Lisa Reihana’s portraiture reveals the breadth and depth of her engagement with mytho-historical narratives, cultural and gender identities, and notions of place both physical and virtual. Digital Marae and Ngā Hau e Wha reimagine tupuna (ancestors), poupou (carved figures of the meeting house), and atua (spirits) for “an inclusive contemporary marae that can interpret or mediate mythology for contemporary audiences”. (1) Pelt explores an other-world whose eery familiarity simultaneously attracts and unnerves the viewer.
The figure of Urban Warrior (Ngāti Whatua actor Lawrence Makaore) dominates the photographic frame. Set against the lights of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, he stands like a living bronze where the sea and land meet. Reihana references directly Molly Macalister’s 1967 bronze Maori Warrior which welcomed new arrivals in downtown Auckland’s Queen Elizabeth II square. Like the sculptor’s work, Urban Warrior is representative of the tangata whenua of Aotearoa in a generalised sense, although Reihana’s use of Makaore as subject is also a specific acknowledgement of the mana whenua of Ngāti Whatua in the region. (2) The warrior’s direct stare pierces the boundary of the picture plane and collapses the gap between subject and viewer. He occupies the liminal spaces between light and dark, and sea, land and sky and in doing so reiterates the wide-ranging nature of Reihana’s vision.
Bedecked with crystals and silk, Diva (2007) challenges the traditional Māori conventions of ancestral visual narratives. The portrait is lush with dense, saturated blacks, an array of textures, and a sinuous – and sensual - composition. Reihana nods to centuries of Western depictions of the Annunciation: here the glowing face of a modern-day, Māori Madonna stretches out her hand to receive the Holy Spirit – here a tui rather than an Italianate dove. The work’s title derives from the Italian divina (divine) and features takatapui (transgender) singer Ramon Te Wake. (3) It is one of two takatapui portraits Reihana created to reinforce the inclusiveness of her digital marae-space. The artist deliberately transgresses cultural boundaries in order to re-write mytho-histories for the changing discursive spaces of contemporary Māori cultures.
In a similar manner, Reihana’s Pelt series establishes spaces which exist somewhere and nowhere, the inhabitants of which seem of this world but also apart from it. The artist’s balancing of the familiar and the strange has the effect of drawing in and repelling the viewer: unnervingly beautiful, the longer the works are looked at, the harder it becomes to drag the gaze away. Like Diva, the subjects of Pelt control the discourse and reconfigure pre-conceptions of gender, sexuality, aesthetics, representation.
Reihana has deliberately de-eroticised the naked female body and added to it animal elements of plumage and pelt, which introduce textural and visual contrast to the images as well as re-creating the women as chimeric, unsettling figures. Pilosus stares intensely out of the picture frame, deliberately confronting and challenging the viewer, whereas Camarillo, supremely confident in her bearing, pays the viewer no heed at all. Aquila and Sabino on the other hand seem to have been captured in moments of private ritual. The familiarity of their visibly human form is disrupted by the introduction of alien elements and unnatural poses. They are unheimlich – eerily uncanny.