Long road to Venice for artist

An installation view of Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp, curated by Natalie King at the Venice...
An installation view of Yuki Kihara’s Paradise Camp, curated by Natalie King at the Venice Biennale Arte 2022. PHOTO: LUKE WALKER
Dunedin’s Milford Galleries is again at the forefront of New Zealand’s representation at the "Olympics of the art world", the La Biennale di Venezi. Rebecca Fox talks to artist Yuki Kihara and her representative Stephen Higginson about the journey to Venice.

Silicone prosthetics, costume, moustache and wig transform Samoan-New Zealand artist Yuki Kihara into the late post-impressionist French artist Paul Gauguin.

The transformation, inspired by the faleaitu (house of spirits) skits performed in Samoan culture, has Kihara interrogate the "artist" about his paintings of the Pacific.

"It’s a hilarious video," the artist says.

In researching Gauguin (1848-1903), Kihara discovered many of his popular works of French Polynesia had an undeniable likeness to photographs taken in Samoa by New Zealand colonial photographer Thomas Andrew.

The video conversation sits alongside 12 tableau photographs featuring a cast of Samoan Fa’afafine (Samoa’s "third gender"), repurposing and upcycling selected paintings by Gauguin and archive material from the research in Paradise Camp, which was last night unveiled at the La Biennale di Venizi.

Even before the biennale opened, word was out about the first Pacific, Asian and Fa’afafine artist to represent Aotearoa, and her work highlighting issues around gender identity, climate change and colonisation.

Weeks before the opening international media requests began flooding in from organisations such as American television network CNN — all seeking to talk to Kihara.

So she was bracing for some busy days when she arrived, beginning with the installation of Paradise Camp, in the Artiglierie, a central location in the biennale’s Arsenale.

"It’s exciting and exhausting," she said before she left for Venice.

And a long time coming.

Kihara has been working on the project for years and as soon as she was selected by Creative New Zealand as the country’s representative for the biennale in 2021, she and curator Natalie King in November 2019 travelled to Venice to select the gallery space.

Once that was locked in they swung into production, heading to Samoa to film in early 2020.

The timing could not have been better given world events just a month later sent New Zealand into lockdown.

"It was fortuitous when we went into lockdown we were all busy writing."

By this time Kihara and King were well under way, editing the film, photographs and exhibition catalogue as well as the exhibition’s companion book of the same name.

Its contributors include Cuban artist, scholar and activist Coco Fusco, Tahitian author Chantal Spitz, Samoan artist and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin, renowned Gauguin scholar Prof Elizabeth Childs, Filipino curator Patrick Flores, Maori activist, Emeritus Prof and venerable elder scholar Ngahuia Te Awekotuku.

"The book charts Kihara’s alternative, queer world that is both confronting and hypnotic in its humanity, while redrawing the afflictions of colonisation," King says.

They were also watching closely the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on Italy and were not surprised when the 2021 event was postponed until this year.

"Every time I saw an upsurge in Italy I’d panic as we didn’t really know if it would go ahead or not."

But Covid-19 did impact on the fundraising aspect of the process.

Kihara describes the journey to Venice as "very up and down".

"It’s taken a toll on me personally, the stress I’ve endured, the impact it had in my house, my own spirituality.

"I feel very bruised by the whole experience but I’ve tried to keep my head above the water and forge ahead.

"I can’t break down as I have all these people who have contributed who want the best for it."

Stephen Higginson, of Dunedin’s Milford Gallery, who represents Kihara, agrees it has been a difficult few years for the artist as the pandemic threatened all they had been working for.

To help ensure Kihara’s work made it to Venice and is seen by as many as possible there, Milford Gallery, Pataka Foundation and supporters sponsored the New Zealand pavilion.

However, Kihara knows it will be worth it to see the results of many years’ work finally installed for people around the world to view.

The concept behind the works comes from the idea of paradise first espoused by the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and its translation over time to the creation of tourism and its marketing of paradise and the Pacific today.

Samoan-New Zealand artist Yuki Kihara at the entrance to her exhibition at the New Zealand...
Samoan-New Zealand artist Yuki Kihara at the entrance to her exhibition at the New Zealand Pavillion in Venice. PHOTO: LUKE WALKER

"Whether you want to google Samoa, Vanuatu, Tahiti or Hawaii, the predominant image of paradise that is marketed in tourism is of cisgender heterosexual couples holding hands, walking along the beachside."

In Samoa, Kihara’s home country, the dominant industry is tourism and it is reliant on that "perfect" image of a heterosexual white married couple on their honeymoon or cisgender Samoan couple performing for tourists.

"It is constantly being marketed out into the world."

Yet for generations the Fa’afafine has been part of Pacific society although an often ignored and subverted one.

"It’s ironic, that is despite the fact that many members of the fa’afafine community are actively involved in the tourism industry."

Much of that view of paradise originated in Gauguin’s imagining of paradise, she says.

On a 2008 trip to the United States for a solo exhibition "Living Photographs" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York she saw a painting by Gauguin. Sitting in front of it, she began to ponder the relationship between colonisation and indigenous queer people.

"I had an epiphany."

Gauguin’s work is seen as a visual recording of Tahitian and Marquesas Islands’ communities of the time.

"I decided to look deeper into the archives."

Kihara found records of Gauguin’s visit to New Zealand where he visited Auckland Museum and Art Gallery which was showing photographs of Andrew’s work in Samoa. Gauguin made sketches of these works which later became popular post cards depicting Pacific paradise.

"He appears to be the main source of the paintings Gauguin passed off as Tahitian.

"I had another epiphany, that means any of these paintings produced during his time in Tahiti and the Marquesas could be Samoan so I decided to upcycle his paintings and put it in a Samoan setting."

Kihara describes the video work talking with Gauguin as an "episodic talkshow". First Impressions: Paul Gauguin is a five-part series of 13 minutes each, edited that way to enable them to air on national television in Samoa.

The series filmed on location in Upolu island and commissioned by Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen in 2019, also includes groups of fa’afafine, who do not know of Gauguin’s works, critiquing his paintings.

"They have no idea of who Paul Gauguin is.

"It’s hilarious. They talk about the changes that need to be made to improve and enhance it. It is their honest opinions without being influenced by Western art history."

For the piece featuring Kihara, it took three to four hours to transform the artist into Gauguin and she had an acting coach to help her get into his persona.

"I’d never acted that way. It was really challenging."

Kihara says Paradise Camp is a "conflation" of ideas woven together.

To create the works took about 100 people and they were shot across five villages formerly devastated by a tsunami in 2009.

"It shows the impact of climate change. Samoa is at the front line of climate change."

Damning reports out of New Zealand and Australia show the island nation is predicted to suffer sea level rises higher than elsewhere, ocean acidification, erosion, coral bleaching and frequent cyclones.

"It makes Samoa pretty vulnerable. Eighty percent of the population live alongside the coastlines."

While climate change impacts everybody, Kihara says it hits Fa’afafine, LGBQ, non-binary and transgender communities even more as they have fewer resources to deal with the problems as government policy and aid is directed through a Western binary lens which excludes those communities.

"It is one of the many things I’m trying to highlight in Paradise Camp, specifically the impact on fa’afafine in environmental crisis — it is an issue nobody knows about or cares [about].

"To say everybody has the same blanket experience of climate crisis is not true — some are more impacted than others."

Another aspect of Paradise Camp is Kihara’s archives which she describes as "Varchive" — using the Samoan concept of Va to describe her relationship with her archive of research.

It includes copies of her personal research, rare books by 19th century explorers, colonial portraits, pamphlets, news items, a geological sculpture, activist material and visual links between Gauguin and Samoa including the page from the gallery’s visitor book with Gauguin’s signature on it.

"These factual archives come together to argue for what I’m talking about in my work.

"Through this, the archive doesn’t become storage for dead information but rather a living entity that helps to provide new meaning in the present and what it might mean in the future."

Kihara hopes the exhibition will champion marginalised voices and prompt people to think about how they see their own societies.

"Paradise Camp was primarily made for fa’afafine audiences as I want to keep empowering them."

But Kihara did not want to stand alone at Venice so she established the Firsts Solidarity Network inviting first-time artists to the biennale to support each other, and hosted an informal gathering of the artists from six countries before the opening.

Stephen Higginson, director of Milford Gallery, with a work from Yuki Kihara called Two Fa...
Stephen Higginson, director of Milford Gallery, with a work from Yuki Kihara called Two Fa’afafine at the Milford Gallery earlier this month. PHOTO:PETER MCINTOSH
"We’ll collaborate with events over the course of the seven months.

"Previous iterations have been quite insular so I wanted to broaden it out and be part of a global community."

The "enormous response" to the exhibition before it even opened from media was a "good sign", she says.

"They can’t get enough of it," she observed.

Higginson, who represented Lisa Reihana, New Zealand’s representative in 2017, is also pleased with the response.

"The attention it is getting is unprecedented but New Zealand art is now at that level."

He came across Kihara’s work 15 years ago, recognising its uniqueness and quality after seeing one work.

"It stuck in my mind long enough I had to do something about it. So I sent an email saying I was very interested."

They have been working together ever since.

Higginson and his wife, Niki, provide a trusted sounding board role as well as organisation and logistical support.

"It’s a team approach here at the gallery. We want to help her be the best possible she can be not just in New Zealand but on the world stage."

Being a Dunedin-based gallery does not come into it, in these days of the internet where businesses can strive to be the best in the business irrespective of their location, he says.

"It doesn’t matter where you are; it just matters how damn good you are."

He believes the response to New Zealand art is due to its coherence and its different cultural identity.

"It’s identified by people outside far more than we ourselves recognise."

For the first time the Higginsons will travel to Venice where they are anticipating a very busy time as they look to harness the interest in Kihara. It is expected there will be a number of major announcements about the future of the exhibition.

They will also get to experience the biennale which features the best of the best of the art world from about 80 countries.

"All the major curators and institutions of the world go there and see it."

New Zealanders will also get to see Paradise Camp from the comfort of their homes. Thanks to Covid-19, a major effort has been made to create a virtual experience of the exhibition enabling an exhibition walk-through and for audiences to watch and hear Kihara speaking to her research and creative process.


La Biennale di Venezia 2022


 - Runs from April 23 to November 27

 - The "International Exhibition" includes 213 artists from 58 countries

 - 1433 works and objects on display

 - 80 new projects conceived especially for the biennale.

 - In 2017, 615,000 visitors attended the biennale.


New Zealand at Venice

 - New Zealand has exhibited there since 2001

 - Funded and managed by Creative New Zealand plus patrons and sponsors

 - Led by Creative New Zealand Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa.

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