The Conqueror’s Eye: Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus
|Location:||Kumu exhibition spaces|
It is virtually impossible to overestimate the importance of images in the history of colonialism. The start of the colonial conquest of new territories coincided with the invention of the art of printing: Columbus reached America in 1492 and Gutenberg had invented the printing press in the 1440s. The art of printing made the written word accessible to wide audiences, and it also meant an explosion in the spread of images on a global level. The discovery of new continents had turned the understanding of the world as it had hitherto existed upside down. So the public was particularly interested in images depicting unknown lands and their exotic inhabitants. The images not only reflected and described the course of conquests and novel territories and their peoples, but also actively participated in conceptualising these and creating stereotypes of the “Other”, thus contributing to the belief in a radical difference between primitive natives and civilised Europeans. An emphasis on cultural differences helped to justify both the conquests and the domination of Europeans over native populations. Thus, images of the colonial territories tellingly highlight the close ties of visual culture with power. As Edward Said showed in his groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), producing and disseminating knowledge about the colonised “Other” is inextricably linked with controlling the “Other” and with expanding the power of colonists.
With colonial imagery, the roles of the spectator and the object of the gaze are fixed: the civilised European’s gaze studies and observes, depicts and categorises the exotic natives who have, actually or potentially, been submitted to European power. From the time the colonies started to gain independence the postcolonial turn ever more vigorously called for writing and representing the colonial history from the perspective of colonised peoples. At the centre of the exhibition The Conqueror’s Eye stands Lisa Reihana’s powerful video exhibit In Pursuit of Venus, which challenges the stereotypes of representing the Self and the Other as they have been established in the tradition of visual culture. In a playful reproduction of a scenic wallpaper produced in France in the early 19th century, the gigantic video panorama explores and de-familiarises images of meetings between civilised Europeans and the barbaric and exotic inhabitants of Pacific islands. The work represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
As an extension of Lisa Reihana’s work, the exhibition also demonstrates the impact and wide spread of colonialist stereotypes in the Baltic region. It highlights the abundance of colonial visual culture in Estonian museum collections, displays illustrations of the travels of Baltic German explorers who played a prominent role in the exploration voyages organised by the Russian empire, and shows visual representations of the peoples of the Russian empire, including Estonians.
Curators: Linda Kaljundi, Eha Komissarov and Kadi Polli
Coordinator: Mari Kangur
Exhibition design and graphic design: AKSK
We thank: Lisa Reihana, James Pinker, Eidotech, Liina Siib, Estonian History Museum, Estonian National Museum, Pärnu Museum, Tallinn City Museum, Academic Library of Tallinn University, University of Tartu Museum, University of Tartu Library and Valga Museum
Lisa Reihana. In Pursuit of Venus. Video still. 2015–2017. Courtesy of the artist