The Venice Biennale is considered one of the most prestigious art events in the world, but Yuki Kihara seems tired rather than excited. Asked how it is to represent New Zealand’s Aatearoa at her Paradise Camp exhibition, she replies: “I think it’s long overdue.” The Biennale has already been postponed for a year due to the pandemic. For a while it seemed unclear whether it would work at all.
Paradise Camp consists of 12 table photos that throw a wink in response to a painting by French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin and go on to comment on tourism and the climate crisis. The photos are presented along with a five-part video talk show and wallpaper depicting the landscape of Samoa devastated by the tsunami. A bright place in every element of the show is occupied by fa’afafine – a Samoan term that literally means “feminine” and refers to people of the third sex, both singular and plural.
The show has been around for eight years, and its origins go back even further, depending on where you decide to start the story. You can start with the aftermath of the 2009 tsunami, when Kihara noticed that the Theophanes were among the first to volunteer for advanced disaster relief, but were forced to settle in abandoned homes because they were excluded from emergency shelters.
Or you can trace it to 2008 when she met Gauguin’s paintings in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum. Art in New York, where her personal exhibition took place. Or even in 1992, when Maori scholar and lesbian activist Ngahuya Te Avekatuku presented a report at the Auckland Art Gallery on how she sees transgender ancestors in the faces of Gauguin’s Polynesian models, a text published by Kihara in a book accompanying her exhibition.
Either way, the result is an exhibition that returns to the canon, which turns the archive into a lively conversation, and encourages the fa’afafin community to share its platform in Venice. It is a show that challenges the image of the artist as a lone genius.
“It’s really hard to talk about myself, not to mention the community I come from, which shapes my context,” says Kihara.
Kihara saw the Venice Biennale as an opportunity to build a faofafin capital. This meant using her funding to enhance the skill of fa’afafin in roles in front of and behind the camera. She also noted that galleries can exhibit Paradise Camp only if they have gender-neutral bathrooms – a request that has been met with radio silence by some institutions.
“You don’t have to program a trans artist in your exhibition if you’re not really adapting to the trans audience,” says Kihara. “It’s like, you thought you could tick me off.”
Although the exhibition’s press releases highlight the milestone embodied by Chihara, the first Pacific, Asian and Oofafin artist to represent Aatearoa in Venice, she cares about centering her communities, not herself. “I am not the peak of this movement … it should not begin and end with me,” she insists. In Venice, she initiated the creation of the Firsts Solidarity Network to support and bring together other artists representing the “first” at the biennial or pavilions of their countries.
Kihara was born in Samoa to a Japanese father and a Samoan mother in 1975. Kihara has lived in Samoa, Indonesia, Japan and Aatearoa. The difficult imperial history and the constant imbalance of power between these countries is something she often explores in her work, for example, in her series of kimono sculptures made from the fabric of the Samoan bark.
Relations between Samoa and New Zealand form the backdrop for Paradise Camp: on the eve of Samoa’s independence in 1962, the colonial government of New Zealand introduced a 1961 crime decree criminalizing the publication of women and homosexuality.
“I think they wanted to emphasize that the olfactory community is hindering post-colonial nation-building,” Kihara said. Although the law was amended in 2013, its legacy continues to contribute to discrimination, and homosexuality remains illegal in Samoa today.
Given all this, how does Kihara feel about the ambassadorial implications of Aatearoa’s representation in Venice?
“The idea of nationalism is something I question all the time, because these boundaries were created by man to create economy, security and privileges,” she said. “But I feel that getting this honor to represent the country is very humiliating, and the fact that I’m using the New Zealand pavilion to tell the story of Samoa is even more special.”
Paradise Camp analyzes the gap between representation and the reality of Samoa. This can be seen in the images often used to sell Samoa abroad: although tourism is a major industry in the country and a major employer of fa’afafine, gender diversity is disappearing in glossy brochures. The climate crisis is also being erased. “It always features white heterosexual couples who have just gotten married and they are holding hands, walking near the sunset on a really clean beach,” says Kihara.
It pushes the scenic landscape to a surreal camp extreme, asking viewers to look beyond the beautiful façade at villages affected by erosion, rising sea levels and natural disasters, to the point that local TV stations repeatedly broadcast ads explaining what to do when siren.
“This notion of‘ paradise ’masks the realities of life in Samoa, and the environmental crisis is part of that because it’s part of our daily lives,” Kihara says.
For all its prestige, Venice is only a stepping stone to how Paradise Camp will eventually return to its geographical origins and spiritual home.
“The only way to bring it back to Samoa is to show it in Venice,” explains Kihara. “I just can’t wait for it to end and go back to Samoa … Because I feel there needs to be real change.”
The Venice Biennale valid until November 27. In 2023, Paradise Camp will head to the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney and the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland.