Natalie King: Can you discuss the genesis of the epic and elaborate project Paradise Camp for Biennale Arte 2022, and the process of working like a director and producer by assembling a cast, crew and sourcing locations, props and equipment? Fortunately, I was able to visit Sāmoa in March 2020 and witness the final phase of the photo shoot at various sites. What are the origins of the title? Can you elaborate on the recce, casting, facilitating partners and designing costumes to ‘repurpose’ and ‘upcycle’ Paul Gauguin’s paintings?
Yuki Kihara: The solo exhibition of Paradise Camp presented at the New Zealand Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia consists of a series of photographs, video and archives that converge to highlight the optics of the Fa‘afafine world view, that there is more than meets the eye. Paradise Camp is also a provocation against the stereotypical ways we understand place, gender and sexuality and their intersectionality: it materialises queerness at odds with heteronormative representations of Pacific people as a consequence of colonialism while simultaneously raising questions about how we can decolonise ways of being in the world. Paradise Camp is a Fa‘afafine project by and for Fa‘afafine, compared to Fa‘afafine identity that’s often instrumentalised as a ‘cause’ to expand cisgender dominance. Paradise Camp was created with the Fa‘afafine and Fa‘atama audience in mind, and will tour Sāmoa after Biennale Arte 2022. The exhibition will be a space for continuous mediation where the Fa‘afafine community can reflect on their past while offering a Fa‘afafine world view for those outside our community.
While Gauguin never stepped foot in Sāmoa, I have uncovered archival evidence revealing that Gauguin used colonial photographs of people and places in Sāmoa which resulted in the creation of his major paintings. Just as Gauguin used Sāmoa as source material (disguised by Māohi titles), I did the reverse by repurposing his paintings created during his time in French Polynesia between 1891 and 1903, which primarily severed the exotic impulse of the Western audience by taking back the gaze, repurposing and upcycling his works to a higher quality (similarly in the context of sustainability whereby old or discarded sources are improved to a higher quality) to convey the Fa‘afafine world view that is often marginalised.
Paradise Camp as a concept was inspired by an unpublished essay entitled ‘He tangi mo Ha‘apuani (A lament for Ha‘apuani): Gauguin’s models – a Māori perspective’ by leading Māori scholar Dr Ngahuia te Awekotuku, presented to the Gauguin Symposium in September 1992 at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Te Awekotuku discusses how Gauguin deliberately painted his models to appear androgynous and exotic as a reflection of his personal and sexual fascination with the ‘Māhū’ – the equivalent of Fa‘afafine within the Indigenous culture of Tahiti as described in his journal Noa Noa.Te Awekotuku makes similar observations about the androgyny in the models found in Gauguin’s paintings who looked similar to members of her whānau who were Takatāpui – also the equivalent of Fa‘afafine in Māori culture in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Following te Awekotuku’s essay, I looked at the Gauguin painting entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–98) online; I saw the figure in the middle being a Māhū. Upon further inspection of other figures and their poses in the painting, they strangely reminded me of similar poses in a painting entitled Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’ herbe) by 19th-century French painter Édouard Manet. It was then I had the epiphany to look at Gauguin’s work with a critical eye to see what other similarities I could find and, sure enough, I was able to uncover both direct and indirect links between Gauguin and Sāmoa that have never been seen before.
In a publication entitled Gauguin and Maori Art (1995), art historian Bronwen Nicholson describes that in August 1895, Gauguin arrived in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand where he spent ten days en route to Tahiti for the second and final time. During his brief time in the city, Gauguin visited Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and the Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, where he recorded and made detailed sketches of Māori treasures and took a small but vital collection of new images, several of which later appeared in his major paintings. I suspect that it was in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland that Gauguin picked up several photographs of Sāmoa taken by Aotearoa colonial photographers, including Thomas Andrew, whose photographs were circulated across Aotearoa at the time.
Eight years in the making, the Paradise Camp photographic series and First Impressions: Paul Gauguin (2018) episodic talk show were both produced in Sāmoa, which involved the combined cast and crew of over eighty people, many of whom had never stepped foot on a film set before, gaining employment and new skills along the way. Even though the cast may not have known who Gauguin was, there was a collective enthusiasm towards a major production of this scale, initiated by myself as part of the Fa‘afafine community. Sāmoan cultural values were at the centre of our creative production. For example, within the team, I ensured the involvement of Fa‘afafine and Fa‘atama elders as advisers to my project to ensure cultural safety. At the end of the photo shoot, the cast and crew assembled to offer speeches of gratitude and we sang a hymn to mark the end of our production.
NK: Paradise Camp comprises twelve new, luscious photographs, with eleven shot on location in Upolu with members of your community during a photo shoot in March 2020. Carefully composed and almost painterly, Nafea e te fa‘aipoipo? When will you marry? (After Gauguin) depicts Celine and Tyra sitting as a pair in a state of dignified repose, whereas the title alludes to a question about marriage in Sāmoa. Can you discuss this work?
YK: The issue of same-sex marriage is not prioritised in Sāmoa, but I’ve spoken to several Fa‘afafine friends in private who date men and aspire to marriage. On a personal level, however, it has been hard for me to find love with men who would be proud to date me publicly as a Fa‘afafine, not kept hidden in his closet in fear of their masculinity being called into question. I created this photograph partly as my personal longing to find love without fear and discrimination.
NK: We live in times of global violence, political tensions, communal disparities and ecological mayhem. Paradise Camp obliquely addresses urgent issues of climate crisis, small island ecologies and intersectionality. How have you woven these concerns into your new work by focusing on the local/global? I am particularly interested in exploring the intertwining of divinity, earth and climate change in the photograph Genesis 9:16 (After Gauguin).
YK: The title of my exhibition is intended to ‘camp’ the notion of ‘paradise’. Paradise Camp adds the Indigenous in drag, which I call In-drag-enous. The Pacific region has become synonymous with images of unpolluted and vacant white sandy beaches that are constantly re-created by the tourism industry. They are also commonly featured on screen savers of millions of people around the world, becoming ironic and cliché in popular culture. However, those clichéd images of white sandy beaches are real places in Sāmoa with real people who’ve lived there for generations, faced with real life issues such as climate change, given that almost 80 per cent of Sāmoa’s population lives along the coastal areas. Scientific data shows that the global average for sea level rise is 2.8–3.5 millimetres a year, compared to Sāmoa’s sea level rise measuring up to 4 millimetres a year.
There is a theory that children raised in families with Fa‘afafine are nurtured in an enhanced way compared with children raised in families with no Fa‘afafine. This is because Fa‘afafine, without their own offspring, pass on their genes indirectly by helping raise children within their own family gene pool both socially and economically. In addition, Fa‘afafine are tasked with caregiving for the elderly, considered pillars of the family structure who pass on ancestral knowledge to the future generation. Thus, Fa‘afafine play an integral part in keeping and maintaining the Vā or relationships within the family ecosystem.
Fa‘afafine are often known to be first responders to natural disasters, particularly during the devastating tsunami in the Aleipata district in 2009, where Fa‘afafine were pulling bodies out of the rubble and assisting families with young children to settle into the emergency shelter. However, many Fa‘afafine refrained from using the bathroom at the emergency shelter because it wasn’t gender neutral. This is just one of many untold stories from the Fa‘afafine community that are often ignored in the development of national disaster management planning.
In response to this dilemma, I’ve been working closely with the Sāmoa Fa‘afafine Association to host a series of climate change workshops targeting the Fa‘afafine community, so we can address these issues by developing solutions that can be implemented nationwide. This is partly the reason why I created the work entitled Genesis 9:16 (After Gauguin). In the Bible, Genesis 9:16 describes the rainbow as a symbol of the sacred covenant between the divine and all living things on earth. Although I am not a practising Christian, I believe this covenant is pertinent for Sāmoans living on an archipelago at the frontline of climate change, where sustainability is an issue.
Fonofono o le nuanua: Patches of the rainbow features members of the Aleipata Fa‘afafine Association dressed in rainbow-coloured costumes, and repurposes and upcycles the composition of the painting entitled Where Do We Come From?
What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Gauguin. The title of my work, however, is lifted from a poem by Sāmoa-based poet Reverend Ruperake Petaia, whose poem alludes to the Sāmoan concept of Vā fealoa‘i, which means to nurture the space between things: a space that connects and mediates relationship between people – and between people and nature. The poem ‘Fonofono o le nuanua (Patches of the rainbow)’ addresses Gauguin’s questions indirectly, especially in the context of sustainability. Even though others might see the rainbow as a reference to the gay pride movement, my intention is to highlight the syncretic spirituality in Sāmoa that fuses a Sāmoan Indigenous world view and Christianity. In the Sāmoan context, the rainbow symbolises a portal into the spiritual world.
NK: In the final image of the Paradise Camp series, you return to the studio and cast yourself as a Gauguin self-portrait in an ingenious reversal and transformation with prosthetics. This seems like the penultimate decolonial gesture of masking, disguise and parallel acts of creation. What gave you this idea for Paul Gauguin with a hat (After Gauguin) and how did you feel?
YK: My idea was to subvert the art historical canon dominated by artists who are dead white men. On a much more personal level, I often thought that the left side of my face appeared more masculine than the right side, so I wanted to confront and overcome my insecurities about not ‘passing’ enough as a woman in public. Making this work, I felt nervous, excited and exhausted all at the same time. It made me think about mortality and the legacy one leaves behind while I was bringing Gauguin back from the dead.
The more I disguised myself, the further it revealed my thoughts about colonially constructed boundaries of race, gender, sexuality and geography. RuPaul once said that drag doesn’t hide but rather it reveals who you are.