Photo and video artist Lisa Reihana describes herself as “native two-times over”: native to Auckland and native as in Indigenous to New Zealand.
Her mother, Lesley, an accountant, was born in England to English and Welsh parents, and her father, George, who ran teams of electricity line repairers, is from a Maori family of Ngapuhi, Ngaati Hine and Ngai Tu clans.
Their mixed-race marriage was “slightly frowned upon, back in the day”, says their daughter, born in 1964.
Reihana’s art has always been invested in the stories of people who have come long distances to resettle their lives and their mingling with Indigenous cultures.
She remembers as a child sitting with her father in their shed, watching him repair things, and while stormy weekends would see him called off to work, she recalls the time he took her to work under the Auckland city road, and marveling at an entire other world occurring beneath their feet.
On her mother’s side is her grandmother Sylvia Dann, a bespoke tailor who made all the family’s clothes at a time garments couldn’t be imported into New Zealand. The construction and personality of clothes would prove important knowledge that has crossed over into Reihana’s collaborations with actors and models in her video works and photography. Reihana feels a long, strong female lineage in her artwork, too.
Last year, the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Reihana’s two-channel video work In pursuit of Venus, 2015, in which she has costumed people – friends, family, professional actors and dancers – perform cultural ceremonies, reimagining life in the Pacific from a postcolonial perspective.
She worked with video technicians to tape the performers in front of green screen, then combined their performances into one video panorama. The work will go on display at NGV International from June 10.
Reihana had been inspired years earlier at the National Gallery of Australia, having seen a magnificent wallpaper made in Mâcon, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, using woodblock printing, stenciling and hand brushing. Made between 1804 and 1805 by painter and designer Jean-Gabriel Charvet for the French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, it was the largest panoramic wallpaper of its time.
The work’s subjects were Captain James Cook and those “natives” he met on his voyages and, while Charvet’s art was supposedly suffused with Enlightenment values, there was three-way disparagement of races by the artist, the entrepreneur and the famous explorer. Reihana set about recasting the wallpaper characters and bringing believability to them.
“A lot of racist attitudes, when you look at these ideas, were born at that time,” Reihana says on the line from Auckland. “There was even a hierarchy of how they felt various Indigenous races were. Melanesians and [Australian] Aboriginal people are almost absent in the wallpaper. Dufour’s descriptions are very disparaging.”
By and large, In pursuit of Venus was a self-funded project. For 25 years, until recently, Reihana taught at a tertiary level.
Finally, with plaudits piling up and having been chosen to represent New Zealand at the 2017 Venice Biennale, she can devote herself to her art full-time.
Coincidentally, another Indigenous photo and video artist, Tracey Moffatt, will represent Australia at Venice. Both artists – long-time friends – are known for staging their works with models and actors in postcolonial contexts.
Reihana’s new work is an expansion of the work NGV has bought – it is called In pursuit of Venus (Infected). Why infected? “It’s talking about me infecting the wallpaper, taking it to another level,” she says, “and it’s a reference to the pathogens that travelled through the world at that time, and continue – right now we’ve got the Zika virus issue.”
The expanded work will run across five screens instead of two, 26 metres long, running at 25 frames a second for 32 minutes. The expansion has allowed Reihana to explore Cook’s death from different perspectives, to allow some sort of catharsis.
“I’ve done a number of scenes around his death, and a number of Pacific mourning practices, so you can see people start to think about death in different ways,” she says.
“Cook ended up being dismembered into quite a number of pieces that were distributed to a number of tribes around the Hawaiian islands.
“I have this scene where his leg and his hat are being returned to his fellow crewmen, and they think it is the most terrible, barbaric thing. Whereas from a Pacific perspective, to revere those who have passed on before you is to have a relic.”
Reihana is a gregarious and sociable artist, always collaborating. “I’m horrifically social,” she says, laughing. Her partner is producer, percussionist and sound engineer James Pinker, who is responsible for her artwork’s soundtrack. “We’re working together to pull off various projects,” says Reihana.
On May 25, Reihana will have a solo show at Fehily Contemporary consisting of photographs, though at the time of our interview the show doesn’t yet have a title. Many of the photographs will be of characters from In pursuit of Venus (Infected).
Reihana is now keen to make a feature film, collaborating with a scriptwriter. “In New Zealand, there’s not been many feature films made by women,” she notes.
In the second half of 2016, she’ll be working on a short film, tentatively titled Nomads of the Sea, which could potentially grow to feature length. “It’s a great story that travels between New South Wales and the far north [of New Zealand], so it does connect Australia and New Zealand in history and in time.
“I do feel very connected to Australia in the sense that it’s the oldest culture in the world – for the lack of a better term, Aboriginal culture – right next door to New Zealand, one of the last places on Earth to be colonised, by Maori.
“There’s a lot of knowledge that we need to share, and any opportunities to retain relationships should be taken.”