Der Papālagi (The White Man) (2016), singel channel digital video, full hd, sound, 11 minutes 30 seconds
The title of this series comes from a book written by Erich Scheurmann, a German national who lived in Samoa during the German colonial administration of the country (1900 – 1914). Published in 1920, it contains descriptions of European life seen through the eyes of Tuiavii, a Samoan chief. The book was widely criticised however, after it was discovered that Scheurmann had created the character of Tuiavii and that the descriptions were in fact his own social commentary.
Scheurmann wrote Der Papālagi at a time when the Nacktkultur (Naturalism) movement was taking form in Germany. Nacktkultur brought together elements of naturism, vegetarianism, and social reform and gained increasing prominence in the Weimar Republic. The writer’s invention of Tuaivii combines the movement’s ideals with the Romantic notion of the noble savage. The fictional Samoan chief is Scheurmann’s Ur-Mensch: an ideal man living in a state of nature, untouched by the corruption of modern, capitalist society.
Scheurmann’s critique of German society however, fails to recognise his own complicity in the ongoing colonisation and exoticisation of the Other. He replaces the Samoan voice with his own, negating fully Samoan social, historical, and cultural experiences. Scheurmann’s narratives may also be read in light of prevalent race-based ‘sciences’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which were used to validate colonial expansion and denigrate the worldview of indigenous peoples, especially with regards to issues of land and ancestry. Perversely, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, it was suggested that Polynesian peoples were descended from a proto-Aryan race and that colonisation was in fact more akin to a “family reunion”(1) than the physical and cultural invasion it was in reality. The Polynesian Society in New Zealand was founded in 1892 by one of the proponents of such theories, Edward Tregear.
Papālagi is used to describe non-Samoans, especially European Caucasians. In Samoa the term is also used to describe foreigners or anything considered not indigenous to Samoa or Samoan culture. Pālagi is derived from the Polynesian root words pā (meaning ‘gates’) and lagi (meaning ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’), hence the standard translation ‘gates of heaven’. Some say this was based on the reaction of the Samoan people upon seeing European explorers for the first time: the different color of their skin suggested to the Samoan people that the explorers were people who came from another universe. This myth faded under the influences of ongoing colonisation and the introduction of Christianity to Samoa. The Papālagi community in Samoa today are an ethnic minority and make up 4% of the total population; close to 15% of the indigenous Samoan population include European ancestors in their genealogy.
Kihara’s Der Papālagi (The White Man) series is a response to Scheurmann’s book and features a public performance presented as a social experiment in which Christian and Barbara Durst – German migrants who have lived in Samoa for over 24 years – “go native”. Dressed in full indigenous Samoan regalia, they make public appearances in five locations in and around the capital city of Apia. The varied reactions of the public to the German couple are captured in video and photograph and are reminiscent of The Couple in a Cage (1992-1993) by performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, in which the artists present themselves in a cage as “undiscovered” Amerindians to unsuspecting US audiences. In Kihara’s work it is the Papālagi who are the "Other", subject to the Samoan gaze. The series raises questions around Samoan nationalism and the politics of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. Kihara asks whether Scheurmann’s assumption of a Samoan identity was tied to a desire to be Samoan; she explores the ethical boundaries between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.'
The series, Der Papālagi (The White Man), consists of 5 large format photographs & a single channel video. This project received support from the Creative New Zealand Arts Council.