Face to face

Alumni achievers, f2 — By on May 24, 2017 4:33 pm

Lisa Reihana (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Hine and Ngāi Tu) Bachelor of Fine Arts 1988, Creative Arts and Industries

Lisa Reihana is one of New Zealand’s most important contemporary artists. Right now her work is wowing the world as New Zealand’s 2017 entry to the Venice Art Biennale. She has exhibited in New York, Liverpool, Brisbane and many cities around the world. In 2014 she was a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate. Her works feature in NZ collections at Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery, New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewser; and the University owns three.

But just as Lisa doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed in life, neither is it easy to pigeon hole her art. It has encompassed video, animation, story-telling,sculpture, textiles, performance, sound and photography. She is described as a filmmaker who makes art, has been coupled with Michael Parekowhai as a maker of “ethno pop”, and has been hailed “as a New Zealand pioneer of media art, utilising technology to create new ways to explore Māori culture”.

Meet Lisa with her cheeky grin, and you quickly sense she is a natural “disrupter”.

“I have always been on the crest of something new.”

This may have started when she was growing up in a no-exit street in Blockhouse Bay, where the neighbouring children ganged together to rescue native frogs and to barricade the street’s entrance, making their parents pay a toll to enter.

Her father worked as “a lineman for the county” with the Auckland Electric Power Board while her mother was an amateur actress with Little Dolphin Theatre in Onehunga. “Mum was a maker and a dress maker. She made all our clothes.”

Her grandmother was a wardrobe mistress for the New Zealand Opera Company and owned a haberdashery
in New Lynn, where Lisa and her three sisters were models.

“I grew up around people fixing and making things.

“Going to the theatre all the time with Mum opened my eyes to a community and how it takes a whole lot of people to create a live event.”

A self-proclaimed “social butterfly”, Lisa was in the top class at Lynfield College, where her teacher Beverley Austin encouraged her to go to Art School.

But it was a whole different world from the Blockhouse Bay cul de sac. “There were very few students of Māori descent at Elam [and no marae on campus at the time]. I felt singled out sometimes. This makes you super aware of yourself and that’s where a knowledge of biculturalism came in; I became hyper-sensitised to cultural politics.”

Soon after Lisa started at Elam, musician/artist Phil Dadson of From Scratch fame, set up the Intermedia department. Lisa, “cresting the new wave”, left her sculpture class and specialised in film-making. Her first short experimental films developed her interest in animation and she began tackling subjects of Māori culture and politics. One music video Wog Features reflects the rising politicisation of indigenous art practice.

In 1991 she was showcased as one of eight “exciting younger artists” by the Moet & Chandon New Zealand Arts Foundation. Then in 1997 she created Native Portraits, a large gateway comprising 11 video monitors commissioned for the opening of Te Papa Tongarewa Museum and forming part of her ongoing Digital Marae project – which recreates mythological ancestral figures in digital format from carvings historically found on a marae.

In 2007 Lisa took part in Global Feminisms at Brooklyn Museum, New York.

In 2008 Lisa completed another major commission for Te Papa Mai i te aroha, ko te aroha (From love comes love). “Art has allowed me to examine who I am, my identity.”

By far Lisa’s greatest triumph to date has been In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) a cinematic re-imagining of the neoclassical French wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804–05). Challenging and original, the work spans 26 metres, is four metres high and 64 minutes long. It foregrounds the complexities of cultural identity and colonisation, re-envisioning scenes of encounter between Europeans and Polynesians set against a utopian Tahitian landscape. Famous figures such as botanist Joseph Bank, navigator Tupaia and Captain Cook feature.

Last year the work brought viewers into the Auckland Art Gallery again and again. It broke records, with more visits than any exhibition by a living New Zealand artist.

Lisa recalls being in the lift at the gallery with a group of senior viewers excitedly going up to see her work again! She didn’t reveal who she was but their enthusiasm made her aware of how her work was creating “a safe space for people to look at our history”.

“Lisa creates an immersive environment with digital media,” says Linda Tyler, Director of the University’s Centre for Art Studies. “You’re plunged into the thick of it and engaged emotionally.”

All Lisa’s recent art has involved working with big teams of people just like those she watched her mother work with in the theatre. An art teacher in schools and at Unitec for many years, Lisa calls this collaborative way of working kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face).

“The art I do is really just an artifact of the relationships I make,” she says. “They create more opportunities for me to meet new people and learn more.”

See Lisa Reihana: Emissaries featuring In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-17), alongside new photo-based and sculptural works, in Venice at: www.artprojects.net.nz

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