Yuki Kihara is a fa‘afafine artist whose work investigates and reinterprets colonial fantasies of the Pacific – opening the door for others to do the same. By Tristen Harwood.

Artist Yuki Kihara

Portrait photograph of Yuki Kihara in greyscale.
Yuki Kihara.
Credit: Gui Taccetti

The night before we talk, I get an email from Yuki Kihara. She has just flown in from South Korea and needs to clarify the time of our interview. “Sorry,” she says in a follow-up email, “my world time clock is all over the place.”

The exchange is a fitting introduction to Kihara, whose art embodies what it means to be truly transnational. It’s not so much that Kihara’s circadian rhythms are out of whack – anyone who has taken a 12-hour flight will know the feeling – but that through her work she exists across multiple time zones.

When Kihara and I meet the next day, there’s no hint of jet lag or of the sense that she’s perennially in transit. She emanates a warm intelligence, her speech direct but mellifluous. I notice that she often leaves an open moment between my questions and her answers. It isn’t so much hesitation as a space of contemplation.

She’s in Canberra to present at the “To Hell with Drowning” conference at the Australian National University. The conference – which she tells me starts immediately after our interview – focuses on the need to resist reductive and fatalist narratives of climate change about Oceania.

Kihara is an artist of Japanese and Sāmoan descent who is recognised internationally for her interdisciplinary work – often using photography and textiles – that confronts the construction of historical “truths” in Western discourse and art. In 2022, Kihara was the first Pacific Islander and first fa‘afafine artist to represent the Aotearoa/New Zealand pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale.

Her lush photography, such as Paradise Camp (2020–ongoing), unravels depictions of gender, culture and the Pacific and Indigenous peoples from her own perspective as a member of the fa‘afafine community, Sāmoan for “in the manner of a woman”, broadly understood as third-gender/non-binary/transgender.

I ask Kihara if she has always been an artist and she pauses before answering. Kihara, who was born in Sāmoa and migrated to Aotearoa in 1989, always wanted to go to art school but, as she puts it: “My dad said there was no money in being an artist.”

She isn’t bitter when she recalls her decision to study elsewhere. “I thought that the only way that I could compensate for my creativity was to do something else that was other than an artist,” she says. “And so, another thing that I was interested in other than art was fashion. I was formally trained as a fashion designer.” Her tuition was completed in 1996 at Wellington Polytechnic, a trade school course designed to prepare students for work in the industry.

Well before fashion students interested in sculptural form had exposure to designers such as Rick Owens, Kihara was experimenting. “I was expected to go straight into the trade but the thing is that, during my time at fashion school, I was very much treating clothing like sculpture,” she says. “I saw cloth as sculptural material.”

In New Zealand in the mid-1990s, the local industry wasn’t ready for Kihara’s approach to garment making. “A lot of the things that I was making were quite avant-garde … so when I graduated from fashion school in 1996 and went out there into the fashion industry, nobody would give me a job because my work was considered too theatrical.”

At this point, her father’s advice hadn’t completely backfired: her skill set got her work as a wardrobe manager and stylist in the performing arts. Kihara carved a niche, becoming the go-to for anything in the performing arts that had to do with clothing and the body. At this time she was introduced to photography and video, both of which became vital to her artistic practice.

“What I was doing was actually realising other peoples’ visions – you know, I was given a brief by my employer and it’s usually ‘I’m there to accomplish the director’s vision’.” After a couple of years, she decided to take “the best of everything that I’d learnt in the creative industry and then adapt it into my own art practice”.

Her background in theatre isn’t surprising for anyone who has seen Kihara’s photographic vignettes. One example of her attention to body adornment and theatricality is Two Fa‘afafine (After Gauguin) (2020), a tableaux-like photograph of two figures (fa‘afafine) standing amid verdant palms, dressed up like characters in a play. Everything in the scene – from the garments the figures wear, to palms and other plants, a fruit platter and some freshly plucked white flowers – functions as adornment.

Kihara aims to queer the colonial historical narrative. She calls her process “In-drag-enous”. “So, you know,” she says, “it’s putting Indigenous in drag.” In Two Fa‘afafine (After Gauguin) the mise en scène is camp, with an eloquent theatricality. This allows the two fa‘afafine models to play at being represented without being enclosed by their representations.

She is an artist concerned with unpicking the master narrative or narrative of “masters”. In First Impressions: Paul Gauguin, Kihara collaborates with Sāmoan fa‘afafine community members to reinterpret Gauguin. A five-part video series, stylised in the fashion of a high camp daytime talk show, the show’s participants give their first impressions of the post-Impressionist paintings and discuss their own experiences.

Kihara didn’t only become a visual artist after leaving garment design behind: she also curates and writes. It’s part of a multifaceted practice that includes her presentation at the “To Hell with Drowning” conference and her participation at the symposium at the 14th Gwangju Biennale soft and weak like water, where she is also an exhibiting artist – the reason why she was in South Korea. For soft and weak like water, which is showing at the same time as Paradise Camp at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Kihara created a series of kimono using Sāmoan bark cloth, a paper-like textile made from the soft inner back of u‘a (paper mulberry trees). Following its exhibition at Powerhouse Ultimo, Paradise Camp will tour to Saletoga Sands Resort in Sāmoa in 2024.

Contemporary art has all but done away with the discrete art object and this is how Kihara works. Her engagement in discourse, aesthetics, community-building and ecological care are all part of the daily work of the art.

From early on, Kihara’s practice was transnational rather than global – as much as her work inhabits multiple spaces across the world, it always possesses a regional specificity. In 1999 she co-curated Hand in Hand with Jenny Fraser. Presented at Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Co-operative and performance space as a part of the Sydney Mardi Gras, it featured more than 30 queer Indigenous artists from across Oceania. There is a deep resonance between her work and that of Boomalli founding artists Fiona Foley and Tracey Moffatt, whose work critiques the reproduction of colonial power.

In 2008 Kihara became the first Pasifika artist and fa‘afafine artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Shigeyuki Kihara: Living Photographs reworked historical photographs and postcards used by Europeans and settlers to exoticise and stereotype Pacific Islander peoples, and restaged a studio tableaux.

Her ideas for Paradise Camp began to stir at the Met, after she saw some paintings from Gauguin. In Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey (2008), Kihara writes: “I remember thinking how strange it was to be in front of his paintings, as if time and space had collapsed. Here we were as artists from two different parts of the world having a dialogue in two different moments in history.”

Here was Kihara, in the Met, looking at work by Gauguin, a non-Indigenous artist who represented and exoticised Indigenous people to non-Indigenous audiences, one of the fountainheads of the colonial epistemic theft that has inflected perceptions of Pacific Islander peoples by stealing the possibility for self-representation. “It bothered me that some of the models and some of the background in Gauguin’s paintings looked very Sāmoan,” says Kihara.

To make Paradise Camp, Kihara went through all the paintings that Gauguin produced in his time in French Polynesia and selected 12 that she felt resembled people and places in Sāmoa, particularly the fa‘afafine community. Kihara’s Paradise Camp, curated by Natalie King, is at its core a suite of 12 tableaux-style photographs, which reference – or “upcycle”, as Kihara calls it – scenes from those paintings. These are then set against a wallpaper that shows the devastation from the 2009 tsunami in Sāmoa.

Kihara uses an oversaturation of colour and imagery to illuminate the “paradise” element of the work. A term loaded with Christian, colonial and neo-colonial overtones, “paradise” here is shown up as farcical, with the installation, unnervingly, drawing a connection between the kind of travel stand, tourist brochure representations of island culture and the typically denuded surfaces of the art gallery.

Gauguin’s historical debt might be unpayable but Kihara manages to salvage something beautiful from his reductive renderings of Pasifika peoples. In doing so, she ruptures the racist, colonial tropes underpinning the originals, breathing new life into the figures from the paintings, which, in a way, become embodied by the living models in her photographs.

By interrupting Gauguin’s legacy, she does not disregard his paintings so much as make the painter’s work face its own past. To get there, Kihara makes Gauguin’s imagery and motifs “In-drag-enous”, bringing to mind writer and academic Saidiya Hartman’s idea of troubling “the line between history and imagination”.

“In Sāmoa we have four culturally recognised genders. We have tāne (cisgender man), fafine (cisgender woman), we have fa‘afafine, which uses the prefix fa‘a, meaning ‘in the manner of’, with the fafine, meaning ‘woman’, used to describe those like myself, biologically assigned male at birth, who expressed their gender in a feminine way. And we also have fa‘afatama, meaning in the manner of a man – those assigned female at birth, who expressed their gender in a masculine way. We’re culturally recognised but not legally recognised, which is a problem because it means a lot of our experience is disregarded by governments.”

Breaking new ground in multiple ways, in contexts such as the Venice Biennale, came with a lot of pressure. “Being the first, you’re not only breaking a glass ceiling; you know, people always compare you to others,” Kihara says. “I felt like if I didn’t do a good job, they might shut the door, so I wanted to use the opportunity to swing the door wide open.”

To try to “swing the door wide open”, she created the Firsts Solidarity Network, to bring together others who were firsts, such as Sonia Boyce, the first Black woman to represent Britain, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, the first Roma artist to represent Poland, and so forth. Forever building community through and around her work, Kihara also used the opportunity to upskill fa‘afafine in roles working in front of and behind the camera for Paradise Camp.

Our Zoom call cuts out as Kihara is mid-speech. She’s talking about the need for national pavilions to have more firsts. “Where are the artists with disabilities, the artists from refugee backgrounds … if they see themselves as being democratic nations?”

I imagine what she’s saying flowing into the conference she’ll soon attend. Not in those words exactly, but the sentiment, the deep belief that the very idea of categorisation as it has been inherited from the Western tradition – underpinned by colonialism, epistemic, racial and gendered violence – needs to be excavated and reconfigured. In her work, Kihara attends to community, the interior lives of peoples who in colonial archives and Western art had previously been rendered objects. This is the door that Kihara, in all her various work, swings wide open.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Firsts among equals".

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