Date February 9, 2022
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Immersive exhibition at Brown’s Bell Gallery reimagines Indigenous response to James Cook’s voyages

Created by Maōri artist Lisa Reihana, the video installation “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” adds nuance and Indigenous perspective to the first encounters between South Pacific islanders and European seafarers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A 70-foot-long animated installation on view at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery is asking new questions about how 18th-century European exploration of the Pacific has been depicted in historical narratives and decorative arts.

In Pursuit of Venus [infected],” an ambitious multimedia piece created by Maōri artist Lisa Reihana, reinterprets a 19th-century French wallpaper that features scenes of British explorer James Cook and his crews arriving in an imagined Tahitian landscape and encountering Indigenous peoples from the Pacific region. But rather than idealizing those first meetings, as the original wallpaper had, Reihana used actors and soundscapes to add nuance, complexity and chaos to many of the scenes to tell a fuller story of what may have happened.

“This is one of the most technologically advanced exhibitions the Bell Gallery has mounted,” said Kate Kraczon, the Brown Arts Institute’s exhibitions director and chief curator at the gallery. “Reihana’s project immerses visitors in illustrated landscapes of an imagined South Pacific, offers glimpses into conversations, rituals and performances that might have taken place, and communicates the looming threat of colonialism through a tense, multilayered soundtrack. The cinematic approach Reihana has taken to a complex topic — these initial stages of European colonization — makes it accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.”

The 64-minute looping video makes its East Coast premiere on Monday, Feb. 21, at the Bell Gallery, where it will be on display in a free, open-to-the-public exhibition through Sunday, May 29. The gallery will host a public reception and celebration of Reihana on Friday, April 29, at 6 p.m.

The Auckland Art Gallery shared a one-minute preview of Reihana's work ahead of its 2015 premiere.

James Cook first sailed to the South Pacific in 1768 with a scientific purpose: At the command of King George III and the Royal Society, the seaman and astronomer was tasked with charting the course of Venus. As they followed the planet’s movement through the sky, Cook and his crew also documented the lands and peoples they encountered, essentially drawing the Western world’s first maps of Australia and Oceania — and indirectly enabling the centuries of plunder and settler colonialism that followed.

As more Europeans traveled to the South Pacific and shared their stories, more Enlightenment-era artists began portraying the region in their work. Among them was the illustrator Jean-Gabriel Charvet, whose 1804-1805 “Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” (“The Native Peoples of the Pacific”), created with the French wallpaper company Joseph Dufour et Cie, attempted to visually capture the first meetings between Cook’s crew and 24 different groups of Mãori, Pacific and First Nations peoples from the western coast of North America. But his interpretation idealized the encounters and erased much of their complexities, Kraczon said.

“The Charvet wallpaper presents Indigenous culture in a Eurocentric manner,” she said, “portraying many of the Indigenous peoples in classical costume, consistent with the Enlightenment-era preoccupation with ancient Rome and ancient Greece.”

Scholars have even observed that a rendering of three dancing women in togas, featured near the center of the wallpaper, resembles the Three Graces from Greek mythology, she added.

Reihana’s multimedia piece, Kraczon said, responds to Dufour’s scenes by reimagining them with more historically accurate detail, but without claiming total authenticity. Instead of togas, Indigenous actors don traditional plant-fiber skirts and fabrics. And the encounters between Europeans and Indigenous peoples — static and unrealistically utopian in Charvet’s illustration — are at turns peaceful, tense and violent in Reihana’s installation.

The ambitious video mural — which features original paintings, costumes, acting and music — took 10 years for Reihana to complete. With its first iteration completed in 2015 and exhibited in New Zealand, the piece set the international art world abuzz when it showed at the Venice Biennale in 2017. 

Reinterpreting public art


In a 2020 talk hosted by the Brown Arts Institute, Reihana discussed the connection between Charvet's wallpaper and a similar one on Brown's campus.

In 2020, the Brown Arts Institute hosted a virtual conversation about the relationship between Charvet’s piece and another Enlightenment-era wallpaper on the Brown campus: “Les Vues d’Amérique du Nord,” completed in 1834 and installed at Nightingale-Brown House, now home to the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities. Those closely connected wallpapers will once again take center stage in late April at a three-day conference hosted by the JNBC. Titled “Inheritance,” the planned April 28-30 conference will bring together scholars, artists, museum practitioners, activists and more to explore strategies that institutions, artists and communities are using to respond to problematic representations of race, Indigenous lifeways and history in public art and architecture.

Dietrich Neumann, director of the JNBC, said Reihana’s work partly inspired the center’s own reckoning with “Les Vues d’Amérique du Nord,” which inaccurately depicts Indigenous peoples and glosses over racism and structural inequalities in the United States. Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, the center has engaged a number of artists to respond to the wallpaper in creative ways. Later this spring, Brown alumna Jazzmen-Lee Johnson will install fabric-printed reinterpretations of some wallpaper scenes in the house’s main hall.

“I remember seeing Reihana’s work and being absolutely fascinated,” Neumann said. “She brought a historical panel to life in a way that speaks to both history and to our own contemporary perspective. It underscores the fact that rewriting history is central to the humanities. Each generation has its own narrative. We’re never done telling the story.”

“In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” opens on Monday, Feb. 21, and closes on Sunday, May 29. The exhibition contains some implicit and explicit violence. The Bell Gallery is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.