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Shigeyuki Kihara: Undressing the Pacific

20 April - 8 June 2013

Undressing the Pacific is a mid-career survey exhibition of photographs and performance works by Samoan-born artist Shigeyuki Kihara curated by Natalie Poland. The art selected for display draws attention to Kihara's works that examine the body and dress as sites of cultural and gender identity. The exhibition also highlights Kihara's practice of 'undressing' established European stereotypes of the Pacific in order to expose the complexities of historical and political relations in the region. As a result of performing in her own work Kihara reoccupies the colonial gaze and as a Fa'a fafine, a 3rd gender individual with an accepted role within Samoan culture, she also questions notions of gender and sexuality.

Before coming to prominence as a multimedia artist, Kihara studied fashion design and worked as a stylist. Kihara performs in many of her own works dressing up in costume to portray a range of historical identities. In the triptych Fa’afafine: In the Manner of Woman (2005) she reclines on an antique couch as a seductive temptress in varying states of undress in a manner that challenges the classical European nude. In Samoan Couple (2005) Kihara poses as a Samoan ethnographic subject who differs fundamentally from her historical counterpart in that this female sitter maintains control over her appearance and determines how the finished photograph will be circulated.

In Taualuga: The Last Dance (2006-2011), Siva in Motion (2012), and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (2013), Kihara dresses in the full-length, restrictive Victorian mourning gown that was introduced to Samoa by nineteenth-century missionaries and worn by the female sitter in the photograph 'Samoan Half Caste' (c. 1890) by New Zealand photographer Thomas Andrew.

Kihara's photographic works also reformulate the stereotype of the South Seas as a carefree paradise that was fostered by imperial ambition in the Pacific. Her series Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? references late nineteenth-century European fantasies of the Pacific including Gauguin's Tahitian painting from which Kihara's work draws its title and the images of Samoa taken by Dunedin-based photographer Alfred Burton, who travelled on the Union Steam Ship Company's first Pacific cruise. Photographed in Samoa in the wake of Cyclone Evan and with the impact of Tsunami Galu Afi still evident, these contemporary photographs of Samoa’s landscape portray the cultural and economic challenges that nature has unleashed on the island nation. Significantly in these images, Kihara turns her body away from the viewer’s gaze, a gesture that encourages us to see Samoa and its current realities through her eyes.

Image caption: Shigeyuki Kihara, Roman Catholic Cathedral, Apia, 2013, C-type photograph. Hocken Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin. Image reproduced courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara Studio and Milford Galleries Dunedin.