What if we decolonised the museum at the intersection of art and artefact?

Written by Joanna Richard

In this discussion paper I will be examining the intersection of art and artefact in the context of museums and art institutions and decolonising and post-colonial practices. I will do this by examining Māori artist Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2017) (Fig. 1) (Devenport 2017) and its position at the intersection of art and artefact. I will do this by first introducing Reihana’s cultural and artistic background and the development of in Pursuit of Venus [infected] and its connection to the Enlightenment period wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1805-04) (Fig 2.) (Reihana 2012). I will then discuss the historical bases of the museum as a colonial institution. Through defining and discussing contemporary definitions of art and artefact, I will highlight potential for these categories to be reconsidered, and for the possibilities this holds as tools for decolonising museums in both art and universal-historical contexts. I will then discuss the ways in which in Pursuit of Venus [infected] challenges colonial narratives of encounter and museums as a colonial space, how it operates at the intersection of art and artefact and can serve to decolonise colonial institutions.

Figure 1: Lisa Reihana (2017) in Pursuit of Venus [infected] [digital video projection], In Pursuit of Venus, https://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/infected-1, Image courtesy of the artist

Figure 2: Jean-Gabriel Charvet (1804) Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique [wallpaper], Wikimeda Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27Sauvages_de_la_Mer_Pacifique%27,_panels_11-20_of_woodblock_printed_wallpaper_designed_by_--Jean-Gabriel_Charvet--_and_manufactured_by_--Joseph_Dufour--.jpg

About The Artist, (n.d.) In Pursuit of Venus website, accessed 26th September 2022. https://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/exhibition-history

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Gare D, Buchanan R, Burns-Dans E and Church T (2020) ‘The Art of Contested Histories: In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] and the Pacific Legacy’, The Journal of Pacific History, 55(3):321–339, doi:10.1080/00223344.2019.1702516

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Reihana L (2012) Re-staging Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique: theoretical and practical issues [master’s thesis], Unitec Institute of Technology, accessed 28th July 2022. https://www.researchbank.ac.nz/handle/10652/2544

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Lisa Reihana was born in Aotearoa, New Zealand in 1964, where she still lives and works (Devenport 2017). She is of Māori (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine and Ngāi Tū) and British descent (Cull 2017; Gare et. al 2020) and was a part of a group of Māori artists known as the “Young Guns” in the 1990s (Devenport 2017). She primarily works in video and photography but has also worked in sculpture, text, and costume (IPOV n.d.). She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts, which she completed in 1987 and a Master in Design from Unitec Institute of Technology, completed in 2014 (Devenport 2017). As part of her master’s thesis, Reihana produced in Pursuit of Venus (2012) (Reihana 2012), an eight-minute video installation first exhibited in 2012 (Bear 2019). [I]n Pursuit of Venus was inspired by a 20-panel wood-block printed (Thomas 2017) wallpaper created during the Enlightenment period entitled Les Sauvages de la Mer, translated as The Native People of the Pacific Ocean (Bear 2019), a colonial portrayal of the communities of the Pacific Ocean. Reihana first encountered the wallpaper in 2005 at the National Gallery of Australia (Reihana 2012). She found the wallpaper, although claiming to be to portray the Pacific, to be filled with unfamiliar clothing and plants that did not relate to her own cultural background. The figures were attired in Hellenic garb, reflecting the popularity of neoclassicism at the time. Tattoos, which are culturally significant in the Pacific, did not appear at all, lest they offend colonial sensibilities (Reihana 2012). The work is a romanticised colonial invention that played to the fancies of the time, designed to titillate audiences in European centres. From 2015 to 2017, Reihana updated her work, entitling it in Pursuit of Venus [infected] – infected to reflect the inclusion of colonialists – (Bear 2019) extending the work into a looping 64-minute panoramic video projection, which features scenes of performers as they enact narrative scenes, superimposed on a digitally rendered background of a Tahitian landscape (Webb 2015). The work was named after James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific, in which he was tasked with mapping the transit of the planet Venus (Ryan 2016). Such voyages and the resulting journals, drawings, paintings and accounts, served as inspiration for Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (Gare et. al 2020).

Voyages such as Cook’s which were embarked upon under the pretence of scientific study, led to the development of the fields of anthropology, ethnography and the museum as an institution (Whittington 2021; Wonu Veys 2010). Colonial expansion led to the collection and classification of objects, from recently encountered cultures, which venerated and exhibited the successes of the empire (Whittington 2021). Scientists and artists on these voyages, wrote diaries, drew and painted representations of nature and encounters with indigenous people. The earliest written accounts and images of these cultures came from a European perspective, centring a colonial narrative over Pacific viewpoints (Bear 2019). In an attempt to classify the “the Other” (Looser 2017), ethnographic surveys of Pacific cultures were undertaken, they were characterised as ‘dying cultures’, stagnant and unchanging throughout history, without a written history and fading, this being seen as a failing of the cultures themselves rather than as a product of colonisation and due to disease, prohibition of social and cultural practices and widespread forced assimilation (Jacobi 2021). The collection of artefacts was seen as imperative to studying these cultures, and colonialists were encouraged to gather and return them to the centres of empire. These objects still fill private and public museum collections (Wonu Veys 2010). Objects, removed from their traditional contexts were then classified as art and artefact. With objects believed to have a functional purpose classified as artefacts and those whose meanings perceived to be aesthetic were classified as art (Wonu Veys 2010). Divorcing these objects from their meanings and functions, further enforced the ideas of dying cultures, and positioned these colonial institutions as the rightful place for these objects. That the connection of the communities – to which these objects rightfully belong—to the objects themselves has been successfully severed as a result of the policies of colonial expansion (Whittington 2021). The presumes that because museums are institutions of research, education and conservation that they somehow exist outside of their colonial history and not because of it.

Recognising the entangled life of these objects can aid in breaking down and reimagining of the categories of art and artefact. That is acknowledging the historical cultural context of objects as well as the current contexts which include: the way these objects were procured, the conversations recurring around repatriation and the complicities of the institutions themselves in colonialism (Sweetman et al. 2018). Because museums are socially constructed institutions that reflect society (Wonu Veys 2010) and culture, it becomes the responsibility of the institution to connect with the communities whose object-related heritage fills their collections - those who have historically been excluded from these institutions. Institutions must bridge the gap and provide seats at the table for these communities. That way institutions acknowledge the own role in the enterprise of empire-building and can become active participants in the process of decolonisation, because there is no way to be passively involved in decolonisation. This gives institutions other avenues to follow as repatriation threatens the fundamental function of a museum, because museums do not survive if their collections are broken up and returned (Whittington 2021). Although objects of cultural significant may not be repatriated, through including traditional owners, appropriate cultural knowledge and protocols can be respected in the research, conservation and education process centring the indigenous cultures instead of institutional histories (Whittington 2021). Aspects of culture which are not confined to a physical object are referred to by UNESCO (2018) as intangible cultural heritage (ICH). ICH may include but is not limited to, practices, knowledges, performing arts, social practices, rituals and traditional skills (UNESCO 2018).  Māori ancestral objects, treasures, knowledges, practices of artforms are known as taonga (Ngata et al. 2012). Similar to ICH, taonga encompasses that which is beyond tangible and is defined by whakapapa that is kinship or genealogy that define Māori existence (Ngata et al. 2012). Ngata et. al in their 2012 article, Te Ataakura: Digital taonga and cultural innovation reason that there is a potential for digital works to become taonga as they respond to and activate these kinships and thus become artefacts (Daly 2022). [I]n Pursuit of Venus [infected] was made with respect, cultural protocols of kinship, and through earnest representations of culture, and creation of collaborative relationships with the people involved in the project has the potential to become taonga (Daly 2022). It can function as both art and artefact (Daly 2022).

[I]n Pursuit of Venus [infected] challenges colonial narratives of encounter between colonials and indigenous people (Bear 2019). It features performers from across the Pacific region in narrative vignettes that subvert the narratives found in Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, and in colonial accounts of encounter, retelling and restaging encounter it provides a counter-visuality to the prevailing history. Reihana, as described in her 2012 master’s thesis Re-Staging Les Sauvage de la Mer Pacifique: Theoretical and Practical Issues, aimed to undertake this project in a culturally sensitive manner, being sure to follow protocols specific to the communities she was working with. Performers became collaborators rather than just subjects, and materials and performances of cultural significance were used with permission of their owners. This also illustrated the linkage of Pacific culture, contextualising the work in a broader context as well as reflecting on the shared experience of not only colonialism but culture as well (Gare et. al 2020). Translating the wallpaper to video Reihana directly animated the living nature of the cultures depicted, performers dance, interact and converse with one another, reflecting real encounters between real people during colonialisation (Thomas 2017) with the point-of-view from the shore instead of the sea. The use of video also allows Reihana to play with time, and reflect Māori beliefs of history as existing concurrently with the present and future (Bear 2019). The looping format, with no clear beginning or ending results in a non-linear experience, scenes pass off-screen unresolved, narratives continue unseen, the video moves across from right-to-left in a reverse pan, embodying Pacific notions that the future lays behind you and the past before you (Bear 2019). Further centring Pacific perspectives, the second half of the 64-minute video features a female actor playing the role of James Cook, accounts at the time report Pacific people’s puzzlement about Cook’s gender (Bear 2019). Although the work features scenes of real encounters, Reihana also includes imagined narratives in the scenes. This subverts the idea that the only reliable accounts from these encounters is that of the colonialists, because they were written, whilst indigenous people relied on oral tradition. It points out the implicit biases in the accounts of colonials. Reihana also re-enacts aspects of culture which were banned by religious leaders during colonisation, and through the creation of a Tahitian Chief mourner’s costume (Thomas 2017), revived a tradition that had not been practiced for a number of generations, in a manner, returning something that was lost to the communities (Thomas 2017). As a visual artist Reihana privileges performance, social and cultural practice and costume questioning the hierarchy of written language and a primary source and format of knowledge. Drawing on the rich performance history of this region, she is able to display Intangible Cultural Heritage, in culturally relevant and important ways, giving these intangible aspects of culture and history equal importance to written histories, challenging colonial authority as founts of knowledge, Reihana has created a work that exists at the intersection of art and artefact.  

In this paper, I examined Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] and its function at the intersection of art and artefact. I began by discussing Reihana’s cultural and artistic background and the development of the work. I then considered the role of the museum in colonial history, and how the distinctions of art and artefact reflect that history and role. I then provided ways in which these distinctions can be re-imagined and re-considered to aid in decolonisation of the museum and how in Pursuit of Venus [infected] can be viewed as an example for the breaking down those distinctions. I finished by looking at the ways in which the work itself, through its content and form serves to decolonise through narratives of encounter.