One day several years ago, Lisa Reihana was walking through a Canberra museum with her partner when something caught his eye. It was a set of French woodblock designs for wallpaper dating from the 19th century, depicting the colonial encounters of Captain Cook. They were called Savages of the Pacific Ocean.
The New Zealand artist bought the catalogue but thought little more of it until she was commissioned to make a super-wide video projection and was casting around for ideas. “I came across the catalogue,” she says, “and thought, ‘Eureka! I just need to bring this to life.’”
And so began 10 years of toil, the first spent just figuring out the pixel ratio. The result – called In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] – brought Reihana international recognition. This epic piece of living, moving, animated wallpaper eventually led to her representing New Zealand at last year’s Venice Biennale, where it was described as the best exhibit by critics including those from the Spectator and the Sunday Times.
It is now acting as the grand finale of Oceania, the UK’s first major survey of Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian art, which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, marking the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyages to the Pacific Islands.
The original wallpaper – depicting the three expeditions made between 1768 and 1779 – adorned dining and drawing rooms across Europe and North America. But, says Auckland-born Reihana, the scenes they recreated were “a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere”
The greenery, for example, was transplanted not from Polynesia but from South America, which Jean Gabriel Charvet, the Frenchman who designed the wallpaper, had recently visited. Similarly, the idealised, pale-skinned locals are dressed in neoclassical costumes inspired more by what had recently been dug up at Pompeii than by anything from Hawaii or Tahiti.
The 20 sheets of wallpaper, comprising more than 1,000 woodblock prints, were a technological triumph in their day. The ability to manufacture long drops was a spinoff from advances made in the creation of hot air balloons. Both offered exciting new ways of seeing the world.
Reihana’s own attempt to recast the European fabrication is a hi-tech marvel for this century. The projection is 22.5 metres wide, lasts 64 minutes, and has 1,500 digital layers made up of more than three trillion pixels. Backing up the project, which was completed at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings post-production facility in Wellington, can consume an entire weekend.
Reihana, whose mother was born in Britain and whose father’s Māori roots can be traced back at least seven generations, was keen to insert complexity at every turn. Her “panoramic pantomime” boasts 70 vignettes that slowly scroll across the hand-painted landscape. Historic and imagined scenes featuring indigenous actors are accompanied by an evocative soundscape. The work of James Pinker, Reihana’s partner, it includes dialogue in several Pacific languages.
“I thought that if I took people’s language away,” says Reihana, “it was almost like another colonisation – in not allowing the actors to speak their truth.”
The artist frequently plays with gender. There is a man pretending to give birth and an indigenous person pulling down Cook’s breeches. “Because they couldn’t see his genitals and he didn’t sleep with the local women,” she explains, “they didn’t know if he was a male or a female.”
The giant moving tableau also depicts men wrestling, a kava-drinking ceremony, haka and hula dances, the trading of iron for sexual favours, several floggings and Cook’s violent death. The RA has organised private and public blessing ceremonies for indigenous groups to honour the show’s sacred exhibits. Three-quarters of the objects come from European collections, and since the show opened on September 29 one Solomon Islands museum director has already called for the return of a seven-metre-long, crocodile-shaped feast trough, which was looted by a British captain in 1891. Prior to the opening, he was not aware of its existence.
For Reihana, the removal of artworks from their countries of origin is more than a lofty debate. She says she struggled to persuade indigenous communities to act out her scenes because of it. “Some people have been devastated by colonisation and they’re too scared to even give something over because it’s like you’re taking something again and again.”
Rather than a one-way return of disputed works, she advocates a “circulation” of artefacts. In return, the indigenous institutions would lend new pieces. “Circulation is really interesting with the Tahitian people, in terms of their tattoo culture. Because cultural practices were banned, they look to the patterns on these objects and start to employ them on to the body. So they become living and part of the general
However, she believes there can be no compromise when it comes to the repatriation of exhibits containing human remains. “You want your people and your bones back, right?”
When I ask Reihana and Pinker if it is unusual in artistic couples for the man to take the back seat while the woman has her name above the shop, I get blank looks from both. They um and ah, before Reihana finally declares: “We’re from New Zealand, right, so we gave the vote to women first. It’s just normal. It’s a generalisation. But I think, because we’ve got a much smaller population, there’s less hierarchy and ideas move quite quickly.”
Pinker mentions the fact that the country is now led by Jacinda Ardern – “a young woman prime minister,” he says, “who we adore.”
“She’s just had a baby!” exclaims Reihana as Pinker adds: “She’s unmarried, in parliament running the place, and she’s absolutely brilliant.”
Both are fearful about New Zealand becoming a luxury bolthole for Silicon Valley billionaires, who have been buying up land as a haven from any future apocalypse. Pinker points out that a lot of it is “Māori land that was confiscated”, while Reihana says: “I think it’s terrible, it worries me.”
They view Brexit as “a shambles”, yet also sense an opportunity for renewed trade links with New Zealand, neglected since Britain joined what was then the EEC in 1973. (Incidentally, an RA insider told me the sponsorship of the exhibition by the governments of New Zealand, Tonga and Papua New Guinea was probably done with at least one eye on these new economic horizons.)
Reihana has mixed feelings about the Commonwealth. News of the Windrush scandal made it to New Zealand, leaving a bitter taste that contrasts with the news that Harry and Meghan will visit Oceania on their first royal tour. “At its best, the Commonwealth should be this free flow of people between multiple cultures,” says Reihana. But she refers to the “fraught histories” tied up in what Pinker dubs “the decaying empire” and admits: “Oh gosh, some people hate it.”
She recalls how her friend greeted the Queen on a visit to Waitangi in 1990 by throwing a wet T-shirt at her. “It was a massive insult,” she says. “She was a lawyer and she defended herself – and invoked the right to speak in Te Reo Māori. All of her arguments were conducted in Māori.”
As her work takes pride of place in the RA’s largest gallery, Reihana says she does not expect Brits to feel guilt watching its brutal scenes of colonisation. So what does she want? “To indicate there’s a level of complexity. To elicit some kind of empathy and alert people to some of that history. But I’m not really pointing the finger at anyone.”
• Oceania is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 10 December.