Lisa Reihana Emissaries
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A rich and tender alternative

Perth Festival review: “Emissaries” by Lisa Reihana ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Lisa Reihana’s “Emissaries” takes as its starting point a tapestry made in 1805, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. At the time, the popular tapestry provided an escapist-style insight into the lives and cultures of the First Nations peoples of the Pacific – told, of course, through the eyes of the white colonialists.

Reihana, who is of Māori and British descent, seeks to redress this one-sided depiction by reimagining vignettes of early contact between the First Nations peoples of the Pacific and European explorers. I had already seen this work at the Venice Biennale, so I was surprised to discover that the show has expanded, the more spacious and modern venue giving it room to breathe. The sleek rooms of John Curtin Gallery provide a series of antechambers, and, walking deeper into the show toward the rumbling, creaking soundtrack of Reihana’s epic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], I felt that I was entering the hull of a ship.

As an entrance, the first room shows portraits of certain ‘emissaries’, including Joseph Banks, astronomer and explorer, and the Chief Mourner of the Society Islands, a mysterious figure who can move between worlds. It is clear that these emissaries aren’t just from another time, but another place – otherworldly shadows. Reihana’s digital photography gives the figures a contemporary feel, whilst their garb and formal attitudes hearken back to Enlightenment portraiture. These are augmented by historical material from the Kerry Stokes Collection, a series of original eighteenth and nineteenth century works on paper depicting Captain Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific. History and fiction are combined to create a more complex narrative of colonialism, discovery, and myth-making.

This first two rooms provide an elegant introduction to the cinematic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. You can hear it echoing through the gallery, but you can’t see it until you face the single shadowy portrait of a Nootka ancestor and totem and enter the final room.

Here, the suggestions of Enlightenment values, colonial histories and reclaimed narratives become strikingly clear. The panoramic video uses modern imaging technology to digitally animate moments of Pacific life at the time of the original tapestry’s inception. It’s hypnotising and incredibly rich in detail.

Many of the stories show people simply living their culture: dancing, sparring, and singing. There are moments of humour (a grown man pretends to labour and joyfully birth another grown man) and, frequently, moments of confusion, violence, and awkwardness that come with groups of people with no common language or culture meeting for the first time. Sometimes they interact by exchanging tokens and gestures of friendliness. Sometimes the Europeans are shown to be painting the Pacific Islanders, presumably to bring home the taxonomic images we’ve just seen in the previous room. And sometimes it ends in unspeakable violence – lashings, murder, a disembodied limb.

As the soundtrack grows louder, the vignettes reach a breaking point – with weeping and agonised screams, and waves are breaking loudly nearby. But everything keeps on moving. Even the satisfying moment of Captain Cook’s murder by a Hawai’ian doesn’t stop the slow march of history. The moment of the fatal blow reverberates for just a minute – the people recoil and sit in stunned silence – before the moment rolls by.

“Emissaries” is a richly woven tapestry of its own, retelling historical narratives with inventiveness and tenderness. It’s a comment on what we think of as history, how we come to accept narratives, and who gets to tell these stories. Just as the narrative of In Pursuit of Venus [infected] cycles through its story without a clear beginning or end, Reihana’s work is never-ending.  Time is not linear, and history is always repeating itself – the implications of colonialism are always continuing in both new and old forms. Reihana’s work seeks to redress an imbalance, and to correct the record. It is, of course, partly fictionalised, but then, who is to say the accepted narratives we already think we know are real?

Emissaries runs at John Curtin Gallery until April 29.

Top: Lisa Reihana, detail in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Ultra HD video, colour, sound, 64 min. Image courtesy of the artist and New Zealand at Venice.

Miranda Johnson is an arts worker from Perth. She spent the past few years in London working as a record store clerk whilst studying an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Upon returning to Perth, she has been working for some of Perth’s major contemporary arts institutions, as well as co-directing Moana Project Space, an artist-run initiative. Miranda also sings in indie-pop choir Menagerie and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories.

For the duration of Perth Festival, Miranda is part of its customer service team.