Today I was privileged to give a floor talk at John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University. This short essay summarises my talk.
Lisa Reihana’s immersive wall video Emissaries is a stunning re-enactment of eighteenth-century Pacific encounters that brings the Indigenous participants to life, with the effect of questioning Western-centric histories. National debates about the past are often one-sided and rely on narratives produced by European historical actors such as Captain Cook and his companions. Through immersive video art, Lisa Reihana reveals the Indigenous side of these encounters, challenging any unified account of the past and creating a path towards reconciliation.
Her artwork ‘Emissaries’ is inspired by a magnificent wallpaper produced in France in 1805, intended to plunge bourgeois Europeans into the newly-discovered sights and cultures of the Pacific. Entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, with painter Jean-Gabriel Charvet, produced the largest panoramic wallpaper of their time, titled Savages of the Pacific (Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique). It was inspired by exciting new discoveries in the Pacific, particularly those made by Captain Cook, which captured the imaginations of many Europeans. In our own time, the discovery of life on other planets might spark such excitement and the expansion of horizons.
On Cook’s first great Pacific adventure (1768-1771) he travelled with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, surviving disease, shipwreck and encounters with a range of Indigenous peoples – some apparently manifesting Rousseau’s arcadian vision of ‘noble savages’ living in a tropical paradise. On Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) he ‘discovered’ the Hawaiian Islands. At first welcomed by the Hawaiians, who were fascinated by the Europeans’ ships and their use of iron, Cook then left for almost a year while he searched for a northwest passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. On return, coincidentally midway through a festival dedicated to the fertility god Lono, the British sailors were welcomed as gods. But after their departure, damage caused by rough weather necessitated their return just a week later: this time, their reception was unfriendly and violent, and the theft of a small cutter prompted an angry confrontation in which the Hawaiians overwhelmed the British and killed Cook.
In her staging of this and many other encounters, Reihana’s immersive video peoples the magnificent painted settings with living Maori, Hawaiian, Cook Islands, Samoan and Aboriginal actors alongside Western heroes such as Cook, Banks and Solander. Emissaries is a form of visual re-enactment – and like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional: it asks, what if we had understood both sides of the exchange? What if these meetings had been conducted between equals, in full acknowledgement of the richness of their different cultural traditions?
Postcolonial scholars have pointed to imperialism’s reliance upon notions of the belatedness of the non-European world, as all ideas, energy and progress were assumed to emanate from Europe. Historians have now challenged the view that the colonies and their Indigenous people were always following behind, their savagery and primitivism needing to be uplifted and transformed into European civilisation. Reihana’s speculative re-enactment mirrors the recent concern of historians to bring metropolis and colony into a shared space of exchange, posing a profound challenge to one-sided imperial histories that celebrated conquest of Indigenous peoples.
In these encounters our view is no longer governed by British assumptions or interests: by bringing alive the Indigenous actors, we are shown their world view – their side of the beach – and they move from being props to playing main parts. The death of Cook can be seen as a terrible misunderstanding rather than a brutal attack by savages, a tragedy to be respectfully and ceremoniously acknowledged, commemorated, mourned.
Reihana’s meticulously researched re-enactment does not re-write the course of history- rather she opens it up to understanding the previously silent or hidden Indigenous side of the encounter. How does she do this? Emissaries is about more than simply seeing history come to life, as Reihana translates these encounters into the mode of traditional performance: through rhythm, music and ritual these well-known events are imbued with Indigenous meaning. She slows down the pace of these events from action-packed Hollywood drama to gracious ritual. The amazing soundscape governs our emotional response – for example when a Hawaiian sings over Cook’s dead body, violence transcended by spirit and recognition.
Like many Indigenous cultures, Reihana uses performance as a way of telling a shared story and giving the past meaning in the present. There is often a moral logic at work within traditional performance that conveys an Indigenous world-view. In this way Reihana employs re-enactment to de-colonise Western historical narratives, stripping away notions of primitivism, revealing the richness and beauty of Pacific tradition, and bringing both sides into the same shared space of encounter and uncertainty.
In the present, Emissaries’ irruptions of the past offer haunting counter-narratives to our stories of national progress that rely on Western dominance and progress. In her own words, Reihana explained ‘I was really inspired to create a work that kind of spoke back through time. Just kind of readdressed some of the look of the wallpaper and certainly to put a stake in the ground. And say yes Indigenous people are strong and yes we are still here.’