When New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana was introduced to the Dufour wallpaper panorama Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique at National Gallery of Australia, she recognised the potential for developing the panorama as a video installation.
Post Colonial: In Pursuit of Venus
As a multi-channel filmmaker (and I would add, designer), there was a perfect fit between projection technology and the Dufour designs. Given Reihana’s heritage, and connections with Polynesian and Maori culture in New Zealand, she saw the opportunity for re-working the colonial encounters as a post-colonial work. Six years in the making, the work was completed in 2014.
The sensibilities of European views and representations of Les Sauvages have changed in many ways however to give the work its strength, it was necessary to use many of the codes that existed in Dufour’s work. Simply put, her design tropes needed to look as if they were constructed over two centuries ago.
Design choices were made, both about the narratives contained within the work, and the digital construction of the mise-en-scene. The palette of colours needed to reflect the limitations of wood blocking techniques circa 1800. For example, some of the tree trunks were originally produced using just two colours, while the grass mainly consisted of three colours.
Design has clearly played a significant role in all the production elements and one of the most important was to change the static representations of the various Pacific Island communities into live actions. The inclusion of continually moving tableaus enabled a variety of micro-narratives to represent more faithfully Polynesian cultural mores and ontologies. For example, Lisa recognised in the Dufour scenes, clothes and costumes looked more like Roman togas instead of the traditional tapa clothes which are made from the bark of the mulberry tree. Importantly, tapa cloth informs significant cultural practices as well as fulfilling its role in everyday dress.
Lisa also brings a contemporary approach to what was the colonial narrative of the late 18th century. In an interview with Lisa (now part of the installation), there is an acknowledgement she is of mixed descent herself, and that the interactions in her work intentionally give the audience possibilities of various interpretations. The viewpoints are considered as complex sets of values, which contain not one defining point of view, rather the possibility of immersion in the work from various critical perspectives. However, as Lisa says in the work there are narratives that show, “…real Pacific peoples engaged in their own ceremonies.”
Crucially, there is significant interaction between the European and the Polynesians not present in the 1804 version, but Lisa avoids simple binaries in her work. There are tensions between the two cultures certainly, but also between the islanders themselves. The constant shifting of the mise-en-scene makes the interactions between the Europeans and the Polynesians ebb and flow and specific judgment of the action is often suspended as the scene moves out of sight to the left of the screen. We are left with multiple ways of seeing the work according to the ways in which we shift focus on the scenes.
What this gradual shift across the screens does so effectively is make possible variable interpretations. No one viewing is ever the same as the eye is taken on a journey within and across the landscape of ideas, practices, interactions and beliefs. There is latitude and longitude, time and space in her mesmerising work.
It is designed not just as a simple polemic about the evils of colonialism but a collection of 65 vignettes that she hopes anyone in the audience can relate to in one way or another.
Dr Charles Zuber