Portrait of Omai, courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

How Mai Became the Only Person of Color in the Rijksmuseum’s New Portrait Show

The stunning 18th-century "Portrait of Omai" by Sir Joshua Reynolds tells a complicated story of power and exoticization.

by Erin Schwartz
Mar 13 2018, 8:07pm

Portrait of Omai, courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

To commission a life-sized, standing portrait used to be a sign of immense wealth; Rembrandt’s wedding portraits of Maerten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit were estimated to have cost the couple 1,000 guilders, or about $250,000 today. So it follows that the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition built around the acquisition of these two paintings, a survey of full-length portraits, is titled High Society and depicts the circles of wealth and power: kings and their mistresses, countesses, wealthy merchants, warriors. Of the 39 works, only one—Portrait of Omai, by Sir Joshua Reynolds—depicts a person of color. Reynolds chose to make the painting himself; it wasn’t commissioned by a wealthy client, and it never sold during his lifetime. Omai, also called Mai (the O prefix means “it is”), was a singular figure, an upper-class Polynesian refugee who strategically navigated war, displacement, celebrity, and Enlightenment attitudes around society and race to leave his temporary home for England, then return two years later with European mementos and several guns.

Mai was born on the island of Raiatea into a landowning dynasty, or manahune—the society’s second-most powerful class—and fled to Tahiti as a child when warriors from Borabora invaded. Years later, he met Captain James Cook and, in 1774, travelled with Cook to England on the HMS Adventure, allegedly with the goal of acquiring European weaponry to retake his family’s land. In London, he quickly became a celebrity: he met King George III and Queen Charlotte, dined with the Royal Society, visited the theater, and spent a fortune on clothes. During the Enlightenment, European society was captivated by stories of adventure, discovery, and, to some extent, anxiety around racial categories; to the London upper classes, Mai embodied the ideal of the “noble savage” uncorrupted by civilization, a popular trope that originated with racist colonial ideologies that saw non-Europeans as less than human.

According to curator Jonathan Bikker, the portrait of Mai by Sir Joshua Reynolds contains signifiers of the “noble savage.” Mai is captured mid-step and barefoot, one tattooed hand outstretched in a contrapposto inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, and wears a loose-fitting white robe and turban. “He’s presented him as a Roman orator,” Bikker told GARAGE, “and it’s funny that Reynolds painted a lot of his female, British sitters in classical drapery, but none of his male English figures. Omai is the only one to wear classical drapery.” The robe might be made of white tapa, a bark-based textile worn by the Polynesian upper classes, and Reynolds’s choice of costume, pose, and setting link Asian Pacific imagery with the mythic origins of European civilization.

Bikker considers Portrait of Omai an important inclusion to complicate the history the exhibition tells of life-sized, standing portraiture. “If you look at all these paintings—not just the ones in the show, but full-length portraits—ninety percent of them are of white Europeans. Not only is Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai an amazing full-length, but by including it in the show, it alerts the visitor to the fact that this a very European, all-white kind of portrait type.”

After two years in London, Mai returned to Huahine, an island in present-day French Polynesia. He exhorted Cook to help him retake Raiatea so that he could regain control of his family’s land, but Cook was unwilling: instead, he helped install Mai in a European-style home on Huahine. Inside the mansion were gifts from the continent, including a suit of armor from the Earl of Sandwich, a barrel organ, fireworks, portraits of the king and queen, seafaring equipment, and the guns, powder, and stock he had been seeking when he sailed for England. He never regained the land in Raiatea, and passed away roughly two years after his return. But the inclusion of Reynolds’s portrait in “High Society” is an important one: more complicated than a story of colonial exoticization, Mai participated in the production of his own image—and celebrity—at a time when that carried extraordinary power.

sir joshua reynolds