Lessons in life and art from Samoan New Zealand artist Yuki Kihara, Aotearoa’s representative at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2021.
When Yuki Kihara was announced as New Zealand’s next representative at the Venice Biennale, it marked a number of firsts. Not only will Kihara be the first person of Pacific descent to represent New Zealand, she’ll also be the first fa’afafine and the first without formal fine arts training.
A new solo exhibition drawing from Kihara’s dual Japanese and Samoan upbringing opens in Dunedin weekend. Her work is also currently in What a genderful world at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam and Climat Océan at the Musee Maritime de La Rochelle & Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, France. For six months of the year Kihara is based in Apia and travels the rest, including to Amsterdam every year as a research fellow of the Netherland’s National Museum of World Cultures.
All without art school. Which leads us to this new twist on our ongoing series with outstanding artists, Things I Learned At Art School.
Yuki, what did you learn from not going to art school?
How to generate a practice with more than one outcome. I find the pedagogy in art schools heavily theoretical whilst polytechnics are more pragmatic. I think the teaching in art educational institutions should be shaped in response to who is it for; what outcome and what audience each student is aiming for rather than making students aim for an audience expected by the art world.
A couple of years ago, I was a research fellow at an art school where I argued that given the growing ‘browning’ of NZ’s population, coupled with the history of the Treaty of Waitangi and the country’s geographical location, that the faculty staff should consider including Indigenous Pacific material in their coursework. I sensed reluctance – it meant more work for underpaid tutors. For those like me that don’t necessarily come from an orthodox art school training, we bring a different perspective and set of values to the contemporary art discourse.
Which leads me to ask: what did training in fashion design and technology at Wellington Polytechnic give you?
Although I hated the commercial aspect of fashion, it did introduce me to various aspects of manufacturing, including research and development of collections, resourcing materials, production timelining, budget forecasting and marketing. Also I was engaging with Pacific collections in museums – looking at the construction techniques, while everyone else at fashion school were busy looking at French haute couture. To me, I don’t see the difference. They’re both handmade and serve to enhance the mana of the wearer.
Does having immigrated from Samoa at 16 set you apart from other Pasifika or New Zealand-raised artists? What was that culture shift like?
I still remember the first time I arrived in Wellington in the late ’80s. Being overwhelmed, looking at so many Pākehā. I had assumed that NZ was like other Pacific Island countries with Māori everywhere. I came from a middle-class family in Sāmoa with relative privilege, so relating to the Samoan diaspora in NZ was difficult at first, particularly Samoans whose understanding of Sāmoa was steeped in the memories of their parents who left Sāmoa in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I wasn’t part of the history of dawn raids and the subsequent generational trauma in NZ. Around the same time those of us living in Sāmoa were optimistic about the newly found freedom and independence after being ruled by German and NZ colonial administrations. So, being exposed to these multiple universes – including the time I lived in Japan as a child – had an impact on the way I view the world.
Does it help as an artist to feel like an outsider, to not be shy of being outspoken?
When my brother and I first arrived in Wellington, we were enrolled into a boarding school that had a history of Samoan graduates who led successful careers in public office and religious institutions, so there were high family expectations. The majority of the pupils were Pākehā. Being a flamboyant fa’afafine, a Samoan with a Japanese name and a migrant was the perfect combination for white fear and being a target of bullying and physical abuse. Those were some of the toughest days of my life, but I saw it as a boot camp for what I was going to endure in the ‘real world’. I never made a conscious decision to be an outsider but others saw me as one. But being an outsider means you can see things insiders can’t, so I use it to my advantage.
Congratulations on Venice. You’re no stranger to representing internationally. Any tips?
I’ve seen several occasions where New Zealand’s perception of the world and vice versa were lost in translation. There are those in New Zealand that emulate the fashion trends of the art world in Berlin, London and New York. Which they consider progressive and cool. But when you’ve lived and worked in these places as I have, NZ is hardly on the radar. A recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade suggests people in Europe still wonder whether New Zealand has electricity and if people speak English.
The acknowledgement you gain outside NZ for your art practice is often undermined in New Zealand itself. The art world still has growing up to do, but this is slowly changing. The Venice Biennale has over 89 national pavilions and many countries have been going for a very long time. New Zealand only joined in 2001. We’re still considered a newbie, but are also known to punch above our weight. People queue up patiently to enter the New Zealand Pavilion because they want to see something they cannot experience in Berlin, London, New York or elsewhere. So, I hope to make my own mark.
I’m grateful to be working with Natalie King as my curator, who previously curated artist Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition for the Australian Pavilion in 2017. She’s currently curating a major group exhibition as part of the Tokyo Olympics. We’re a dynamic duo I think.
Is Samoa a good place to be as an artist?
We have a humble art scene that’s slowly growing. I hope the current construction of the Sāmoa Arts and Cultural Centre will help boost the exposure of local artists. I’ve presented several projects in collaboration with local artists in Sāmoa which had a mixed reception. I’m currently working towards co-curating a solo exhibition of a local artist tentatively scheduled to open next year; and subsequently a major project marked for 2022 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of independence. Samoans and Pacific people are the primary audience for my work. They are whom I want to empower.
Samoan Queer Lives came out in 2018 – why and how did this project come about?
Samoan Queer Lives is edited by fa’afafine (broadly understood as LGBTIQ+ community in Western context) for a fa’afafine audience and this was important for myself and my New York-based Samoan American co-editor Dan Taulapapa McMullin. There were growing amounts of skewed information and scholarship about fa’afafine by non-fa’afafine that portrayed us in a negative light. 100% of the proceeds from the book goes to supporting local charities the Sāmoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) and The Society of Fa’afafine in American Sāmoa (SOFIA).
My aim was to make space for conversation that no one was having. Fa’afafine were always seen at the fringes of Samoan society, floating somewhere in a background that people would randomly reference as a scapegoat to blame social ills including bad karma, AIDS and even climate change. We wanted Samoan Queer Lives to demystify these stereoptypes and assumptions about us as a community while allowing the audience to delve into personal lives of fa’afafine. Dan and I wanted to profile contributors whom people not necessarily associated with being fa’afafine, such as a carpenter, a school teacher, a lawyer and an activist.
Your new exhibition at Milford Galleries, Dunedin, is quite a shift from the performative photographic and video works you’re best known for.
This is a five year project. The title is from a popular Japanese song entitled ‘サモア島の歌 (Samoatou no uta)’ meaning ‘A song from Samoa’. Music textbooks for elementary school students in Japan feature the song. The lyrics describe Sāmoa as a single island and a paradise on earth settled by ‘noble savages’ – a typically romantic, Orientalist imagining of neighboring Pacific Island nations held by Japan dating back to the seventeenth century. The exhibition consists of Japanese kimonos made from Samoan tapa presented as sculpture; accompanied by a silk kimono formerly worn by my Japanese grandmother Masako Kihara; and a photograph of Masako and Nobuo Kihara (my grandfather).
For me, the Samoan tapa and the Japanese kimono are customary regalia which are repositories of ancestral stories. They extend my interest in textiles. The series sheds light on the lived experience in the Pacific while reframing the Vā or relationship between Japan and the Pacific – specifically Sāmoa.
By the end of the five years the series will consist of 20 kimonos; an archive exhibition and a photographic series featuring myself wearing the tapa kimonos. Each year I will release a new body of work from the series.
As I write, Venice is suffering its second highest tide ever and the mayor is calling a state of emergency. Echoes there of the Pacific. I’m guessing we can expect your show at the Venice Biennale to not be shy of the political….
Being given an opportunity to present your work at the Biennale is not for the fainthearted. The Venice Biennale can either amplify and propel your art practice or it can remain stagnant. Given the scale, your work has to withstand and cut through the excessive ‘noise’ given that the biennale attracts over 500,000 people.
If you want to shy away from saying something you believe in, then you might as well stay at home.