Drawing attention to often sidelined and disenfranchised art and creators, Sydney’s 22nd Biennale curated by indigenous artist, Brook Andrew, has seized the opportunity to feature stories which all too often sit on the periphery of our national consciousness and place them at the centre of the Biennale.
Elizabeth Harris | Ed Francesca Gransden | 7 June 2020
Commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook arriving in Australia, the Biennale represents (alongside the building momentum of the #blacklivesmatter movement internationally) a crucible moment for our society and the treatment of First Nations people. Andrew has baptised the 2020 Biennale ‘NIRIN’, which means ‘edge’ in the language of the Wiradjuri people, who are the traditional custodians of western New South Wales. Brook Andrew describes the purpose of NIRIN as a place to uncover the ‘unresolved past anxieties’ of our contemporary lives, providing a forum for artists to ‘resolve, heal, dismember and imagine futures of transformation for re-setting the world.’ New Zealand multimedia artist Lisa Reihana’s contribution to the Biennale, Nomads of the Sea (2019), epitomises this ethos.
Reihana’s practice engages deeply with cross-cultural representation and time-warping intervention in historical visual culture. Her In Pursuit of Venus [Infected], shown at the 2017 Venice Biennale, was the result of a decade worth of labour. The ‘panoramic pantomime’ brings to life a 19th-century French wallpaper, entitled Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. The wallpaper was produced by Joseph Dufour, whose printing techniques were the height of innovation in Neoclassical France. Depicting scenes in an imagined Pacific society, Dufour idealised and invented, much in the manner of Paul Gaugin nearly a century later. Seizing on the fascination with the Pacific prompted by James Cook’s expeditions, Dufour’s work was inspired by Enlightenment beliefs.
Reihana’s piece, by contrast, adopts the aesthetic of the wallpaper to reveal a more nuanced vision of European-Polynesian interaction. Showing 65 vignettes over two screens and eight minutes of animation, Nomads of the Sea reminds us of the reality of Cook’s ventures into the Pacific – perhaps less concerned with recording the transit of Venus (the purpose for which he was sent on his voyage) and more about infecting the Pacific islands with British Imperialism. Nomads of the Sea explores the story of Charlotte Badger, a convict who became Australia’s first female pirate, and subsequently, one of the first Pākehā (white New Zealander) women to have lived in Aotearoa / New Zealand.
© Courtesy of the artist. In Pursuit of Venus, 2012 2-stream HD video with stereo sound on continuous loop at Singapore Art Museum (SAM)
Using Storyteller, a supernatural being that transcends gender and time, Reihana explores the tension between Charlotte and an Ngā Puhi woman, examining status, a commercial landscape newly complicated by the introduction of European weaponry, and the traditional roles of women in Europe, Aotearoa and colonial society. The dark blue light of the installation space draws the viewer back in time, transporting them to a new forum which allows one to reimagine the narratives of colonisation which, although received thinking, are not always correct or refined. Although digital art offers the possibility of providing immersive experiences which can disseminate revisional histories and question the status of works such as Les Sauvages, digital colonialism remains a concern. Although digital colonialism predominately refers to the tendency for technology to be deployed in ways that reinforce and endorse colonial power relations, it is also embodied by digital art which fails to recognise these biases or the marginalisation of digital works by First Nations artists.
By showcasing digital works by First Nations artists – not only that of Lisa Reihana but Barbara McGrady’s Our Ancestors Are Always Watching (2020) and Sammy Baloji’s Kasala – The Slaughterhouse of Dreams or the First Human, Bende’s Error (2019), among others – the Biennale challenges a Eurocentric history of art and gives space to post-colonial digital art. By questioning the colonial bias of art history and our society through digital art, these artists also highlight the colonial bias of technology itself. Breaking down the bipolarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, digital and analogue, in this way, the Biennale offers a window into a more understanding and welcoming history of art.
Lisa Reihana, In Pursuit of Venus (2017) at the Venice Biennale © Courtesy of the artist.
© Courtesy of the artist. Extract of Venus Infected by Lisa Reihana.
About the Artist
Lisa Reihana (@inpursuitofvenus) (b. 1964, Auckland) is an artist of Maori (Ngā Puhi) descent who works across multimedia, photography, costume, and sculpture. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Auckland University and a Masters in Design from Unitec Institute of Technology. Reihana was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018. She is represented by Art Projects in Auckland, Aotearoa / New Zealand, and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert (@gallerysallydancuthbert) in Sydney.
- In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-2017. Premiered at Auckland Art Gallery in 2015. Displayed at the 2017 Venice Biennale, representing New Zealand.
- Awarded an Arts Laureate Award by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2014.
- Awarded the Te Tohu Toi Ke Te Waka Toi Maori Arts Innovation Award by Creative New Zealand in 2015.
Past Shows and Fair Booths
- Mai i te aroha, ko te aroha, Museum of New Zealand; Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand (2008);
- Lisa Reihana: Digital Marae, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand (2007); and
- Native Portraits n.19897, Museo Laboratorio di Arte Contemporanea, Rome, Italy (2007).
- Oceania, Royal Academy, London, England (2018);
- Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists, Te Papa Tongarewa: Wellington, New Zealand (2018);
- Tai Whetuki – House of Death Redux, The Walters Prize 2016, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, New Zealand (2016);
- Suspended Histories, Museum Van Loon, Amsterdam, Netherlands (2013);
- Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, Canada (2011);
- Global Feminisms, Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA (2007); and
Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific, Asia Society Museum, New York (2004).
- Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney Contemporary 2019; and
- Milford Galleries Dunedin and Queenstown, Auckland Art Fair, 2018.