The title of Shigeyuki Kihara’s exhibition is lifted from a large-scale painting by Paul Gauguin completed in 1897 shortly before he died in Tahiti. Kihara uses these questions to frame her examination of Samoan culture and society following the tsunami of 2009, last year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Samoa’s independence and, most recently, the destruction caused by Cyclone Evan.
Taking inspiration from a late 19th-century photograph, Samoan Half Caste, by New Zealand photographer Thomas Andrew, Kihara dons a Victorian mourning dress and re-visits a character first seen in her performance works Taualuga: The Last Dance (2006); Siva in Motion (2012) and Galu Afi: Waves of Fire (2012).
The settings chosen by Kihara for her photographs are pointed allusions to the social, religious, economic and political issues the artist wishes to highlight. Using extant architectural trappings of previous colonising powers as backdrops, images such as the Old Apia Courthouse, Apia are loaded with multiple histories. In addition to this, Kihara asks the viewer to consider the role of neo-colonialism in present-day Samoa, using population drift (Departures, Faleolo Airport) and economic influence (the Chinese-funded development in Aquatic Centre, Tuanaimato) as pertinent examples.
Kihara turns her gaze onto the environmental destruction wrought in her country over the past four years, revisiting the subject of her Wallace Award-winning work Galu Afi. The artist’s images of a roofless schoolroom, a tattered plantation and a picture-postcard beachfront are poignant reminders that a tsunami’s personal and physical damage remains long after the media coverage of such disasters has finished.
Throughout this suite of photographs, Kihara uses the stark outlines of her 19th century taffeta gown as a vivid contrast to her choice of backdrops, be it the rounded lines of the Fale Fono (Samoan Parliament buildings) or the manicured gardens that were the site of the Mau headquarters. Her use of strong shadows requires close, concentrated examination by the viewer and the choice of black and white enhances the dense textures and geometries of the subjects.
Referencing the staged photographic postcards of the ‘South Seas’, Kihara’s lone figure stands as silent witness to scenes of political, historical and cultural importance in present-day Samoa. She turns the camera on her country’s colonial past, the impact of burgeoning globalisation, ideas of indigeneity and the role of government in an independent Samoa. Kihara “unpacks the myth” (1) of her country as an untouched Pacific paradise as seen through the eyes of colonial powers and tourist photographs.
1. Artist statement, January 2013.