Shigeyuki Kihara: A lament for the lost
Published NZ Herald
September 7, 2012
When the judges did the initial cull of the 502 entrants for the
Wallace Art Awards, all they saw of Shigeyuki Kihara's work were two
stills. They did not see the whole 4.49 minute video until after rating
most of the other 118 finalists, but as judge Warwick Brown said, all
three judges immediately made it their top pick, the first time a
multimedia work has taken the supreme prize.
More than anything else in the show, Galu Afi: Wave of Fire
justifies the Wallace's status as a premier contemporary art prize - and
with the cash and residencies totalling more than $160,000 it's also
one of the most well endowed.
Kihara will spend six months in residence at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York.
Born in Samoa in 1975 and raised in Japan and Samoa before coming to New
Zealand to study, Kihara's art training came through immersion in
fashion (including studying fashion design and technology at Wellington
Polytechnic in 1996), theatre, dance, hip-hop and electronic music.
"Producing fashion shows and shoots and gigs led me to
understand how I could use those production skills to pursue my own
work," she says. "I pretty much had to source the studio, the models,
the clothes. They don't teach you that at art school."
Kihara has built up a vocabulary of forms and techniques that allows her
to move beyond core themes like racial and gender identity and
colonisation to add a powerful poetic element.
Like the work Siva
in the Home AKL
show at Auckland City Art Galley, Galu Afi
is an extension of The Last Taualuga
which was performed at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2002
and subsequently in Melbourne, with a recording of that performance now
held by Te Papa.
That piece was inspired by an image of a Samoan woman wearing a
Victorian mourning dress. It was taken by Thomas Andrew, a New Zealander
who moved to Apia in 1891 and made a living making studio portraits and
images for the booming postcard industry.
"When I found the photo, I wanted to understand the context of how this
came about," Kihara says. "Then I thought, 'wouldn't it be amazing if I
could see her performing the taualaga - maybe I should do this myself.'
Whenever I am performing it, she is on my mind, she is the muse behind
In Samoan culture, the taualaga is a dance of celebration. Kihara wanted
to explore how it could function as social commentary. The fact that
many of the images of classical non-western cultures come through the
colonial gaze and studio creations of photographers like Andrew has
given many post-colonial and indigenous artists a tool to reclaim their
"Colonial administrators and missionaries enforced rules on Samoans to
appear civilised, including wearing clothes. Only in the photography
studio were we asked to take off our clothes and become the noble
savage, dusky maiden, heathen cannibal, for the gaze of photographers
who wanted to make money from the postcard boom.
"New Zealand was part of that image-making industry of Samoan people,
and those early photographs set precedents for the racism that continues
are both laments for the 2009 tsunami in
Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga that killed at least 189 people, and
were done in the same day-long session, with Rebecca Swan on camera and
Kirsty MacDonald in the editor's chair. While taualuga also usually
involves music, lyrics, sound, the artist has turned the dance into a
"Performing the taualuga in silence was awkward at first but the more I
was in the studio with my production crew, I did a couple of takes as
soon as I found my rhythm then I was able to pursue it. It's shot in
real time so in my choreography I have to manipulate and slow down
certain movements based on how they would be used in post-production to
show the tracking.
"If you YouTube taualuga you see the speed of performance is drastically
different from mine, so I am not performing a taualuga but the
movements are informed by it."
The camera was shifted from a vertical axis, which emphasised the full
body undulations of Siva, to a horizontal shot that captured Kihara from
the chin to the waist, with the attention on the hand movements which
become multi-tracked. The effect could be seen as a metaphor for the
inexorable movement of water swallowing up the horizon.
The early photographic references are to Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne
Jules Morey, whose pioneering of stop-action photography to capture
motion was a crucial step in the development of cinema. The title was
lifted from a book by Lani Wendt, commissioned by the Samoan Government
to gather recollections of tsunami survivors.
"I thought her translation of galu awhi as waves of fire was brilliant, water that behaves like fire."
Kihara's Living Photographs
exhibition in 2008-2009 at the
Metropolitan Museum in New York - the first New Zealander to show there -
means there is already keen interest in her work in North America.
She will be breaking up her New York stay with commitments in Ottawa,
Germany, Australia and Samoa, and also intends to reach out to diaspora
communities in Utah and San Francisco. A priority is to spend time in
the Margaret Mead Hall at the Natural History Museum going through the
archived material behind the anthropologist's Coming of Age in Samoa
"I want to unpack and repack the controversy. The book became a
best-seller, it contributed to the feminist movement, modern thought and
the ways Americans think of their own society, but after Mead's death
many of the women she interviewed in American Samoa came forward to say
everything they told her was based on lies."
How that will manifest itself in future remains to be seen. "All my work
is research-based and the work is created in response to my findings,
so it's a post-studio practice, where the studio is in my head," she
Shigeyuki Kihara, paramount winner of this year's Wallace Art AwardWhere and when:
The Award Winners & Travelling Finalists, Pah Homestead, 72
Hillsborough Rd, to November 11; Salon des Refuses, Pah Homestead, to