One of the issues I try to explore in this research project is how exoticism, understood as a mode of aesthetic perception and representation, can contribute to decolonising the gaze. The gigantic panorama (22.5 metres wide) ‘in Pursuit of Venus [infected]’ by Māori artist Lisa Reihana, which was the grand finale of the Oceania exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts in 2018, illustrates how appropriating the visual and narrative tropes of exoticism can give rise to critical dialogue and even decolonise the gaze.
The video projection, consisting of 150 digital layers and lasting sixty-four minutes, is an imaginative recreation of ‘Les sauvages de la mer Pacifique’, a neoclassical-style wallpaper that was first shown at the Paris Exposition in 1806 and subsequently adorned living rooms across Europe and North America at the turn of the nineteenth century. The original French wallpaper and Reihana’s moving animated panorama show scenes from Captain Cook’s voyages to Polynesia. It consists of seventy vignettes of both historic and imagined colonial encounters that scroll slowly across exotic, hand-painted landscapes. We see semi-nude Polynesian dancers in grass skirts performing dances and naval officers in red uniforms. The exotic spectacle makes no claim to authenticity but it includes dialogue in several Polynesian languages since it was important to the New Zealand artist of Māori descent that the exotic Other would not be silenced.
The title of the panorama refers to Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1768, when the Royal Society in London had commissioned Cook to track the path of the planet Venus in the southern hemisphere, while the bracketed ‘[infected]’ highlights the destructive impact that European voyages of discovery had on the island populations of Oceania, many of whom were infected by sexually transmitted and other contagious diseases, leading to infertility and death of the Indigenous population. The critique implied in the word ‘infected’, however, goes further since it ‘also points to the manifold ways in which these encounters affected the bodies, lives, experiences and cultures of the people of both the Pacific and Europe’ (Royal Academy, Oceania exhibition 2018).
I have described this digital video panorama in such detail because, when I happened upon it at the Oceania exhibition in London, it instantly captured my imagination as I sat in front of it, absolutely mesmerised, for a very long time. Not only did it allow me to feel first-hand the excitement that nineteenth-century viewers would have experienced when they gazed at similar panoramas of faraway lands, but it also validated the premise of my research, namely that the visual pleasure exoticism affords does not paralyse our critical capacities but can, instead, be mobilised to mount a postcolonial critique of imperial practices, both past and present.