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.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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.
"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."