Yuki Kihara's art has long been about internal dissonance. Born of Sāmoan and Japanese lineage, the artist has from an early age experienced the concept of "otherness". As Kihara puts it, "Making art has been a way [for me] to negotiate places. I use my artwork to negotiate being at the intersection of geographic borders, cultural borders, gender borders, racial borders. So my work has always been a critique of borders, how they are made and how they are used to control."1
Kihara's primary interests include the effects of colonisation on Pasifika and its long term effect on the the native population, and also on the "white-washing" of history — a history largely written by the colonisers to their advantage. Kihara's previous exhibitions have commented on and challenged these two strands of colonial and post-colonial society in series ranging from her early subversion of multinational corporation logos to her reimagining of the overtly prurient "exotic" images of Sāmoan women by nineteenth-century photographers and artists.
Kihara's studies of New Zealand quarantine stations (indirectly referencing the devastation brought to the Pacific via New Zealand in the post-World War I influenza pandemic) and her 2022 work Only Time Will Tell, with its skewering of the abuse of New Zealand's relationship with Pasifika during the 1970s era of dawn raids, also deal with similar issues of the relationship between the islands and their "big white neighbour".
Aoteaʻula continues this reopening of long-neglected episodes of colonial Pacific history. Part of an ongoing photographic series, it takes its name from the Māori name for New Zealand and the term ʻula, a Sāmoan term for garland. 2 The images show the ʻula, symbols of the bonds of friendship and of welcome known in one form or another across the Pacific, and now in places almost reduced to the level of tourist kitsch as the islands are colonised again by passing international visitors. The forms, created from native New Zealand plants, appear more sombre than might be expected, almost taking on the characteristics of funerary wreaths.
Part of Captain Cook's aim in his voyages of discovery in the Pacific was to perform a scientific survey of the islands discovered. Among his crew, botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected plant specimens, indirectly leading to the opening of the islands for agricultural use. Agriculture itself led to a slave trade — "blackbirding" — in which islanders were taken from their homes to work in Australia and New Zealand. The industry also saw the beginning of the destruction of native flora and fauna to make way for imported, "colonising" vegetation and animals. In 1870, 27 men from the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) were taken to New Zealand, indentured to work for a pittance in the flax mills of Auckland.3
The full Aoteaʻula series, which will fittingly number 27 works, presents memorial wreaths which are also ʻula welcoming the spirits of the men home. Poignantly, the titles — a simple numbering from 1 to 27, an acknowledgement that the workers' names may forever remain unknown — are in Bislama, Vanuatu's creole language. This tongue, a reworking of the colonist's vocabulary into a local form, again shows the islands' continuing post-colonial European legacy.4