5 Jul 2020

Artist explores history of one of first European women to settle New Zealand

10:03 pm on 5 July 2020

An Englishwoman wearing a floor-length dress stands alone on a wooden ship. A man wrestles her to the ground, but she overthrows him, killing him with a musket.

Lisa Reihana in Venice

Lisa Reihana in Venice where she represented New Zealand at the 2017 Venice Biennale with her panoramic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Photo: RNZ

She seizes the wheel, music rising and falling as she looks out at the ocean. The southern skies glitter with stars. The Milky Way swirls around her.

The woman I'm watching is Charlotte Badger, Australia's first female pirate.

This little-known historical figure is the subject of Nomads of the Sea, an ambitious new video work by Lisa Reihana, an artist of Māori (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tuteauru) and British descent.

Reihana is one of Aotearoa New Zealand's major artists, representing her country at the 2017 Venice Biennale with her monumental panoramic video work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], a kind of 'animated wallpaper' that depicted First Contact as a series of encounters in which Māori and First Nations communities observed, engaged with and resisted their European colonisers.

Nomads of the Sea is playing in a dark chamber within a labyrinth of sandstone workshops on Cockatoo Island, as part of NIRIN: the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, curated by Brook Andrew.

This site - known as Wa-rea-mah by the Gadigal and Wangal people - is a fitting backdrop for the story of Badger, a convict-turned-buccaneer; between 1839 and 1869, these workshops housed up to 500 convicts, who carried out hard labour while living together in cramped and squalid conditions.

Badger, originally from Worcestershire, was shipped to Port Jackson in 1801 for stealing 4 guineas and a silk handkerchief in an attempt to support her family.

In 1806, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter inside the Parramatta Female Factory.

Later that year she set sail for Tasmania's Port Dalrymple, where she was consigned to domestic work, on board a vessel called the Venus. During the voyage, Badger led a mutiny, commandeered the ship and sailed across the Tasman to the Bay of Islands.

Upon landing, she was taken in by a Māori chief, with whom she cohabited in the year's following, one of the first European women to settle in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Badger's life - a tale of courage, adventure and high drama - has been mythologised in Vagabonds, by New Zealand playwright Lorae Perry, and a historical novel by her descendent, Angela Badger.

Reihana heard about Badger from a friend back in 1987, the year she graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University.

In the decades since, she has made trailblazing video works, photography and sculptures, often drawing on little-known historical narratives.

But she never stopped thinking about Charlotte Badger.

"My interest in her is her representation of where women's power resides at that point in time," she tells ABC.

"She was offered safe passage to return to Britain and she chose not to return; chose to follow her own destiny. Had she returned to Britain, she would have been seen as a woman who had 'gone native' and it would have been quite problematic for her."

Two different kinds of female power

Nomads of the Sea originally screened in 3D at the 2019 Sharjah Biennial, which co-commissioned the work with the Creative New Zealand funding body.

Although the work is presented in 2D in Sydney, its wrap-around multi-screen set-up and lush visual language give it an immersive quality - and it unfolds with the breakneck pace of an action movie, transfixing the viewer.

The narrative of the piece draws on existing swashbuckling mythology around Badger and historical accounts.

On a screen in a dark room, a woman stands over a scared looking woman and holds a taiaha to her throat.

Charlotte Badger poster by Massey University student Morghan Harper

A poster of Charlotte Badger by Massey University student Morghan Harper. Photo: Morghan Harper

Far from the one-dimensional heroine we might read about in a history book, Badger is a complex figure, seen through the eyes of Puhi, a female Ngā Puhi warrior who is confronted by the European woman's arrival - and furious at the way she threatens matriarchal power in Māori society.

"[Back then], Māori chiefs used to have quite a number of wives because people lived in small villages, but there were famous Māori women who would lead armies," Reihana explains.

We see Badger in bed with the chief, Huri Waka, as Puhi watches them in the dark - her face burning with jealousy.

"There would have been an issue between Puhi and Charlotte, a power shift," says Reihana. "This white woman who was from somewhere else, the first white woman [and] now they are all living together."

Over a series of electrifying fight scenes - which channel the kung-fu movies that Reihana has loved since childhood - the two women engage in vicious combat.

Puhi, who is played by a Māori weaponry expert, masterfully wields a taiaha. "This is not your place," she snaps. Badger replies, "I was just looking."

Reihana challenges the stereotype of the white woman as innocent, always worthy of protection.

"I figure that a character like Charlotte Badger used everything that she had at her disposal," Reihana laughs. "And she was a mother - and like [many mothers] she was a lioness and would do anything to survive.

But for Reihana, the conflict between Badger and Puhi symbolises the fact that European women and Māori women have traditionally held different kinds of power, articulated in different ways.

"The attraction between [Puhi] and the Māori chief [develops] through fighting, which would have been attractive at a certain point in time," she explains. "[He] would have been attracted to a certain strength."

Complicating colonial narratives

In her 2017 work In Pursuit of Venus [infected], which took Reihana over a decade to complete, she appropriated the visual language of a 19th-century French "scenic" wallpaper and upended its depiction of First Nations people as exotic savages.

Working in close consultation with several Pacific, Māori and Australian First Nations communities, she filmed them performing cultural activities and interactions with the European colonisers - and inserted this into an animated wallpaper backdrop.

By casting First Nations people as complex subjects with agency, rather than mere objects of European fascination, the work challenged the Eurocentric narrative of colonisation.

Nomads of the Sea complicates another part of the colonial narrative, one specific to Aotearoa: the Pākehā Māori.

Pākehā Māori were a legion of traders, whalers, sealers and escaped convicts - like Badger - who settled among Māori communities in the early 19th century, often embracing their customs. They were often under Māori protection, used to gain muskets and secure strategic advantage against colonial forces.

Complicit in colonisation, as settlers, their allegiances were nevertheless to the colonised rather than the European colonisers.

Nomads of the Sea is narrated by a Pākehā Māori named simply Storyteller: a figure, face painted, wearing a black ceremonial costume.

"Storyteller's voice-over is taken from an 18th-century account of a Pākehā Māori who lived up north who was watching what happened," says Reihana.

"[During colonisation] the tribes were put to work preparing flax - the material from which you make ropes - and because they weren't planting the food, everybody starved."

In the video, the struggle between European hierarchy and Māori tradition is symbolised by the figure of a mixed-race child. "My mother isn't scared of anything," he tells the viewer.

Reihana doesn't reveal who his mother is.

"My mother is English and Welsh and at some point, there would have been the first mixed-race child," she says.

"I wanted to use [Badger's] story to think through what it would have been like for Māori women at that time, for their children, really early on."

A story of globalisation

Nomads of the Sea is set 30 years before the Treaty of Waitangi, the agreement between English officials and 500 Māori chiefs that would grant the British Empire sovereignty over New Zealand.

For Reihana, the story of Charlotte Badger has as much to say about how the world of 19th century New Zealand is part of a cultural continuum that still exists today.

"[Nomads of the Sea] was really about what was happening from the perspective of globalisation in the 19th century," she says.

"We have fallen into the trap of globalisation and it's been coming for a long time. [Back then] there were all these histories rubbing up against each other, all these little stories. [Charlotte Badger's] moment was set among all these other historical things."