Uiuinga #2: a conversation with Lisa Reihana

Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū) Still from A Māori Dragon Story (1995) 16mm film transferred to digital video

Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngati Hine, Ngāi Tu) is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most prominent artists, with an internationally-recognised practice that spans installation, photography and moving image. I first became aware of Lisa's work studying photography at high school, and learnt more about Lisa's work via books and catalogues during my Māori Visual Art degree at Toioho ki Āpiti (2006-2009). Lisa's work was significant to me in it's use of the lens, which she used to delve beyond a homogenous Māori identity and into complex portrayals of our layered histories.

Lisa and James Pinker let me visit their Auckland home on Christmas Eve, that’s how busy but generous they are. In true New Zealand summer fashion, it’s raining and as I get a flat tyre on the way to their house, I turn up wet, muddy and a little bit late. They still let me in, dry me off and warm me up with coffee. Lisa begins by showing me photographic portraits of the 1990's collective Pacific Sisters. It's beautiful to hear her talk so casually yet intimately about her fellow artists, and to know she was personally retouching the photographs for the upcoming Auckland Art Gallery exhibition, because, as Lisa said, ‘I love my Sisters’.

Bridget Reweti (BR): Do you think there is enough documentation of the work of Māori artists?

Lisa Reihana (LR): I did a lot of writing and curating back in the day because nobody else was. I wrote a 5,000-word essay for an international journal about Māori film making, in maybe 1991. And I also wrote for Broadsheet. But it's not what I wanted to do, it's was just like you had to do it.

BR: I feel like that’s what I'm doing now.

LR: It's good do to it when you’re younger. You get really good connections, and you get to know a broader base of historical knowledge. Some of that art history is not well-documented.

BR: And it's all in people's memories too. And their stories.

LR: And such fun stories!

BR: Which are significant because it shows the relationships, connections, and sometimes those aren't quite written down in the art historical sense.

LR: Yeah, those bits around the exhibition.

BR: Yes!

LR: When I was working with Emily Karaka, she got a residency in downtown Auckland, and her and (friend) Norman moved in. I got called in and asked “How are we going to get rid of them? Because they won't leave the residency, and other people were supposed to come.” I was like, “Oh okay, I'll go and visit them.” I was quite young and Norman is a relation from up north. They were really super, they were really great activists. It's like, “I don't know how you're going to get them out, but they're really important and currently they've got no other money, and this is supporting them right now. And you know, this building's going and we're all going have to leave soon. Maybe it doesn't matter?”

BR: Good to be able see it from other angles.

LR: Yeah, and it was quite funny. But really, they're strong people who have those marae links that I never had. My Dad came to Auckland, so I grew up in an urban environment. It was really important hanging out with Emily and Norman. You see something else and it's good to know about, even if at that time it was quite foreign. But you learn about who you are, and this gives you some insight into other worlds and other thinking from a very different perspective.

BR: It seemed like at the time though, people had to battle a lot to have their perspective heard.

LR: Yeah, it was quite a battle. There were so many hardcore people. Because you're trying to push for policy and in a way you sort of hated policy because it's the thing that got you into trouble, or had got us to that point where we were at that time.

BR: Well thanks to those hardcore people there is a strong growing success of Māori feature films and in the same instance Māori moving image artists are also really thriving but there seems like a slight disconnect between the two.

LR: When Creative New Zealand was the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, I was on the board for a few years and (from 1985) there was the Creative Film and Video Fund. The Film Commission put in a certain amount of money per annum to support works. They were mostly interested in narrative storytelling and it the idea was that people would go on to make feature films, which is still their main push. And at a certain point in time, the Film Commission took their money out.

I sat on the board with a script writer from the New Zealand Film Commission and Jan Bieringer. She was the advocate for experimental filmmaking in New Zealand. She was fantastic, and she ran the fund for at least a decade. She supported lots of people. She supported me. She really was very encouraging. And then at the time, Jonathan Dennis ran the Film Archive, and so he was the one that supported Merata Mita to edit Mana Waka (1990). And he got lots of shit for that, because there was a really big dispute about who owned the film footage. There was all these amazing politics going on.

BR: And was it Jonathan Dennis and Merata Mita that made the screenings that went alongside (the 1992 exhibition) Headlands?

LR: Yeah, Jonathan would have. He put together lots of programmes. Merata and Jan worked on it too.

BR: It was cool to read about all the short, documentary or feature films sitting alongside artist moving image. But there seems like only Bob Jahnke’s Te Utu (1971) and your Wog Features (1991) were some of the only Māori moving images works.

LR: There was no one else. And that's why I taught for so many years, because I thought it was really important to be seen to be doing it, and to encourage other Māori and women to take up that. When I was younger I'd met Ramai Hayward. When I would go into hui, back in the days, in my 20s, I was like, “she's so cool. I want to be like her. She's the most stylish woman in the world. She's so amazing”. I mean, she used to have a photographic studio in Devonport. She ran a four-minute mile. She was like a glamorous movie star. So many strong beautiful women!

BR: Always! So where were you when you made A Māori Dragon Story?

LR: I started it in Christchurch. That's where I met Nathan Pohio. He was my best buddy. Every Friday night, we'd go to Alice in Videoland. And then we would go pick up takeaways, and then we would go back to my place and my cousin, he used to work for the cop shop, so he got like stolen TVs and stuff. He gave me one, because there wasn't one in the studio that I got this residency in.

BR: What was that residency?

LR: It doesn't exist anymore. I really advocated for it, but it disappeared unfortunately, but it was the Trust Bank Canterbury artist in residence.

BR: Was it for a whole year?

LR: No, they only had it for three months, but I said to them, “Oh what happens to the studio for the other nine months?”

BR: Did you do an Emily Karaka?

LR: Haha, yeah, I did, I’d learnt! I did an Emily Karaka on them. They go, “Oh, it's just empty until the next person comes along.” I went, “Well, look if I pay the phone and the power and everything,” because you know, you didn’t have to pay rent, “I would like to stay here because I'm still waiting for permission to make the film. I know the story, but I'm waiting on permission. What do you think?” And they went, “Sure.” So I stayed a whole year, because I was smart.

BR: Nice!

LR: I probably could have done it in that time, but I'm not from there. I'm from Auckland. I said, “Look, I've met everyone. I now have met the people that I feel like I need to know. I've made a relationship with the art school.” Then I went and got funding and I found a Māori student who just graduated from art school, so I got her money to be my assistant, so I did all these things. I did all this really cool stuff. 

BR: So much problem solving when you're an artist.

LR: Yeah. God yeah. And mostly it was waiting for permission, and the iwi, they were going through a claims process. People said “Oh, you should just go ahead because you're going to get permission.” I said, “Yeah, but that's not the point.” I could, but if I don't, then I'll be run out of town. And if I do, it's a really different story.

BR: I remember watching A Māori Dragon Story and it was really nice to see that permission in the credits. I think it was really significant to see it from such an early work as well. Because this is not a new thing, that people need to be seeking out these relationships.

LR: Well, it's an ethical way of trying to do it. But Kāi Tahu had their fisheries claim happening and they only met once a month. So, every month, I'd go and sit outside and wait my turn to see if they'd get to my request. And I would just be sitting outside, and they'd be debating for hours. And sometimes they would come out after six hours and say, “Sorry, we just didn't make it to you, we only got to number three on our agenda.” And so that's when I met Suzanne Ellison and she was on the board and was Sir Tipene O’Regan's EA. So I sat there three times. I sat there, and she just watched me, and she goes, “I'm really sorry.” She'd make me a cup of tea, and then the third or fourth time I came, she said, “I pushed you up to number two on the agenda. So you get on before all the big stuff gets talked about.” So, I went in and I did my presentation, and I met them all, and I talked about what I was doing, and then they gave me permission.

But it was a really great because years later Brad Haami said to me, “Oh, but you know that taniwha is your taniwha from up north.” It's at Te Arai Point, which is up where Maureen Lander lives.

BR: Oh right, yeah cool.

LR: And I thought ah, so that's probably why I wanted to make the story in the first place!

BR: It was also kind of a brave move because I feel lots of people now probably wouldn't tell that story because they'd think, “Oh, that's not my story to tell. It's too hard to go to those meetings and meet with people. And if I did, what if they say no?”

LR: Yeah. Well if they say no, you do something else.

BR: You just have to keep going, and if you get told no, you just have to ask why you got told no but don't be disrespectful because so many people are whakamā, it stops their artwork, you know. There’s bravery in that though.

LR: Yeah. I was really brave. Brave or stupid, haha. In every culture, people want to shut other people down.

BR: Especially when a culture has lost so much, and so you end up holding on tightly to what’s left.

LR: The thing is not to be disrespectful, I've found. You find a lot of artists that are really disrespectful, you know? They go in and they smash in and they plunder these stories, and they never really research or think about it, or talk to people.

BR: Or know it's going to be a really long process. And also will need to continue after the fact.

LR: Yeah, so it was always meant to be, I reckon. All these opportunities came up and then I said, “Look, I haven't even really started filming it. Can I stay? Because I’m really just now at the point where I can start to do it.” And in fact, I've never been trained properly how to make an animation.

BR: Oh really?

LR: No, well there's no one in New Zealand who was doing it.

BR: But you worked for that animator, didn't you?

LR: Oh yeah with Paint Pot. That's how I made money to put myself through Art School. One of the things I got to do is an animation for Sesame Street, Kōrero Māori. It was a little ten second ident. And it's one of the things that I loved the children's television workshop for. It must have been the late ‘80s and they would allow 10% of the content to be removed but replace it with the indigenous language of the country that it was screened in. So you could play the first 60 minutes and your country takes six minutes out and replace it with te reo. Which is what happened in New Zealand, so I did the kōrero Māori, let's speak Māori part. Because someone said, “Oh, can you do that?” I went “Yes!” And then I was like “Ahhhhh how do you do this? Fuck!” But yeah, I just say yes to stuff.

BR: I think I do too.

LR: It's always good to just jump in feet first. That's how I sort of ended up doing lots of stuff, even teaching because I never got trained to teach. I did about 20-25 years of teaching. And gave up when I got awarded (the New Zealand pavillion at) Venice.

BR: Woah!

LR: And that work (in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015)), it had just taken so many years, and I had been chipping away at it for years and years, and it still needed a lot of work, and we've only just finished it. We just finished it maybe about three weeks ago.

BR: It's fascinating, that process of being able to keep working on it.

LR: Each time we see it projected with slightly better projectors and slightly better playback, you start to just see these tiny things that need tweaking you know. So when we went to laser projector, which was for Venice, that's when we really wanted to be as good as it could be. It's enormous. Now it sits at 12 Terabytes. It takes 15 hours just to transfer from one place to another. It's so big, so if you fix something then you have to go away and bake a cake while you're waiting for it. We should get some more hard drives today. Signed off. Sealed, delivered. Thank god.

BR: Wow. Mammoth.

LR: Yeah, mammoth. But worth it. I always knew it had to be, it just had to be that good because it has so many people's material, so many other people's nations.

BR: How do you negotiate that?

LR: Well, that's why it deserves care. If people see there is integrity behind it, at various different levels as much as you can, that kind of quality resides in the project. That care is in it.

BR: Visible.

LR: Yeah, it's visible, and it's a feeling too.

BR: Does that feel like a really heavy weight, that kind of responsibility? (Or) was it step-by-step?

LR: Step by step. You end up working with people that you like.

BR: And probably people that you've worked with for a while.

LR: And then you find the people that you don't like, haha. That doesn't happen very often though. Now I feel very well placed. We’ve shot a 3D film since then, down in Wellington, using Sir Peter Jackson's kit at Weta. And there was this moment where all their films were going through the system, so they couldn't help us with the edit. So Sam who we’ve worked with for years, bless his heart, has cracked the technology. Now we’ve learnt how to make 3D films and that's what we've been doing all this year, working out how to deliver a 3D movie with 12 terabytes worth of material. It’s really tech heavy. And we've just edited that together and that's really cool.

BR: Wow, exciting.

LR: I love technology, and I’ve always wanted to make a 3D film (but) I don't ever want to make a 3D film again. I had to set up a production company, set up a business, take out liability insurance, because there's stunt work in it. I had to do that in five or six weeks. And I had 65k from CNZ, but actually it cost way more. We didn't even know that we had nowhere near enough. So I put a lot of money into that. Lots and lots. But I thought, “Oh, well I don't mind backing myself because these are good stories and it's worthwhile telling them.”

And then I had to take on two producers, or rather they took me on, but they're very keen to see it turned into a feature film. I'm not sure. I've met quite a few video artists who make feature films. I mean, it's certainly possible. That's not really my interest. I like the art gallery world. I like that there's an alternative space. And then we've got to do another shoot early next year. So that'll be a big video installation. Because as soon as I got that one out, people said “What's next - are you making another one like this?” And I'm like, "No".

BR: That question is so hard.

LR: Oh it's so annoying. It's like “I think I'll have a sleep.”

BR: Just look at this one for a while.

LR: Yeah, this has taken me a long time. I can't just like, pull it out. And we’ve done a lot of work this year, but we do miss out on seeing people the more you travel. I mean when I'm here I'm usually like chasing deadlines. We ran into (artist) Peter Robinson this month, and Peter decided not to have any shows for a year because you do get to a certain point and so many people want you to have been doing stuff, that actually makes it less enjoyable. So, it's just trying to find that lovely-

BR: Balance?

LR: Yeah, balance. But it's not like I'm producing huge amounts of work, but I just feel I'm just working all the time.

BR: Well, let me know when you find that balance.

LR: I will. I'll work it out and I'll let you know.

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Commissioned by CIRCUIT and Toi Māori Aotearoa - Māori Arts New Zealand, Uiuinga is a four-part series which presents conversations between artist/curator Bridget Reweti and four Māori artists who have worked in the moving image between 1975 and the present. The featured artists include Robert Jahnke, Lisa Reihana, Rachael Rakena and Shannon Te Ao, and map a history of each artists' influences, research and working methodologies and the relationship of the moving image to other art forms in their practice. Read Uiuinga #1: a conversation with Robert Jahnke here.

Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi), is an artist, curator and writer. Her solo art practice has seen her hold international and national residencies and she has a collaborative practice with Mata Aho Collective. Bridget is co-chair of Enjoy Public Art Gallery and has a vested interest in making space – from governance to operations to audience – for more Māori to feel safe and brave in the arts. Bridget Reweti is co-curator of Māori Moving Image, An Open Archive at The Dowse Art Museum 30 Mar – 21 Jul 2019.