Artist Lisa Reihana prepares her blockbuster artwork for the international stage

Artist Lisa Reihana.

“I never learned history in school,” says Lisa Reihana. “I just didn’t have good history teachers. So, funnily enough, becoming an artist I’ve learned so much history from all the projects I’ve done since.”

The child of a Māori dad and an English/Welsh mum, Reihana grew up in Blockhouse Bay. She has shown her work throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, and has twice been shortlisted for the Walters Prize. “For me [art has been] a good way to learn my New Zealand heritage and Māori heritage. Being mixed race, I think I’m always trying to look at both sides of the story.”

Reihana is this year’s Aotearoan emissary at the Venice Biennale (which opens next week) for her epic and richly detailed In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a multi-screen panoramic video and sound work that was first exhibited at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2015, where it proved a blockbuster, adored by critics and punters. The work recreates French painter Joseph Dufour’s 1804 scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique, which Reihana happened across in 2008 when she flew to Sydney to see a Bill Viola show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Dufour’s figures, though placed in Tahiti, struck classical poses and wore Grecian robes. Realistic depictions of first European contact in the Pacific they were not.

In Pursuit of Venus interrogates Dufour’s prettified Pacific utopia by presenting unvarnished tales of early contact. Among more light-hearted moments, we see a syphilitic seaman get flogged, botanist Joseph Banks “blacking up” to terrorise villagers, and Captain James Cook breathe his last. Reihana drew from sources such as Dame Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog and the journals of early explorers. In the film, four-minute vignettes starring students of Auckland’s Pacific Institute of Performing Arts peel from right to left of the screen. “It created a particular cinematic language – you can’t cut anything, can’t do close-ups, it’s almost a pantomime that unfolds in front of your eye. So it kind of cuts across what we’re used to, in terms of looking at cinema,” says Reihana.

In the past decade, New Zealanders have really gotten their knickers in a knot about the stuff we send to Venice, the world’s oldest and most important art fair, presumably because of the cost to the taxpayer (currently around $700,000). Who can forget the time folks plumb lost their minds over art collective et al’s “braying donkey loo”, a highly praised installation that ironically included neither donkey nor toilet? Sure enough, although many commentators have backed Reihana’s selection, another pointed out Europeans could care less about our postcolonial politics. “I think what people don’t understand is that the whole scenic or panoramic wallpaper is an aesthetic style that comes from Europe,” says Reihana. “It was a very famous historic thing. And some people might say, ‘I’m not interested in postcolonial theory’ but then there’s a whole lot of people who are. This work is much broader than that: some people like it because of the technology and some people who don’t like video art like it because of the illustration and painterly aspect.”

Initially, she didn’t want to apply for Venice because IPOVI was a work that already existed (artists normally create new work for the biennale). But she was convinced otherwise, and being selected meant she could “polish it to the level that I feel really happy about”. Photographs now accompany the exhibition, waka have been added to the ocean and other details have been meticulously pimped and tweaked. Reihana even visited London’s Royal Society to record the sound of Cook’s marine clock from the Endeavour voyage. “So the sound of time, the true sound of Greenwich Mean Time, has been embedded into the project.”

She has also expanded the work’s focus – specifically to Australia, where she shot more scenes at Campbelltown Arts Centre in western Sydney. “When I first started looking at the wallpaper and drilling into Cook’s voyages, there were disparaging remarks made about the way Cook perceived how Aboriginal people were living. He said, ‘Oh, they don’t own much, they’re nomadic, they don’t seem to have much material culture’.” She says the stereotype remains that Australia’s Indigenous people weren’t warriors like the Māori and didn’t try to resist the British, which is flat-out untrue. Then there’s the old yarn that when Cook and his men arrived on shore, it was so strange to the Aboriginal people that they were unable to perceive
it. “There’s one idea that Captain Cook said, ‘They’re not even looking at us on the ship, they can’t see us’. But the counter story to that is they just hoped they would go away.”

Having moved to Australia straight after graduating from Elam [School of Fine Arts], Reihana has an affinity for the place where she developed her career and became aware of the possibilities of her art form. “It had a great media and digital video scene, so it was great for me. And my M¯aori culture came into sharp focus by being away from New Zealand. So I feel like a lot of my growing up around my cultural philosophy and artistic development happened as a result of being in Australia.” Not that the Lucky Country is perfect. “I always find the politics there frightening. It scares me, that balls-out racism that you experience. And I’ve experienced that being with my friends of Aboriginal descent – I mean, ‘Aboriginal’ is a terrible word that they don’t subscribe to.” On a more hopeful note, Reihana’s good friend Tracey Moffatt will be the first solo Indigenous artist to represent Australia at Venice this year.

Reihana says it’s an honour to appear at Venice “because it really does launch you into another layer of the art world”. Already, she has been invited to participate in an Oceania show in a new wing of London’s Royal Academy of Arts next year, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage. And her work is attracting the interest of museums – not bad for an artist who describes her former self as a “terrible learner” and history flunk. She says the rest of the world is belatedly boning up on our history too. “It surprises me that people are still discovering New Zealand and the Pacific. We’ve been talking to a number of museums overseas who are getting into creating new Pacific collections. But we’ve always been the youngest country in the world and that’ll never change.”