The Venice Biennale is irrevocably entangled with questions of representation. Every two years, some eighty nations select an artist or artists to represent them at the world’s largest international art event. For this year’s Biennale, Creative New Zealand sent Yuki Kihara, with curator Natalie King and myself as assistant curator. Much has been made of the fact that Kihara is the first Pasifika, first Asian, and first fa‘afafine (Sāmoan third gender) artist to represent Aotearoa New Zealand at Venice, but, as her presentation Paradise Camp suggests, the Pacific is no stranger to internationalism. The Western gaze has looked towards the Pacific and Pacific bodies for centuries.
At the heart of Paradise Camp is an interrogation and camp reinvention of ‘paradise’. Western art history has continuously depicted the Pacific as an idyllic and untouched paradise, a mecca of anonymous, sexually available women. While the tropes of paradise affect all Pacific peoples and environments, Kihara makes the intersectional argument that ‘paradise’ is a heteronormative concept, affecting fa‘afafine unevenly. What would paradise look like if fa‘afafine were in charge of the imagining? Kihara, a self-described ‘triple threat to the white middle class’, centres that fa‘afafine perspective.
Paradise Camp comprises three sections. The Vārchive is a salon hang of items that include newspaper clippings, personal photographs, archival images, a model of a Sāmoan volcano, a photographic ‘fa‘afafine aquarium’ of hermaphrodite fish, and a Sāmoan Fa‘afafine Association trophy, all set against a vast siapo-patterned wallpaper. ‘Vārchive’ is a portmanteau of the Western ‘archive’ and the Sāmoan ‘vā’, a concept that describes an active ‘in-between’ space of relationality connecting otherwise discrete entities. The vā guided Kihara’s distinctively genre-crossing selection of material.
The Vārchive includes colonial photographs of Sāmoa paired with small reproductions of paintings by Paul Gauguin, arguably the poster artist for Pacific-paradise imagery. Thomas Andrew’s photograph of a back view of a tattooed Sāmoan man (1890s) looks like the central male figure in Gauguin’s Three Tahitians (1899). Similarly, a photograph of a Sāmoan rock spring (1887) bears an uncanny resemblance to Gauguin’s Pape Moe (1893). Gauguin lived and worked in Tahiti and the Marquesas in his later years. He never set foot in Sāmoa. However, the Vārchive includes Gauguin’s signature from an Auckland City Art Gallery visitor book. Here is evidence that Gauguin was in Auckland when the circulation of Sāmoan images was abundant. Pages from Gauguin’s journal Noa Noa prove that he collected images of Sāmoa. The Vārchive also includes a selection of Western paintings of the Pacific that may feature fa‘afafine.
Paradise Camp draws on a 1992 presentation by Māori emeritus scholar Ngahuia te Awekotuku, which suggested that Gauguin’s models may, in fact, be māhū, Tahiti’s third gender. Working from the proposition that Gauguin appropriated images of both Sāmoa and third-gender bodies, Kihara upcycles selected Gauguin paintings.
A suite of photographs shot in Sāmoa featuring a fa‘afafine cast is hung against an enormous curved wallpaper oceanscape over five metres high. The lush photographs in saturated colour restage Gauguin’s paintings with fidelity, down to their size and composition. While Gauguin’s paintings depict anonymous brown bodies, in Kihara’s version fa‘afafine models index their real-life backstories. The cast are photographed as a mother with adopted children in Fa‘afafine with Children (after Gauguin) (2020) and as two single fa‘afafine pondering their love lives in Nafea e te Fa‘apoipo? When Will You Marry? (after Gauguin) (2020). The photographs move away from Gauguin’s objectifying gaze towards what Kihara describes as a ‘fa‘afafine utopia’, where fa‘afafine lives are given full range. Notably, the Paradise Camp shoot employed almost a hundred people, the majority fa‘afafine living in Sāmoa.
The final component in the show is Paradise Camp TV, a single-channel video work. It is an eclectic mix of fa‘afafine PSA campaigns, a series of videos in which Kihara converses with Gauguin (Kihara posing as Gauguin with the aid of prosthetics), and a five-part, mock talk-show, First Impressions: Paul Gauguin (2018). If the Vārchive provides fa‘afafine evidence and the photographs provide the fa‘afafine gaze, Paradise Camp TV literally brings in fa‘afafine voices. In First Impressions, a panel of five comments on replica Gauguin paintings. Their remarks are refreshingly candid: ‘one breast is bigger than the other’, they note of a model in Gauguin’s Two Tahitian Women. ‘That’s why Gauguin covered it up.’ Significantly, the cast all read Gauguin’s models as fa‘afafine.
As the episodes progress, the panel’s conversations digress and Gauguin fades from focus. Instead, the cast debate hormone supplements, ask who would pose topless for money, and trade jibes about each other’s singing abilities. The discussions are as raucous and unruly as they are tender. The fa‘afafine speak back to Gauguin while speaking for themselves.
Inclusion and representation are central concerns for this year’s Biennale. In Cecilia Alemani’s curated exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, 192 of the 213 artists are women. Two of the most prominent pavilions, the UK and USA, present black women artists for the first time, with Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh respectively. The Nordic Pavilion was renamed the Sámi Pavilion in an Indigenous takeover. An upswell of black, Indigenous, and migrant voices was also apparent in accompanying events, including Aabaakwad (a conference of Indigenous artists and curators), the Asia Art Forum, and the Firsts Solidarity Network (spearheaded by Kihara to offer informal, collegial support between artists at the Venice Biennale whose inclusion represents a milestone for their respective nations).
Amid this focus on marginalised voices, the New Zealand Pavilion received strong institutional and media attention; thousands came through each day during the vernissage. Paradise Camp was covered by media, including The Guardian, Financial Times, Time, and CNN, and was listed as a must-see pavilion by Art Review, Artforum, and Art-Agenda. The significance of this may not be felt in Aotearoa, but their readerships reach into the millions.
Speaking with media on the ground and reading subsequent articles, it is evident that what caught people’s attention wasn’t just Paradise Camp’s politics. It was also its vibrancy and irreverent humour. Living in one’s own utopia is infectious. With Paradise Camp, Kihara has created an entire universe set apart from the austerity of many other pavilions. Viewers are immersed in a camp, maximalist fa‘afafine world of floor-to-ceiling Sāmoan imagery, in which the realities of climate change and the legacies of colonial laws sit easily alongside photos of pageant queens and cackling laughter. With a bright-yellow entrance, the New Zealand Pavilion is a pop of colour in a maze of white-and-grey stone.
During the vernissage, Kihara spoke on a panel replete with Biennale heavy-hitters: Canada’s Stan Douglas, France’s Zineb Sedira, and Britain’s Sonia Boyce, who would go on to win the Biennale’s coveted Golden Lion award. As the panel wrestled with the oft-discussed issue of nationhood in the context of the Biennale, Kihara humorously deflected, saying she represents the nation of fa‘afafine. The tension release was palpable. Like the Paradise Camp exhibition, here was a conversation that began with a riposte to colonial borders and landed somewhere fa‘afafabulous. It seemed everyone wanted to be a part of the fa‘afafine nation. Summing up the mood, moderator Sepake Angiama asked, ‘Can I join?’ Kihara’s response: ‘You can apply.’
More from Issue °194, Winter 2022
Tim Bollinger pays tribute to pioneer artist, illustrator and filmmaker Joe Wylie who helped define the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1990s.
Karl Chitham surveys recent toi Māori publishing, making the case for it as an essential vehicle to show the distinctive qualities of Māori art and creativity on Māori terms.