The Venice Biennale is considered one of the most prestigious art events in the world, but Yuki Kihara seems more weary than excited. When asked how it feels to be representing Aotearoa New Zealand with her exhibition Paradise Camp, she says, “I feel like it’s long overdue.” The biennale has already been postponed a year due to the pandemic. For a time, it seemed unclear whether it would go ahead at all.
Curated by Natalie King, Paradise Camp comprises 12 tableau photographs that offer a winking response to the paintings of French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin and a wry comment on tourism and the climate crisis. The photographs are presented alongside a five-part video talk show, and wallpaper depicting Samoa’s tsunami-devastated landscape. Prominent in every element of the show are fa’afafine – a Sāmoan term that literally means “in the manner of a woman” and refers to third gender people in both singular and plural.
The show has been eight years in the making, and its origins extend even further back, depending on where you decide to start the story. You might begin with the aftermath of the 2009 tsunami, when Kihara noticed that fa’afafine were among the first to volunteer on the frontlines of disaster recovery, yet had to camp out in abandoned houses because they were excluded from emergency shelters.
Or you might trace it back to 2008, when she encountered Gauguin’s paintings in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where her solo exhibition was being held. Or even 1992, when Maori scholar and lesbian activist Ngahuia Te Awekotuku presented a paper at Auckland Art Gallery on seeing transgender ancestors in the faces of Gauguin’s Polynesian models – a text that Kihara has published in the book accompanying her exhibition.
In any case, the result is an exhibition that talks back to canon, that reframes the archive as a living conversation, and also calls forward the fa’afafine community today to share her platform in Venice. It’s a show that defies the image of the artist as a lone genius.
“It’s really hard to talk about myself without talking about the community I come from that forms my context,” Kihara says.
Kihara saw the Venice Biennale as an opportunity to build fa’afafine capital. That meant using her funding to upskill fa’afafine in roles in front of and behind the camera. She has also stipulated that galleries can only exhibit Paradise Camp if they have gender-neutral bathrooms – a request that has been met with radio silence from some institutions.
“It doesn’t make sense for you to program a trans artist in your exhibition when you’re actually not accommodating for trans audiences,” Kihara says. “It’s like, you thought you could tick the box with me.”
While press releases for the exhibition highlight the milestone that Kihara embodies – the first Pacific, Asian and fa’afafine artist to represent Aotearoa in Venice – she is careful to centre her communities, rather than herself. “I’m not the peak of this movement … it shouldn’t start and finish with me,” she insists. At Venice, she’s initiated the Firsts Solidarity Network, to support and connect other artists who represent “firsts” for the biennale or their countries’ pavilions.
Born in Samoa to a Japanese father and Samoan mother in 1975, Kihara has lived in Samoa, Indonesia, Japan, and Aotearoa. The fraught imperial histories and continuing imbalances of power between these countries is something that she often explores in her work, such as her series of kimono sculptures made from Samoan bark cloth.
The Samoa-New Zealand relationship forms the backdrop to Paradise Camp: on the eve of Samoa’s independence in 1962, New Zealand’s colonial government introduced the crimes ordinance 1961, which criminalised female impersonation and homosexuality.
“I think they wanted to highlight fa’afafine community being a hindrance to post-colonial nation building,” Kihara says. Though the law was changed in 2013, its legacy continues to fuel discrimination, and homosexuality remains illegal in Samoa today.
With all of this in mind, how does Kihara feel about the ambassadorial implications of representing Aotearoa at Venice?
“The idea of nationalism is something I constantly question, because these borders are man-made for the purpose of the generation of economy, security, and privilege,” she says. “But I do feel that being given this honour to represent a country is very humbling, and the fact that I’m using the New Zealand pavilion to talk about a Samoan story is even more special.”
Paradise Camp dissects the disconnect between the representation and reality of Samoa. This can be seen in the imagery that’s frequently used to market Samoa overseas: despite tourism being one of the country’s primary industries and a major employer of fa’afafine, gender diversity disappears in the glossy brochures. The climate crisis is also erased. “It always features white heterosexual couples that are just recently married, and they’re holding hands, walking alongside a sunset on a beach that’s really clean,” Kihara says.
She pushes the picturesque landscape to a surreal, camp extreme, asking viewers to look behind the beautiful facade to villages affected by erosion, rising sea levels, and increasing natural disasters, to the point where local television stations repeatedly run announcements explaining what to do when the siren goes off.
“This notion of ‘paradise’ masks the realities of living in Samoa, and environmental crisis is part of that because it’s part of our daily life,” Kihara says.
For all its prestige, Venice is just a stepping stone, before Paradise Camp eventually returns to its geographic origin and spiritual home.
“The only way to take it back to Samoa was to show it at Venice,” Kihara explains. “I just can’t wait to get it over and done with, and take it back to Samoa … Because that’s where I feel the real change needs to happen.”