Māori artist Lisa Reihana’s conceptually provocative panorama, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (iPOVi), 2015-2017, is based on a fashionable early nineteenth-century French scenic wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (see the reproduction on view in the adjacent Bronfman Gallery), that capitalized on popular fascination with the voyages of Captain James Cook and other European “explorers” to the South Pacific. The wallpaper painted Pasifika peoples, cultures, and lands through a lens at once romanticizing and abstracting, embellishing primitivist colonial stereotypes of the “Noble Savage” and the “Dusky Maiden.”

Reihana says she “chose to transgress the wallpaper’s conventions. Well aware of the slippery nature of viewpoints and truth, I deliberately included scenes that show the risks of encounter and cultural conflicts… I used several techniques in my attempts to resist what I describe as the ‘festival gaze” (brown bodies on show).”

Reihana staged dances, ceremonies, and scenes of cross-cultural encounter and used digital strategies to suture live-action reenactments over a hand-painted backdrop appropriated from Les Sauvages. A soundtrack adds birdsong, ocean, Aboriginal singing, drumming, the ticking of the Royal Society’s clock, taonga puoro (Māori instruments), various voices and languages, and electronic rhythms. Compositionally, the seamless scrolling loop privileges the Māori conception of space-time, as non-linear, three-dimensional, and spiraling. Martin Rumsby notes that “the viewpoint here is a Native one, looking from the land toward the sea from which the eighteenth-century Europeans have arrived.”

Reihana destabilizes the dominant historical narrative of encounter, flipping the script to center Indigenous people as agents rather than subjects, privileging Native realities, experiences, and points of view. She vividly reframes the historical stereotypes that linger from Cook’s colonizing endeavors forward, challenging the imperial gaze—as she put it—“with a twist that disrupts previous notions of beauty, history, authenticity.” The critique embedded in the work is political, aesthetic, technological, and historical—rendered through a decolonial lens.

In ways that mark the distinction of Reihana’s vision and artistic practice, iPOVi accumulates new resonances with the colonial histories in every context of its presentation.  What does iPOVi look like in Massachusetts, against Eurocentric mythologies of “first encounter” and “Thanksgiving”? How does it resonate at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College?

About the Exhibition
The exhibition extends from the main Chandler Gallery presentation of in Pursuit of Venus [infected] to the adjacent Bronfman Gallery, which stages a 75% reproduction of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, the fashionable wallpaper that inspired Lisa Reihana, along with a print, The Head of a New Zealander of 1773, after an original rendering by Sydney Parkinson, shipboard artist to the HMS Endeavor, and a library table and chairs for perusal of titles on subjects related to Māori art and global Indigeneity.

In Pursuit of Venus [infected] premiered at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2015, represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017, and has been shown worldwide to great acclaim. See https://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/ for full production credits.

Curated by Lisa Fischman, Ruth Gordon Shapiro '37 Director of the Davis Museum, with research contributions from Annabel Brazaitis '22, Stephanie Fan '22, Chloe Pearce '21, and Isak Sjursen. The exhibition is generously supported by the Mildred Cooper Glimcher '61 Endowed Fund, the Davis World Cultures Fund, the Davis Museum Endowed Fund for International Cultural Programs, and Wellesley College Friends of Art at the Davis.

About Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique
The wallpaper’s title, which translates from the French most egregiously to “The Savages of the Pacific Ocean,” signals the ways in which this opulent panorama exoticized the representation of Indigenous peoples of the “South Seas”—solidifying and exploiting colonial tropes of “savage” otherness and reifying the vision of imperial France through luxurious interior design. This “colonial picturesque,” as Nicholas Thomas puts it, debuted at the Fourth Paris Industrial Exposition, opened by Emperor Napoleon in February 1806.

A feat of contemporary technical expertise, the wallpaper was designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet (1750–1829) and printed by Joseph Dufour et Cie (1742–1827); its twenty “drop” panels featured one thousand woodblock prints and hand painted elements. The imagery capitalized on popular fascination with the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook and the exploits of subsequent invaders. Adapted at a far remove from original sources, including the landscapes, figures, dress, and adornment depicted in the many drawings and paintings such voyages produced, the images have been further romanticized, classicized, and idealized into a complex colonial pastiche. The figures are garbed with a Grecian flourish in neo-classical drapery and set into paradisiacal Acadian scenes. The panels reinforce the racist underpinnings of Enlightenment thinking and embellish specific representational strategies used to depict encounters between colonizing “explorers” and Pasifika peoples and cultures. As Lisa Reihana writes: “This fascinating wallpaper is a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere.”

About The Head of a New Zealander
This print reproduces (in reverse) a pen and wash original by Sydney Parkinson, one of two artists aboard the HMS Endeavor. In style and treatment, it reflects Parkinson’s training as a botanical illustrator and the tenets of ethnographic depiction: it is guided by the conventions of “observational naturalism” and inflected by what might be called “imperial realism.”

One immediately wonders about the conditions of its production: Did the subject sit for the picture? How did artist and sitter communicate? What was involved in the exchange? Persuasion? Coercion? Force? Barter? Trade?

When Cook sailed from England to chart the 1769 Transit of Venus and to seek the continent of “Terra Australis Incognita,” he did so as an agent of imperial exploration, charged with the “discovery” and cataloguing of sea and sky, flora and fauna, and all natural resources—for king and crown. In the colonial view, Indigenous people were similarly categorized, and Cook’s orders were: “likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives….”

Colonial expansion and exploitation had devastating effects on the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific, rupturing traditional cultures and languages, incurring myriad losses, bringing disease, enforcing displacement. The imperative to collect produced fraught encounters; it happened by gift and trade, also by theft and violence. The material legacy of such voyages now resides largely in museums; by necessity, Lisa Reihana turned to such collections to reconstruct pre-contact Indigenous dress and adornment. 

Parkinson’s portraits, including this one, exoticized Indigenous sitters into types, stripping individuals from their network of relations and eliminating the complexities of full humanity. They were the first images of Māori warriors made for European audiences, and it would be hard to overstate their hold on the eighteenth-century European imagination—and far beyond. For Reihana, this portrait not only “is the most reproduced image from the entire archive of European travel,” but also “defined the conventions and stereotypes I am hoping to break.”   

About the Star Map
One entry wall in the gallery features a star map, which plots the Position of the Sun, Mercury, and Venus during the Transit of Venus as seen by James Cook from Tahiti, June 3, 1769, Papeete, French Polynesia.

When Cook set sail on the HMS Endeavour from Plymouth, England, on August 26, 1768 his was a planned voyage of circumnavigation, plotted in part to observe a celestial rarity, the Transit of Venus. Ahead lay a vast unknown: the Pacific Ocean covers almost one third of our planet and includes scores of islands. He was accompanied by naturalists, astronomers, cartographers, and—unusually—skilled artists, hired to document the much anticipated “discoveries” of a world little known to Europeans. A crucial addition to the crew was Tupaia, an extraordinarily skilled star navigator, mapmaker, translator, and ario (priest) from Ra’iatea who guided the ship to Tahiti and onward to Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia.

About the Artist
Lisa Reihana (b. 1964, Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a multi-disciplinary artist of Māori (Ngā Puhi) descent whose practice spans film, sculpture, costume and body adornment, text, and photography. Her work has been presented around the world: solo exhibitions include 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).

Important group exhibitions include 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 (2007); and Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific, Asia Society Museum, New York (2004).

Reihana was honored with an Arts Laureate Award by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2014, the Te Tohu Toi Ke Te Waka Toi Maori Arts Innovation Award from Creative New Zealand in 2015, and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2018.