For over thirty years, Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngaituteauru) has told Māori stories and explored Indigenous issues using tools and techniques drawn from pop culture and mass media. When she presented her monumental video panorama in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (iPOV) at the Venice Biennale in 2017, it opened up opportunities to tell our stories on an international stage. iPOV has now been shown in over twenty cities around the world, and has led to further commissions—including a ‘moving digital fresco’ for renowned French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, whom Reihana met in Venice. This year, the artist has been working at a dizzying pace, shooting Groundloop, a new video work for the opening of Sydney Modern at the Art Gallery of New South Wales later this year, and completing new commissions as ‘artist in focus’ for the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, where her work is being shown at Te Papa and Pātaka, and on the waterfront. Collectively titled Kura Moana, her works on the waterfront use sculpture, projected video, and augmented reality to activate the site.
Zoe Black: Kura Moana addresses journeying and navigation. Navigation stories have long been an influence on your work.
Lisa Reihana: I’ve been researching Kupe’s histories and their connection to my Ngāpuhi whakapapa. There are really amazing waka stories from all over the Pacific and, of course, from the Far North and Hokianga Harbour. I’ve always loved them and I’ve talked to many people who’ve shared their own stories about Pacific navigation. Kupe travelled down the East Coast, and on to Wellington—so his journey felt like a cultural connector and permission for this Ngāpuhi girl to make these works for Wellington. During Kupe’s journey, he stayed for a time around Porirua. After arriving, he didn’t stake his waka on the shore. When questioned, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Matahourua will come back’, because he knew the water currents would return his waka, even if it floated far away. Now some Porirua locals contrast Kupe’s insight with the water issues they are experiencing—toxic runoff may seem to disappear out at sea, but shit comes back! Kupe’s knowledge continues to have relevance to life today. My dad’s Māori name is Huriwaka, which means ‘when a waka changes course’, perhaps at the turn of the tide or the bend of a river.
I liken this redirection to the possibilities the future holds. This was a gift my father gave me when he changed tack and left his rural life, relocating to the big smoke that is Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Navigators are connectors—they are brave and smart, show us possibilities and new directions, and bring things together.
You describe the moana as a feminine force and look to the vital Indigenous knowledge that can be found in its influence.
I love that there are māreikura, female entities, throughout our pūrākau that drive men wild. Kupe was so incensed that his food was being poached by the octopus Te Wheke-a-Muturangi that he chased her across the ocean, leaving behind his home in Tahiti. When he caught up to her, he bashed her head so hard that her blood rippled on the ocean’s surface. The sacred substance created a pattern that was used as a navigational tool. Kupe followed that trail of blood until he and his entourage eventually discovered Aotearoa. It is a beautiful and poetic way of describing the natural world via spiritual means. And it’s not just our wheke—the moana relates to the feminine, too. These stories of amazing female entities are monumental, epic. My job is to convey this feeling of awe to an audience.
Kura Moana includes a fifteen-metre inflatable octopus, as one of the representations of Te Wheke-a-Muturangi. Floating in Whairepo Lagoon, her tentacles are animated by the ebb and flow of the sea. She dances on the water’s surface, caressing the ocean. Rendered in candy colours, she’s divine and mischievous. Her tentacles stretch across the lagoon, suggesting the reach of the fearless traveller.
And, above the lagoon, another work, Pūrākau, uses augmented reality to reveal a magical wheke, hovering between Para Matchitt’s navigational pouwhenua on the City to Sea Bridge. Passers-by can use their smartphones to activate views of this animated atua, played by my collaborator Jahra Wasasala, as she recites a poem while taking selfies and doing her makeup. Here, Te Wheke becomes the goddess personified, alluring and mysterious.
Kura Moana extends along Tauranga Wharf to William Trethewey’s sculpture Kupe Raiatea, showing Kupe, his wife Hine-te-aparangi, and the tohunga Pekahourangi. Many walk past this sculpture every day. What made you want to draw attention to it?
William Trethewey’s statue is interesting because of its Māori–Pacific deco style, and it speaks directly to the concepts of Kura Moana. Trethewey made it in 1940, and it was described as ‘a tribute to all who come to these shores’. I’m interested in where he and other artists sit when they’re creating—this is his vision of Pacific history. It’s such a well known and loved work, I wanted to reinvigorate it, to make people look at it in a new light.
For the duration of the Festival, Trethewey’s sculpture will be adorned with lei, gifted by local communities, echoing traditional practices where poupou are dressed with korowai or kākahu for ceremonies, showing the mana of the carved figure. With this activation, you’re bringing Hine-te-aparangi to life.
I was inspired by the tradition of placing feathers around your ancestors. As the wind currents catch the feathers, they move—it’s like the ancestors are talking and are present for that moment. I’ve been moved by seeing statues of ancestors in Hawai‘i being majestically adorned—so simple, but so powerful.
And you’ve paired the statue with the incredibly evocative waiata ‘Aotearoa’ that speaks to the first sighting of this land by Hine-te-aparangi.
When I was an art student, I had a cassette of Ngatai Huata’s rendition of ‘Ko Wai Ka Hua’ and listened to it continuously. I know that not nearly enough people have heard this music because it was released well before the Māori radio networks began and it’s impossible to find because Ngatai is rightly protective of her work. I’ve always loved, loved, loved that song and I wanted to bring attention to it and to her, so I met Ngatai to ask for permission to play ‘Aotearoa’ beside Kupe Raiatea. Trethewey posed Hine-te-aparangi pointing outwards, presumably at the moment when she sees Aotearoa. Huata created a beautiful and haunting waiata that captures this historic moment, this time highlighting a woman’s voice and perspective. I was so lucky to receive her approval.
Your new video, Tableau Vivant, imagines Tretheway’s studio as he creates preparatory studies for the sculpture, as people model for Kupe, Pekahourangi, and Hine-te-aparangi. The video is projected onto Te Papa’s lagoon, while iPOV (2017) and Native Portraits n.19897 (1997) are displayed inside Te Papa. Why show them together?
I’d never have made iPOV without having made Native Portraits. In Native Portraits I was looking at historical photographs and imagining what happened in the minutes before and after they were taken—what being photographed meant to the subjects.
Now, in Te Papa, Native Portraits and iPOV are presented in Toi Art, where a multitude of ancestors adorn the walls. It’s a community of tūpuna placed against a rich-red wall in a salon hang. So there’s a triangulation between those works. There are many conversations going on and it’s those conversations you’re witnessing. It’s about ancestors, how we see them and our history. It’s also about time, and how we understand memory.
You use time-based media to tell stories, but, within your works, time is not always linear. You cite the whakataukī ‘Ka mua, ka muri’ (walking backwards, into the future). Sometimes it feels that you’re connecting to the past, the present, and the future at once.
Time is a treasure, and I think about the things that time leaves behind—the trace and the memory. I extracted a single video frame of my father from Native Portraits, and had it laser etched in granite. My interest was around the notions of time and its relation to technology. I knew that the digital version I used to create the work would eventually become obsolete, but that fleeting split-second of video footage would remain and become permanent because it was written in stone. I saw that portrait recently—it hasn’t been on show for some time. Here he is displayed as an art work, instead of how we would normally see photographs of our loved ones, on the marae wall. I hadn’t seen it since my dad passed away. All I wanted to do was hongi him. Memories of the day it was taken flooded in, both a wonderful and a painful feeling.
E ngau kino nei te aroha e hoa.
With the pandemic, you’ve been working more locally, including making a permanent installation, Ihi (2020), for the foyer of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s Aotea Centre. It tells the story of Rangi and Papa being separated by Tāne, ushering in te ao marama. In the foyer, it’s presented on a nine-metre LED screen. Ihi was also included in Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. How did you approach telling the story?
Actually, I wanted the work to centre around the relationship between a mother and her son—Tāne ripping his mother and father apart is a monumentally destructive act. I cast two powerful performers—Tāne Mete and Nancy Wijohn—to represent the atua and māreikura. So Ihi speaks to gender politics, but it’s also paradoxical to have two takatāpui enacting our creation stories. Tāne and Nancy are old friends, but hadn’t seen each other for a long time before we did the shoot. So those beautiful poses where they’re holding each other, it’s genuine love.
Toi Tū Toi Ora also included Digital Marae (1995–2001), your earlier depictions of atua presented as figures with commanding strength and vitality. They are like modern pouwhenua.
I think of the Digital Marae portraits as carvings rather than photographs. There’s been the idea that women shouldn’t carve. So being able to use other tools like lens-based technology allowed me to start breaking into different types of work, to transgress cultural norms and break the mould. My sister Shiree is a great weaver, and I love the symbolic storytelling weaving has, but to tell character-based creation stories I needed to create augmented figural representations. This helps the audience to understand our human qualities and frailties as emanating from the ancestors.
Costuming plays a big role in your works, whether it’s chainmail and combat boots, or fishnets and feathers. Is it a way of bringing in physical making when you’re largely working in digital spaces?
My grandmother Sylvia was a fashion designer and a costume maker. She was wardrobe mistress for the Wellington Operatic Society. She always made things, and when we were children she and my mum made all our clothing. I grew up watching my dad making and fixing things, too. Even though people associate me with the digital, I enjoy making with my hands. How we adorn our bodies—how fashion can tell a story, how it can make us feel, how we want people to perceive us—it’s a really important aspect of my work. The costuming helps convey to the audience what the gods are like—their majesty, beauty, and power.
In your work, there’s a synergy between pop aesthetics and Indigenous concerns. What draws you to the languages of pop culture?
Early on in my art making, I couldn’t help but be influenced by local media. I remember when there was just one, and then two television stations. You cannot underestimate how the characters and programmes were so pervasive in New Zealand society then—we weren’t drowning in content! So what we drew on was a shared language, universal to the community consciousness. Later I was influenced by my inner-city peers like the Pacific Sisters and the Planet magazine crew. We were making work for each other, talking to each other through our work. This wasn’t just within Aotearoa, it was international too. We were all creating, reformatting, broadcasting, and sharing as it suited our needs. Indigenous artists are experts at co-opting tools. We are drawn to innovative ideas, we use them to shape our messages. This still suits my practice today.
Your three-channel video Nomads of the Sea (2018) featured in Nirin, the 2020 Sydney Biennale, and now it’s being shown at Pātaka. It reimagines the tale of Charlotte Badger. She is said to have stolen a brig and sailed from Tasmania to Te Tai Tokerau to become the first Pākehā woman to live with Ngāpuhi iwi. Most people won’t have heard of her. What made you consider her story for this work?
Being of mixed blood myself, I was thinking about the first bicultural child. I realise Charlotte Badger’s story is contested, but she’s so intriguing. The early 1800s is definitely an interesting time, because it predates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and usually these stories are told from a male perspective. I wanted to reverse that idea and examine it from both a European and a Māori woman’s perspective. There were so many connections between iPOV and Charlotte’s story that I couldn’t ignore. The brig she stole in 1804 was called Venus, and this was the year the panoramic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, which inspired iPOV, was produced in France. Nomads of the Sea counters the wallpaper’s utopian aspirations with other depictions of what life may have been like for women.
The technology you used in Nomads was another first for you. What was it like filming in 3D?
Working in non-standard formats, and filming large scale at high quality, makes production really expensive and much harder. (Even cinemas aren’t set up for multiple-projector delivery or 15K playback.) So we have to build our own computers and render farms, and develop a technical pathway for each project. We continue to break the mould—that’s just what we do.
How did you approach making the video Groundloop, your new commission for the opening of Sydney Modern later this year?
The concept is that of a blessing. I wanted to bless the building on a daily basis, to make visible the cultural protocols that ensure people are safe—so there’s lots of smoke in it, intangible presences, waiata, acknowledgements. My vision is of a smoking ceremony that blesses the building, and conceptually blesses the artworks that have come from the old AGNSW building and are now on show in the Sydney Modern. That smoke also represents the invitation for me to make Groundloop.
Did presenting iPOV at Venice change how you approach these kinds of commissions?
At Venice the scale is just amplified—the exposure to the art cogniscenti, the attention it raises, and the sheer numbers that get to experience it. I knew iPOV would have universal appeal, and New Zealand did too, once it saw the huge visitation and fantastic response it received during its first presentation at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. And it did stand out at Venice, which changed the game for me. To be clear, I made iPOV for Māori, Pacific, and our local audiences, to show we can be as big and monumental as we’re prepared to go. Venice has opened opportunities because I’ve demonstrated the ability to deliver highly technical projects. But more important are the cross-cultural discussions and the collaborations, which are the hardest and most rewarding to achieve.
Groundloop explores the potential future of traditional Indigenous customs and continues your focus on the sea and navigation.
The smoke signal follows an unbroken path, the floor of the Tasman Sea as it connects Australia to Aotearoa. We arrive at Hokianga, my tribal homeland, and a historic site of travel and communication between our nations. From there, we launch a futuristic waka hourua, with kaitiaki supporting the journey—they may be sea creatures or mythological figures. I include creation stories, the dreaming, pathways, ocean navigation and mapping. For example, Māori liken the Milky Way to a waka, while Aboriginal creation stories see it as an emu. We use CGI and animation to show Indigenous knowledge as something that’s both ancient and new, and generative. I am creating a magical world where the moana, the ocean, is the connector.
The work features a call and response between your ancestral harbour Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe and Woolloomooloo, honouring the rituals and customs of the people from both lands and across the moana.
I’ve scoped this idea of a waka hourua, our ocean-voyaging waka, travelling across the sea to Australia. An Indigenous crew travels to an alternative, futuristic world—one where cultural knowledge takes precedence. The central character is a female navigator—I like to play with gender—and there’s an elder and a young girl in the crew too, because I wanted to represent intergenerational care. My original premise for Groundloop was much more dystopian, but I decided against it. I didn’t want to add that energy into the world. I want to draw forth something else.
This project seems like a circle back to the beginning of your career, when you had your residency in Australia in 1988.
In 1988, I took up an artist residency at the Australian Centre for Photography. During that year I connected with incredible artists, many of whom I’m still connecting with today. I can trace lots of projects and connections, not just in Australia but with many First Nations people, back to this residency, and I’ve been able to work on some incredible projects because of it. I was making Wog Features at the time, and there was a growing awareness of politics and Indigenous issues. I see Groundloop as kind of finalising the aspirations of the residency, initiated to create better understanding between Māori and First Australian cultures. I took that challenge to heart and it has continued to guide my practice ever since.
In a way, Groundloop is the culmination of those hopes, because now I’m collaborating with the Aboriginal artist and animator Jake Duczynski, and we’re making a beautiful thing. And it’s going to be good for his Sydney-based company Studio Gilay. He’ll be able to say, ‘this is my work too’. Our work will be up there on that massive screen. You never know where things will end up. Good things do take time.
Kura Moana ©Lisa Reihana 2022, commissioned by Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts.
Lisa Reihana presented exhibitions in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington as part of Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts: in Pursuit of Venus [infected] at Te Papa (15 October 2021–27 March 2022), Kura Moana on Wellington Waterfront (25 February–20 March 2022), and Nomads of the Sea at Pātaka Art + Museum, Porirua (3 March–3 July 2022). Sydney Modern will open later this year at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.