Omai, Mai, and Joshua Reynolds: A Portrait of the Pacific Borderlands
For many scholars, Joshua Reynolds’s Omai (1775-76) has become an icon of the eighteenth-century imperialist gaze — a representation of European discourses about race, culture, and gender. However, even as the painting has become central to various theoretical and historiographical arguments, the complexities of its production and circulation have been obscured. This essay challenges us to reject simplistic readings and to revisit Omai by analyzing it as the product of a cultural negotiation between sitter and painter, both of whom saw its creation as mutually advantageous. Rather than being a hegemonic representation of the ‘other’, the portrait reveals the agency of its subject and provides new avenues for understanding the history of eighteenth-century contact zones.