Reihana’s epic work, described by The Times in Britain as “ambitious, riveting”. The Tahitian Polynesian navigator Tupaia, for instance, who could speak various languages, is regarded by some Maori as the captain of the Endeavour, because he speaks on behalf of Cook and Banks et al.
Reihana, who has identified as Maori since childhood, was raised without religion. She says this helped her openness to a range of people’s identities. Her art school years in the 1980s were a highly politicised time, with a renaissance in Maori art and culture. “There was a lot to push against and a lot to fight for,” she says. “I started to be called all sorts of different names, and I said: ‘Okay you can pigeonhole me, but just give me lots of pigeonholes.’ ”
Her mother, Lesley, was born in England and came to New Zealand at the age of eight after the London Blitz of World War II sent her family in search of a better life. Reihana’s father, George, who ran teams of electricity line repairers, was born Huri Waka, in a Maori family of the Ngapuhi, Ngaati Hine and Ngai Tu clans.
“Australia’s been very important to me, because it was an opening of my cultural awareness,” Reihana says, “because I was here in 1988, and I met a lot of amazing activists here. Postmodernism was in and there were all these people talking all these really big words, all this French theory, and it wasn’t something I bought into.
“I said, ‘Look, for me, as an urban woman, it’s really hard for me to hold all these strands together. I’m just going to keep myself open.’ It’s not that I was non-critical – I just didn’t want to buy into that [theoretical] language.
“I didn’t have [Maori] language anyway, because my father left his tribal homelands in the 1950s. There was a big breakdown of Maori culture at that time. There was a big push into farming, but that fell over and there were whole areas that were just breaking down. So Dad came to Auckland to make money to send back to his family.
“Some of the older Maori men were saying, ‘If you can’t speak Maori language, you can’t call yourself a Maori artist.’ I was really resisting. There were these various different calls to arms. I was saying, well, what do I call myself? French? I feel Maori, because the way I dream and think was influenced by these stories. I remember people at art school saying, ‘You have to learn Te Reo [Maori language]’, but I am not a linguist. It’s more about my images, when I hear things and translate them.”
How do her dreams make her feel Maori? “The way that I feel things, I feel like sometimes I get messages from other places. I might be thinking about an idea, or in a conflict, and then I might come to a conclusion. I might have a dream and go” – she clicks her fingers and smiles broadly – “oh yes, that’s the way to move forward. It’s to do with intuition. For me, I’m thinking it’s from my people. Sounds like The X-Files, but you know, if you come to a decision, that’s from yourself, your DNA, all those people behind you and all the experiences they had.”
In her high school years, when it was suggested women might aim to be a secretary or a dental nurse, such prospects helped her decide what not to do with her life. Her mother, now an accountant, did a lot of amateur theatre, and Reihana would accompany her for casting and rehearsals. She would watch the “guy playing god with the lights” and the props people and was drawn to the idea of being creative.
“My parents were really great. They’re very humble people,” she says. “They didn’t tell you what to do, but if you decided you were going to do something, they would support that.”
Their mixed-raced marriage was frowned upon by “society”, Reihana says, making air quotes with her fingers. “That’s why I always loved I Love Lucy because Desi Arnaz is Cuban, and that was the first example of mixed-race marriage in America. Its cultural importance was this mixed marriage.
“You call it ‘multicultural society’ here in Australia – in New Zealand it’s bicultural, in the sense that Maori retain the right to call it a bicultural society because the English came, and we wrote the Treaty of Waitangi.
“It is multicultural, though, and a lot of people came in from the islands, encouraged to work in factories.”
But the economic ground shifted and factories in the north, from where her father hailed, began closing, with religious groups granted vast tracts of land and Maori artefacts stolen and traded. “It’s very poor, quite horrific up there.”
Reihana sees great hope for her country in the form of its new young prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her deputy, the veteran Maori politician Winston Peters, “who has done some good work in the past”. Reihana smiles: “He’s a little sly bastard – he’s like an eel, he just always comes back. You cut off his head, he’ll grow another one, you know? But he’s actually like a conscience, and sometimes he’s pulled the government up on bad things.
“He had the swaying vote [on forming government]. As a Maori man, it was like, ‘Fuck, which way is he going to go?’ For him to back Jacinda, I just remember we went, ‘Woo hoo!’ We stopped and drank some champagne. She’s youthful, she really cares, she’s got a lot on her side. Our health statistics for young [Indigenous] people are not good, and so it’s fantastic. It’s like, hope, you know?”
Does Reihana think Australia lags behind New Zealand in coming to terms with its Indigenous history?
“Absolutely. The way I perceive Aboriginal Australia, it’s got the oldest culture on Earth, and Aotearoa New Zealand has the youngest, the last piece of land to be peopled. And we are right next door to each other.
“There’s a philosophy in Maoridom, it’s that the elder and the younger should walk hand in hand, because you share information up and down. So returning to Australia is about trying to talk about those politics. There’s a reckoning that still is yet to happen here.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Historic reckoning". Subscribe here.