By Emma-Kate Wilson
Based in Auckland, Aotearoa, Lisa Reihana is an artist best known for her epic multi-channel video installation 'In Pursuit of Venus [infected]' (2017), originally created for the New Zealand pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Since then, the artist has been working on her new 3D video work, 'Nomads of the Sea' (2019), recently presented at 'NIRIN', the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, from artistic director Brook Andrew.
Reihana draws from her own Maori culture to bring Maori histories to life, extending breath into contemporary and recent narratives. 'Nomads of the Sea' displays her directorial storytelling skills, inviting audiences to consider the story of Charlotte Badger and Puhi to uncover nuances of modern feminism and a decolonising the gallery process.
I spoke to Reihana about the new artwork in its 3D version on Cockatoo Island, and the stills from the movie at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, which invite the viewers to linger a little longer with Charlotte and Puhi. As 'NIRIN' transitions online, we wait eagerly to see how the video will take on its new form.
Can you tell me about the premise for Nomads of the Sea?
Set in 1806, Nomads of the Sea begins with a fight between Charlotte Badger - the first Pakeha woman to live in Aotearoa, and Puhi, a proud woman of Nga Puhi descent. Charlotte lived at Rangihoua Pa under the protection of the chief Huri Waka but is caught between him and Puhi. Clashes abound throughout this video, returning again and again to a fight between Charlotte and Puhi conducted in Te Reo Maori. Badger is a survivor, and Puhi is ambitious, but they must both prove their value at a time when muskets were vital to tribal success.
When did you first decide to make Nomads of the Sea?
I knew about this story for about twenty years, working on it had to wait until I had completed in In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Themes of reimagining history often arise in my work; it creates a space to look at racism and sexism - this is another story providing a vehicle to do that. Also, I was keen to extend my storytelling skills as a director; it's nice to share this story with the audience.
Did you feel that now is an especially appropriate time to explore the story of Charlotte Badger and Puhi?
Nomads of the Sea investigates the cultural circumstances for women early in the nineteenth century. I've always been interested in exploring strong female characters. Charlotte Badger was incarcerated in the Parramatta Female Factory, and her theft of the Brig Venus from Port Dalrymple, and Cockatoo Island's prison history, meant this work was very appropriate for the Sydney Biennale.
As strong female characters, what messages do you feel Charlotte and Puhi can offer to twenty-first century women?
Strength, taking your own power, guiding your own destiny, not to be afraid of difference.
Nomads of the Sea uses a dark colour palette. Why did you decide to keep the artworks 'in the dark'?
It's a very dark story … I revel in dark colours; this is a generative place for Maori.
And this is reflected in the complex designs the actors are wearing. Where did you source these outfits? How do they play into the roles of the characters?
I work with Robert Buck, an amazing designer. He and I talk about how costume can support the characters. You see Charlotte's clothing change as her circumstances do. It's important to me that I continually develop new imagery, and particularly for Maori as it helps the audience see history anew. The Maori costuming is contemporary as I want original costumes, not ones already seen or rented from other New Zealand films.
Your works discuss colonisation through digital media. Do you think modern technology helps expand and explore trauma in history?
The beauty of video is that it breathes life into history, making it more alive and real. I'm interested in the contrast of European law with Maori culture and morality. What could it have been like to be the first European woman to live amongst Maori? Why would a Maori Chief welcome a fugitive into his tribal homelands? These women are from very different worlds - Puhi will defend her rights, and those of her people without hesitation and Charlotte is a survivor who lives by her wits.
How does the artwork bring Maori culture to new audiences?
Maori history and culture are at the core of the work, and by sharing it in exhibitions, it uplifts our philosophies by bringing consciousness to it. Our international profile gives people a rather skewed idea of New Zealand and our politics. In Nomads of the Sea, you see our lush unspoiled bush, dense and dark. The fight sequences are accompanied by sounds inspired by our birds, and also our martial arts movements. Most importantly, the film uses Te Reo Maori from my NgaPuhi iwi (tribe), so it employs traditional language - there are no transliterations here.
What was it like to create work for the First Nation / artist-led 22nd Biennale of Sydney?
In many ways, I made this work for myself, researching and writing the script means I have to imagine, and therefore gain understandings around my birthright. 'NIRIN' provides an appropriate context for our stories and politics and attracts that, and a wider art-loving audience.
There is also the exhibition showing at Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert. What is the link between the works at the gallery and the 3D immersive film for the Biennale of Sydney 2020?
All the protagonists from Nomads of the Sea are represented as photographic stills in an exhibition of the same name at Gallery Sally Dan Cuthbert. This show allows the audience an opportunity to linger with these characters, including Storyteller; the enigmatic presence who adds a contemporary twist to this historic tale.
What do you hope the audience will take away with them after lingering with the characters at the gallery?
I hope this installation piques the audience's imagination so that they construct a story based on the images. And further, to look at this period of history and think about how it has shaped Australia …