AUSTRALIAN HISTORY EXPLORED IN BIENNALE OF SYDNEY ARTWORK ABOUT FEMALE CONVICT TURNED PIRATE

Neha Kale, ABC NEWS , July 5, 2020
A woman with long dark curly hair wears black pirate holds steering wheel of colonial boat on a dark blue-hued night.

 

Lisa Reihana says Nomads of the Sea explores the backstory of "the first mixed-race child" in Aotearoa New Zealand. An Englishwoman wearing a floor-length dress stands alone on a wooden ship. A man wrestles her to the ground, but she overthrows him, killing him with a musket. She seizes the wheel, music rising and falling as she looks out at the ocean. The southern skies glitter with stars. The Milky Way swirls around her. The woman I'm watching is Charlotte Badger, Australia's first female pirate. This little-known historical figure is the subject of Nomads of the Sea, an ambitious new video work by Lisa Reihana, an artist of Maori (Nga Puhi, Ngati Hine, Ngai Tuteauru) and British descent.

 

Colour close-up photo of artist Lisa Reihana posing in front of sandstone building at the National Art School in Sydney.
Reihana's practice deconstructs ideas around colonisation and Maori identity.(ABC Arts: Teresa Tan) Reihana is one of Aotearoa New Zealand's major artists, representing her country at the 2017 Venice Biennale with her monumental panoramic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a kind of 'animated wallpaper' that depicted First Contact as a series of encounters in which Maori and First Nations communities observed, engaged with and resisted their European colonisers. Nomads of the Sea is playing in a dark chamber within a labyrinth of sandstone workshops on Cockatoo Island, as part of NIRIN: the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, curated by Brook Andrew. This site — known as Wa-rea-mah by the Gadigal and Wangal people — is a fitting backdrop for the story of Badger, a convict-turned-buccaneer; between 1839 and 1869, these workshops housed up to 500 convicts, who carried out hard labour while living together in cramped and squalid conditions. Badger, originally from Worcestershire, was shipped to Port Jackson in 1801 for stealing 4 guineas and a silk handkerchief in an attempt to support her family.
Colonial-era watercolour painting showing four people walking on path, with low fauna, towards the Parramatta Female Factory.
From 1821-48 the Parramatta Female Factory was a penitentiary, marriage bureau, hospital and employer of convict women.(Supplied: National Library Of Australia) In 1806, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter inside the Parramatta Female Factory. Later that year she set sail for Tasmania's Port Dalrymple, where she was consigned to domestic work, on board a vessel called the Venus. During the voyage, Badger led a mutiny, commandeered the ship and sailed across the Tasman to the Bay of Islands. Upon landing, she was taken in by a Maori chief, with whom she cohabited in the year's following, one of the first European women to settle in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A man with long dark hair with fierce expression wears black spikey garment and stands ready for a physical confrontation.
The artist named the Maori chief in Nomads of the Sea after her late father, Huriwaka (George) Reihana.(Supplied: Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert) Badger's life — a tale of courage, adventure and high drama — has been mythologised in Vagabonds, by New Zealand playwright Lorae Perry, and a historical novel by her descendent, Angela Badger. Reihana heard about Badger from a friend back in 1987, the year she graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University.

In the decades since, she has made trailblazing video works, photography and sculptures, often drawing on little-known historical narratives. But she never stopped thinking about Charlotte Badger.

 

Nomads of the Sea originally screened in 3D at the 2019 Sharjah Biennial, which co-commissioned the work with the Creative New Zealand funding body. Although the work is presented in 2D in Sydney, its wrap-around multi-screen set-up and lush visual language give it an immersive quality — and it unfolds with the breakneck pace of an action movie, transfixing the viewer. The narrative of the piece draws on existing swashbuckling mythology around Badger and historical accounts.

 

On a screen in a dark room, a woman stands over a scared looking woman and holds Taiaha or fighting staff weapon to her throat.
Reihana describes Nomads of the Sea as a story that connects Australia and New Zealand in history and in time.(Supplied: Alex Robinson) Far from the one-dimensional heroine we might read about in a history book, Badger is a complex figure, seen through the eyes of Puhi, a female Nga Puhi warrior who is confronted by the European woman's arrival — and furious at the way she threatens matriarchal power in Maori society.
In dark room, two screens of lush forest scenes, border a screen of bare chested man holds fighting staffs over shoulders.
In Nomads Of The Sea, Charlotte Badger lives under the protection of Ngapuhi chief Huri Waka at Rangihoua Pa in Northland, New Zealand.(Supplied: Alex Robinson) We see Badger in bed with the chief, Huri Waka, as Puhi watches them in the dark — her face burning with jealousy.

"There would have been an issue between Puhi and Charlotte, a power shift," says Reihana. "This white woman who was from somewhere else, the first white woman [and] now they are all living together." Over a series of electrifying fight scenes — which channel the kung-fu movies that Reihana has loved since childhood — the two women engage in vicious combat. Puhi, who is played by a Maori weaponry expert, masterfully wields a taiaha, or long-handled fighting staff. "This is not your place," she snaps. Badger replies, "I was just looking."

 

A woman with half hair up, half in bun, wears traditional Māori attire and holds two staff weapons in each hand close to chest.
Reihana describes Puhi as a strong and proud woman of Nga Puhi descent. (Supplied: Lisa Reihana And Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert) Reihana challenges the stereotype of the white woman as innocent, always worthy of protection.

But for Reihana, the conflict between Badger and Puhi symbolises the fact that European women and Maori women have traditionally held different kinds of power, articulated in different ways.

"The attraction between [Puhi] and the Maori chief [develops] through fighting, which would have been attractive at a certain point in time," she explains. "[He] would have been attracted to a certain strength."

Complicating colonial narratives

 

In her 2017 work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], which took Reihana over a decade to complete, she appropriated the visual language of a 19th-century French "scenic" wallpaper and upended its depiction of First Nations people as exotic savages.

 

A wall projection of painted Tahitian landscape featuring filmed figures in 18th C dress re-enacting scenes from first contact.
Reihana spent 10 years — and much of her own money — making her panoramic video work In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]. (Supplied: Document Photography/C-A-C) Working in close consultation with several Pacific, Maori and Australian First Nations communities, she filmed them performing cultural activities and interactions with the European colonisers — and inserted this into an animated wallpaper backdrop. By casting First Nations people as complex subjects with agency, rather than mere objects of European fascination, the work challenged the Eurocentric narrative of colonisation. Nomads of the Sea complicates another part of the colonial narrative, one specific to Aotearoa New Zealand: the Pakeha Maori.

 

On a textured brick wall in dark room a small light creates silhouette of a wall mounted colonial vessel sculpture.
The Venus was reportedly seized in Tasmania by a band of mutineers made up of crew members and convicts, including Charlotte Badger.(Supplied: Alex Robinson) Pakeha Maori were a legion of traders, whalers, sealers and escaped convicts — like Badger — who settled among Maori communities in the early 19th century, often embracing their customs. They were often under Maori protection, used to gain muskets and secure strategic advantage against colonial forces.

Complicit in colonisation, as settlers, their allegiances were nevertheless to the colonised rather than the European colonisers. Nomads of the Sea is narrated by a Pakeha Maori named simply Storyteller: a figure, face painted, wearing a black ceremonial costume. "Storyteller's voice-over is taken from an 18th-century account of a Pakeha Maoriwho lived up north who was watching what happened," says Reihana. "[During colonisation] the tribes were put to work preparing flax — the material from which you make ropes — and because they weren't planting the food, everybody starved."

 

Under a starry night sky a young boy surrounded by ferns sits on fallen tree trunk swings small tethered weights in each hand.
Reihana says that in reimagining history in her art, she is creating a space to examine racial and sexual politics.(Supplied: Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert) In the video, the struggle between European hierarchy and Maori tradition is symbolised by the figure of a mixed-race child. "My mother isn't scared of anything," he tells the viewer. Reihana doesn't reveal who his mother is. "My mother is English and Welsh and at some point, there would have been the first mixed-race child," she says.

A story of globalisation

Nomads of the Sea is set 30 years before the Treaty of Waitangi, the agreement between English officials and 500 Maori chiefs that would grant the British Empire sovereignty over New Zealand.

 

A woman with long dark curly hair and fierce expression in colonial blouse stands leaning forward ready for a confrontation.
Reihana says intermarriage, trading and muskets were considered essential to Maori survival in the early days of colonisation. (Supplied: Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert) For Reihana, the story of Charlotte Badger has as much to say about how the world of 19th century New Zealand is part of a cultural continuum that still exists today.

"We have fallen into the trap of globalisation and it's been coming for a long time. [Back then] there were all these histories rubbing up against each other, all these little stories. [Charlotte Badger's] moment was set among all these other historical things."

 

Nomads of the Sea will be exhibited on Cockatoo Island until September 6 as part of the Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN.

10 
of 49