Breaking the mould

by Mark Amery / 11 April, 2013

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Shigeyuki Kihara works fluidly across cultures, creative disciplines and artistic media … and understands the value of a good hustle.
Artist Shigeyuki Kihara is a phenomenon. A distinctive star in the cultural firmament. Self-taught, tough and outspoken, she also isn’t afraid to push.

“I’ve been taught by the hustle,” Kihara says unapologetically, ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Hocken in Dunedin. “I’ve learnt how to survive on $5, networking and meeting people. When I see all these artists come out of art school and they ask me how to write an application, I say, ‘What the f--- did you do at art school?’ There’s so much emphasis on students developing an idea, which I think is important, but they don’t teach the hustle, the real-deal art world.”

A Japanese Samoan fa’afafine (third-gender Samoan), Kihara works fluidly across cultures, creative disciplines and artistic media. She raises questions about what Samoan and New Zealand identity could be in our post-colonial situation. This is encapsulated in a Paul Gauguin quote borrowed to title her just-finished Milford Galleries Dunedin exhibition of photographs: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Shigeyuki Kihara and her Roman Catholic Church, Apia (2013), from "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

“I think these are important questions. Universal, but also current to the Samoan political landscape. We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary of independence, we’re still recovering from the tsunami and the recent cyclone, and there’s all this political corruption, over-dependency on foreign aid and disapora experiences.

“I’m asking Samoans to go back to the drawing board. Does the way we’re living now globally represent the hopes and dreams of our ancestors? Sometimes I question the ‘progress’. We came to New Zealand to be independent but we are dependent on so many things.”

If Kihara is an outsider – working across previously drawn cultural lines – it’s a position that’s been accepted. Last year, she was awarded both the Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award and a New Generation Award from the Arts Foundation. She was the first New Zealander to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2008) and works and performances have been presented in major exhibitions, here and internationally.

Kihara was born in Samoa. Her Japanese civil engineer father’s company had a contract to build infrastructure there – roads, bridges, airports. Such architecture forms part of the background for the Milford Galleries suite of Samoan-set photographs, through which Kihara moves like a ghost in Victorian mourning dress.

Shortly after she was born, her father was posted to Jakarta for five years. Seven years in his hometown of Osaka followed, and then back to Samoa.

“Samoa was a big culture shock. When I was growing up, I thought I was Japanese. I couldn’t speak English or Samoan. My next wave of culture shock was when I came here in 1989 as a 15-year-old. I’d never seen sheep in my life.”

Kihara went to boarding school at St Patrick’s College in Lower Hutt. As a boy, she was expected to follow the family tradition and become a governor or politician and play an important part in Samoan life. So what happened?

“Well, I think I came out all right, don’t you think?” she retorts theatrically, with a toss of her long hair. “I was surrounded by white boys who came from farming families who had never met people of colour in their life, unless they were in a dairy or fish and chip shop.”

Kihara wanted to go to art school but her father said no. Instead she chose fashion design at Wellington Polytechnic. When she was still a student, Te Papa bought a dress she designed and made – Graffiti Dress “Bombacific” (1995).

“I found alcohol, I found men. It was great. I partied, but then I decided I’d better take myself seriously. I would make all of these outfits, but when I took my portfolio to all these different places, they just said, ‘You’re just too out there for us.’ I was wanting to trade on the creative adrenalin, so I ended up making clothes for dance and theatre, which is how I met the Maori and Pacific Island theatre community at Taki Rua.”

Kihara also got a job at a hair salon, where they staged “really avant-garde fashion shows”, allowing her to use costume and adornment as a form of theatre. She became a fashion stylist and first gained wider attention with her T-shirts, popular with the hip-hop and theatre communities. These were the sort that have since become ubiquitous, parodying corporate logos: The Warehouse became The Whorehouse; KFC, KKK. Exhibited and later bought by Te Papa in 2001, they, too, ruffled feathers.

Since moving to Auckland, Kihara has built a career in the visual arts with photography, video and performance. In these works, she can be found in character centre-frame. They form the focus of the Hocken exhibition.

In her art, Kihara engages in a form of historical revisionism, reinterpreting the 19th-century representation of Samoans by the likes of Alfred Burton and Thomas Andrew. The dusky maiden becomes a fa’afafine eyeballing the camera.

“When artists ask me how to write an application, I say, ‘What the f--- did you do at art school?

With her more recent work using Victorian mourning dress, she is responding to a deep need to connect to the Samoan grandmother she never met. “I almost use her like a muse. In many of the photographs, I don’t see myself in it. It’s like how a playwright comes up with a plot around a protagonist. When they exhibited my fa’afafine series, everyone directly linked that to me, but in fact I was referencing all these characters I’d seen in these archival photographs. Of course it’s personal, but there’s a mask.”

Kihara’s recent work powerfully connects the past to the present and future, with photographs of older German and Samoan monuments and buildings, tsunami-affected areas and a new fale-shaped casino. “We can learn from history who we are and what we are today. The discussion of history has always been non-Samoan and non-indigenous, so I’m interested in reconstructing history. The photographs may be geographically specific but hopefully non-Samoans can see themselves and how the way they contribute to society affects society.”

Kihara also creates performance works. Culture for Sale critiques the treatment of indigenous people by museums: cultural groups are instructed to perform only when money is given by the audience. In Talanoa: Walk the Talk, different migrant groups come together in conversation and performance: Chinese dragon dancers and a Scottish highland pipe band in Auckland; the I-Kiribati and Sudanese communities in Melbourne.

These works relate to Kihara’s dual ancestry, but also her migrant experience in a country she doesn’t find truly multicultural.

“What is my position to this Maori/Pakeha relationship? It got me thinking about what multiculturalism is and what we’re trying to achieve. Talanoa in Samoa is the process of conflicting views coming together through the process of in-depth discussion to reach a resolution. I wanted to apply this as a cultural model and see if it can function in this environment.

“I don’t think there are enough opportunities for communities to deeply engage. I think people are very defensive when they talk about their culture, but when they talk about it through their art they break the mould and enter cultural dialogue.”

SHIGEYUKI KIHARA: UNDRESSING THE PACIFIC, Hocken Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin, April 20-June 8.


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