Challenging colonial narratives through Pacific tales of life and death
Honolulu Biennial 2017 is a multi-site, contemporary visual arts festival running from March 8 – May 8 2017 at various sites within the city.
Twin screens set on walls display two channels of video. A procession of characters emerge from within the enveloping darkness of the room, enacting the passage from life to death. A Māori warrior looks for a place to die; the goddess Hinenuitepō guides his spirit across the watery space of the underworld. Māori tikanga (custom) is powerfully evoked and the body is intimately connected to landscape. The scraping of bones appears as tree roots. The screens are angled and it is difficult to view both at once. This only complicates the narrative, further adding to the feeling of disorientation—the sense that we’re witnessing secret, forbidden rituals from the ancient world. Both culturally specific and universal, Māori artist Lisa Reihana’s latest project, Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux, underlines the intimate interconnections between life and death.
“I was intrigued that when people recall near-death experiences, they often talk about moving towards the light,” says Reihana. “I’m interested in the difference between light and dark and how that concept appears in our histories as a kind of duality. Moving towards the light has much to do with birth and new life. I really wanted to hint at that aspect of it. Hinenuitepō is a very powerful female figure in our creation stories; she is the goddess of death. I am heartened by the idea that this feminine quality that births us, also guides us at death. I wanted to explore, in an experimental way, these dual aspects.”
Filmed at site-specific locations like Karekare on the West Coast of Aotearoa, near Auckland, Tai Whetuki explores colonial trauma and the act of mourning.
“I became very interested in the Tahitian chief mourner character after creating an earlier work entitled in Pursuit of Venus,” Reihana says. “The history of Captain Cook, of course, ends with his demise in Hawai‘i, so I wanted to counterbalance his death by looking at Pacific mourning practices. Karekare is the site of a massacre, so it has a dark history and a strong cultural resonance. While the chief mourner was just one part of Venus, I really wanted to explore him in greater depth in Tai Whetuki, where he is far more terrifying and violent.”
The intermedia installation was displayed at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2016 and has been repurposed for the Honolulu Biennial, shown at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum beginning in March 2017. Reihana visited the museum as a 20-something-year-old and remembers being astounded by the wealth of Pacific source materials.
“The chief mourner costume that I based my own design off of for Tai Whetuki is housed at the Bishop Museum’s Pacific Hall,” she says. Tai Whetuki will also be shown at the museum’s Pacific Hall, near the inspirational costume.
Reihana’s work zeroes in on two major themes within contemporary Pacific art: the re-examination of colonial history through the re-presentation of countless micro-histories and counter-memories expressed in formally experimental ways; and the desire to draw inspiration from the vibrant cultural communities of the present. Tai Whetuki functions both as an examination of a core aspect of Polyneisan culture and as a specific development within the broader artistic vision Reihana proposed in Venus.
In Neoclassical France, entrepreneur Joseph Dufour used leading-edge printing innovations to produce Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique (1804), a sophisticated 20-panel scenic wallpaper exemplifying the widespread, Romanticized fascination in Europe with the Pacific voyages undertaken by Captain Cook, de Bougainville and de la Perouse during the late 18th century. Two hundred years later, Reihana used 21st-century digital technologies and worked with theatre director Rachel House and actors and students from the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts to create a 32-minute film installation that brings to life the story of Pacific colonization, and the radical social changes the process entailed, with the sights and sounds of dance and cultural ceremonies.
A vast video panorama, Venus is populated by a cast of characters drawn from across New Zealand and the Pacific. Using the landscape forms of the wallpaper as a backdrop, Reihana filmed live-action scenes in front of green screens that depict interactions between Europeans and Polynesians during this tumultuous period to re-examine the intricacies of cultural identity and colonization.
“When I made the Venus project, I took all these Pacific characters out of this utopian, illustrated space and placed them in a more organic, primordial landscape,” explains Reihana.
Venus opened at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2015 and was the most-visited solo exhibition by a New Zealand artist at the gallery since 1997, with 49,000 estimated visitors.
“What was really interesting was seeing people reassess how they think and feel about history itself,” says Reihana. “Because there’s a difference between reading it from a book and seeing it played out on real bodies. It’s another way of re-appraising history. When you see real bodies, real living people playing out or revisiting their stories, I think you come to understand that history in a different manner. I have my own particular political and cultural beliefs, but when you present history to people in a very open and non-judgmental way, it becomes like a safe space for people to revisit those ideas. It allows people to rethink how they feel about those things.”
Challenging historical and contemporary stereotypes, Venus and by extension Tai Whetuki return the Imperialist gaze of the Neoclassical period with a speculative twist that subverts and disrupts colonial notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.
“Truth and authenticity are completely subjective,” says Reihana. “I think Dufour’s wallpaper is an absolutely incredible and beautiful document in and of itself. If you study and try to replicate it, like I have, you can appreciate how much work has gone into creating it as a document.
“But when I first saw it, I couldn’t recognize any of the Pacific people depicted there. I dreamed of a time that I could bring Pacific bodies into that kind of field. I see these film projects as more of a structure and an opportunity for the other people who appear in them to present themselves and their work and their voice. The opportunity to focus on creative arts that re-assess and re-examine history is an amazing opportunity. I really look forward to seeing who attends the Biennial and what happens as a result of that. I think it’s fantastic for the Pacific.”