Yuki Kihara plants flag for Samoa’s third gender with film premiere at New Zealand Pavilion in Venice

In a historic and belated first, this year the New Zealand pavilion will be supported by a South Pacific islander who identifies as Fa’afafine, which is Samoa’s third gender. Samoan-Japanese artist Yuki Kihara is renowned for her exploration of postcolonial history, and for her ambitious project in Venice, she will delve into the singular lens of Fa’afafine—which means “in the way of a woman” – with a campy reading of the notion of paradise, bringing indigenous perspectives to drag culture via the new term In-drag-enous.

In his movie camp paradise, which will be presented in Venice next month, Kihara delves into community issues between his native Samoa and New Zealand (which occupied it from 1914 to 1962), including marginal histories, politics and climate change. The work was done with a cast and crew of over 100 on the island of Upolu, Samoa.

Artnet News caught up with Kihara as she was in the final stages of preparing the Aotearoa Pavilion, the Maori name for New Zealand. The artist spoke about the defining moment in history, as well as the challenges of curating an exhibition of this scale during the pandemic.

Can you send us a photo of the most essential item in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it?

I would say my laptop, because I use it for almost everything! During the global lockdown and when Zoom was the primary means of communication, my bedroom became a mini movie studio where I sorted out lighting, outfits, held meetings and participated in fundraising galas virtually for Camp paradise.

Artist Yuki Kihara prepares to participate in a fundraising gala for paradise camp2021. Photo courtesy of Gui Taccetti.

When it comes to planning your country’s pavilion, which studio task on the agenda this week are you most looking forward to?

I’ve been busy working on my script for the New Zealand Pavilion virtual opening shoot, as we don’t have an in-person opening reception at the Venice Biennale. For many of us, traveling from Moana Pacific to the Venice Biennale comes with many complications during the global pandemic.

Many things that I had planned for the opening of paradise camp at the Venice Biennale, including a live performance by drag artist Cindy from Sāmoa, will now have to be booked for when paradise camp is shooting Sāmoa in 2023, which I plan to work on after the opening. The tour of paradise camp in Samoa also allows Fa’afafine community access to my work, as paradise camp was primarily made for them.

Fa’afafine drag artist Cindy from Sāmoa performing in 2019. Photo courtesy of Yuki Kihara.

Can you send us a photo of your last site visit in Venice? What was the main task of this trip?

This photograph is a group shot with the La Biennale team. Previously, I had been to Venice in 2009 and 2011, and I remember thinking that one day I would exhibit my work at the Venice Biennale, but I didn’t know how it was going to be.

Fast forward to September 2019, I was in Venice with my curator Natalie King and Creative New Zealand’s Venice Biennale project manager, Jude Chambers, doing site visits looking for a venue that would showcase paradise camp! It was so surreal. We also met with Biennale staff to reiterate the New Zealand Pavilion’s commitment to the Arte Biennale. I gave Biennale staff some hand-woven fans from Sāmoa, which piqued their curiosity about what paradise camp has in store for everyone!

New Zealand pavilion meeting with La Biennale staff in Venice, 2019. Photo courtesy of Yuki Kihara.

What has been the biggest challenge so far in your preparation for the Venice Biennale?

Organization and management of a cast and a team of more than 100 people in Samoa for the paradise camp film production over seven days. High level production of this type has never been attempted in Samoa before. Yet, fortunately, the main members of the production team already had experience working on film sets, which made it manageable and helped me achieve my vision of paradise camp. We are also lucky to have been able to shoot the work before the global lockdown was put in place around April 2019, as it would have been impossible to shoot paradise camp with all social distancing measures in place.

Yuki Kihara leads the consultation with the Fa’afafine community for their participation in paradise camp‘s production in Upolu Island, 2020. Photo courtesy of Yuki Kihara.

Can you send a photo of your work in progress?

This photograph captures my preparations as a film presenter for paradise camp. I remember looking at the mirror while rehearsing my script. I had just come out of surgery and felt exhausted, but once the hair extensions and makeup came together, I felt like a whole different person, which gave me the confidence boost I needed. No rest for the wicked!

Artist Yuki Kihara in make-up and hair preparation for a shoot in Auckland New Zealand

Yuki Kihara in makeup and hair prep for a film shoot in Auckland, New Zealand.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get out of it?

When I have writer’s block while working on the script for the movie, I try to do something completely different to clear my mind, so I can revisit the script with fresh eyes.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?

I admire works of art with rigor in their concept and presentation, making the aesthetic experience more engaging. This also extends to everyday life beyond the gallery space. I’m not a fan of minimalist art offset by heavy over-explanation.

What do you watch while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or computer, where you spend the most time.

When I work on my laptop, I have a photo of my grandmother Lesina and my great-grandmother Telefonipālagi Pili in the corner of my screen, which reminds me of my ancestral connection to the lands of Sāmoa. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to meet these amazing looking women before, but I often pray and talk to them spiritually. As a presenter for the filming of paradise campthis photograph also inspired the style of my makeup and my hair.

Yuki Kihara's grandmother Lesina (left) and her great-grandmother Telefonipālagi Pili (right).  Photo courtesy of Yuki Kihara.

Yuki Kihara’s grandmother Lesina (left) and her great-grandmother Telefonipālagi Pili (right). Photo courtesy of Yuki Kihara.

What is a film, a writing or another work of art that inspired you the most in the preparation of Venice?

paradise camp was first inspired by an unpublished essay by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku which was presented at the Paul Gauguin Symposium at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1992, and was developed after seeing paintings by Gauguin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the occasion of my 2008 personal exhibition, “Living Photographs”. It is unusual for an unpublished essay to inspire a project. Yet for me, Ngahuia’s essay described the genealogy of our Indigenous and queer existence in the Moana Pacific after being told all my life that my identity as Fa’afafine was insignificant.

Where is your favorite place to eat, drink or take a break in Venice?

There is no particular place I like to go, because I like walking around Venice and the feeling of being transported back in time. I look forward to visiting the island of Poveglia, formerly a quarantine station, from 1776 for almost 100 years. This is where the idea of ​​quarantine that we now have in the world started.

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