VENICE — Sāmoa is often depicted by outsiders as a paradise: white sandy beaches edged with palm trees, cocktail bars, and colorful “local life.” Travel agencies and cruise liners sell a familiar colonial story of exoticism and beauty, illustrated by photographs of newlywed couples walking hand in hand along tropical shorelines.
This image of paradise used to sell a vision of Sāmoa to tourists is both glamorized and deeply heteronormative. Many aspects of Sāmoa’s past and present are excluded from this commercial concept, such as the island nation’s vulnerability to climate disaster, its heritage as a colony of Germany and New Zealand, and the presence of a thriving LGBTQ+ community. In particular, commercial narratives erase the stories of Fa’afafine people, Sāmoan for “in the manner of a woman,” referring to Sāmoa’s third gender community.
These untold stories of a marginalized community are made visible in the work of artist Yuki Kihara, a New Zealander of Sāmoan and Japanese descent, representing New Zealand at this year’s Venice Biennale with Paradise Camp. Born in Sāmoa, she moved to New Zealand as a teenager for her studies. For the past decade, she has primarily lived and worked in her home nation. Kihara is the first artist to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale who is Pasifika, Asian, and Fa’afafine.
Kihara attempts to challenge and undermine colonial images of Sāmoa through a radical camp aesthetic (as alluded to in the pavilion’s title). The artist offers a new term for imagining a camp notion of paradise defined by Pasifika Indigenous communities: “In-drag-enous.” The installation revolves around a central cast of Sāmoan Fa’afafine people, who Kihara invited to pose for a series of 12 color-saturated tableau photographs, each of which reworks a specific painting by Gauguin. The works are inspired by Sāmoa’s annual Fa’afafine beauty pageant, for which Kihara was a judge in 2017. These entertaining events are expressions of LGBTQ+ empowerment and also raise awareness of issues faced by the Fa’afafine community.
In the words of curator Natalie King in the accompanying hardcover publication, the New Zealand pavilion is “an ensemble exhibition.” The 12 photographs are set against specially designed geometric wallpaper and a blown-up image of an apparently paradisal beach, which was decimated by the 2009 tsunami. The walls also feature a colorful display of vintage travel posters advertising cruises to the Pacific islands, newspaper cuttings, archival photographs, and pamphlets, contextualizing historic colonial representations of Sāmoa and its people.
In addition, the installation includes a multipartite film composed primarily of an episodic talk show series created by Kihara, in which a group of Fa’afafine people comment on Gauguin’s paintings. The participants’ commentary is appealingly catty, with sassy comments about each others’ habits and appearances mixed in with insightfully witty statements about the white male colonial gaze that permeates Gauguin’s images. Although enjoyable, the film suffered from some frustratingly patchy subtitling accompanied by a soundtrack that was not loud enough to hear clearly, resulting in elements being missed. The Arsenale exhibition spaces are inevitably echoey, and the New Zealand pavilion shares a room with the Albanian pavilion, meaning that the New Zealand team perhaps has less control over the acoustics or atmosphere than they might have preferred.
Kihara focuses particularly on Gauguin’s paintings with androgynous figures. At first glance, the artist’s interest in addressing and reclaiming Gauguin’s images feels unlikely; Gauguin never visited Sāmoa, instead spending time in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Yet, as the accompanying publication explains, although Gauguin primarily referred to the Tahitian Mahu third gender community, Kihara’s extensive research suggests Gauguin was familiar with 19th-century photographs of Sāmoan people and incorporated elements of them into his works. For example, in “Three Tahiti(Samo)ans (After Gauguin)” (2018-20), which restages the 1899 painting “Three Tahitians,” Kihara highlights Gauguin’s apparent inclusion of a tattooed Sāmoan figure based on a 19th-century photograph by New Zealander Thomas Andrew.
In Gauguin’s paintings, exoticized and stereotyped people and landscapes mask the violence of colonialism and its serious material impact on Pacific islands, their societies, and their ecologies. Kihara refers to her practice as “upcycling” Gauguin’s paintings, breaking the implicit white male gaze of Gauguin’s world by reframing the images in terms of reciprocity; Fa’afafine models captured by a Fa’afafine photographer with a primary audience of other Fa’afafine people. Through this process, Kihara creates a counter-narrative that is both intimately familiar and radically subversive.
In the film, the talk show clips are interspersed with footage from Fa’afafine pageants, commentary on news stories, and interviews with members of the Fa’afafine community as they take part in a workshop run by the Sāmoan council on climate change. Kihara considers how Fa’afafine people in particular are affected by natural disasters. Indigenous peoples around the world face the worst impact of climate breakdown, such as rising sea levels, as evidenced by the effect of the 2009 tsunami on Sāmoa, a low-lying island nation.
In the film, Fa’afafine people comment that some members of their community have been rejected by their families or have struggled with homelessness or a lack of support, hindering their capacity to deal with a crisis; and they are more likely to face discrimination from aid organizations or shelters, or as refugees. However, the film also points to tools, such as collaborative workshops, with which Fa’afafine communities might work together with climate activists and planners to find shared solutions.
Kihara signs off the exhibition with a flourish in the form of a witty photographic self-portrait in drag as Gauguin. Through prosthetics, costume, and makeup, Kihara performs, parodies, and upcycles Gauguin and his legacy; the work is a microcosm of Kihara’s approach to Sāmoa’s colonial history and her suggestion of a radical “in-drag-enous” alternative.
Yuki Kihara: Paradise Camp continues at the 59th Venice Biennale through November 27. The pavilion was curated by Natalie King.