One of the foremost multimedia artists of her generation, Lisa Reihana is renowned for creating works that reinterpret and reinvigorate traditional Maori stories and knowledge. Mareikura are noble, celestial, or supernatural maidens—or treasured, esteemed and dear ones—and articule is honoured to host them in the most comprehensive Canadian presentation of Reihana’s work to date.
Visitors are greeted by the regal Hinenuitepo, guardian of death, dreams, and the underworld, from Reihana’s major installation Mai i te aroha, ko te aroha (From love comes love) at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 1988.1 Reihana’s depiction of this mythological figure followed the birth of her notable Digital Marae series.2 These photographic and video re-interpretations of female atua (deities) and tipuna (ancestors) represent a radical shift in the history of New Zealand art, since Maori pouwhenua (ancestral figures), were traditionally sculpted in wood, mainly by men, and located only within the marae’s whare whakairo (meeting house).3
Also transgressive is Hinenuitepo’s polymorphous combination of male and female ta moko (tattoos) and other gender markers, which identify him/her/them as takatāpui—individuals who perform key social and spiritual roles, whose partner is the same gender. As Reihana has stated, “I want my marae to be a place… where all people feel welcome, and there is a place for everybody.”4 By inflecting her work with her personal values, Reihana is redefining both Maori mythology and contemporary identity.
Another ambivalent, but more formal welcome is performed in Silent Karanga, a video featuring acclaimed Maori singer Whirimako Black. Framed by blocks of ochre and black patterns recalling the intricate designs of woven flax, the video presents Black’s emotional rendering of a karanga (a welcome on the marae), a song absent of sound, punctuated only by the appearance of a mute, animated Tui bird. Despite the expressivity of her face, the diva is silent, lips moving in a welcome impossible to hear. With eloquent restraint, this karanga evokes the chasm of misunderstanding in colonial encounters, as well as the loss of language and tradition.
This chasm is addressed once again in Reihana’s most ambitious work to date, the two-channel video installation, in Pursuit of Venus.5 Its inspiration is Joseph Dufour’s panoramic, multi-paneled wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804–05), which capitalized on the popular fascination with the travels of Captain Cook, among others.6 A technical triumph of its era, Les Sauvages presented a utopian Tahitian landscape enlivened by a panoply of Maori, Pacific and Aborigine people, even figures apparently from two areas on North America’s northwest coast. All, however, are wearing Hellenic dress, unveiling a neoclassical fantasy of the primitive, noble savage—and offering to the opulent homes it papered what Reihana has acerbically labeled, “colonial voyeurism as entertainment.”7
The brilliance of Reihana’s work is that the individuals in the wallpaper spring to life as the camera slowly pans across them, giving them voice, action, and historical precision. Working with a massive team of technical, acting and dance specialists, she has integrated laughing, moving, singing people, meticulously tattooed and accurately dressed. This restoration of agency, voice, cultural difference. and truth to the individuals depicted in Les Sauvages movingly subverts stereotypes that remain only too alive today.
Reinscribing, retranslating, and rewriting history are all key to redres-sing colonial legacies and advancing decolonization. With the elegance and force of a well-honed tool, Lisa Reihana’s body of work carves a distinctive Maori vision of the universe, past, present and future.
Text by Rhonda L. Meier
1 “Lisa Reihana, Tales from Te Papa, Episode 19,” at https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=PVKZW2Y_ZxI
2 A marae is an open community space with buildings for ceremony, celebration, and discussion. Mere Whaanga, “Marae management – te whakahaere marae,” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Aug-13
3 Anna White, “Lisa Reihana: a radical Māori artist,” (working copy) Nga hau e wha, Papakura Art Gallery, Papakura, New Zealand, 2012, 1,5.
4 Quoted from “Global Feminisms—Lisa Reihana”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqRCuJUxpLo
5 Her title may reference both Cook’s quest to observe the transit of Venus across the sun and the amorous fantasization underlying countless colonial encounters.
6 Lisa Reihana, Restaging Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique: Theoretical and Practical Concerns, Master of Design thesis, Unitec Institute of Technology, 2012, 14.
7 Tattoos, for instance, were deemed too “challenging” (or, likely, titillating), and thus eliminated—an insult in societies where they held such status and import.