Shigeyuki Kihara’s exhibition at the UMFA––which Princess Kennedy previewed here––explores various facets of her identity: the nexus of her Samoan ethnicity, status as transgendered, and the more universal self-reflexivity of being an artist. Her tight, majestic solo performance this Wednesday, as a part of the “salt” series, was the centerpiece of show.
In the pitch dark of the UMFA auditorium, the first thing we heard was Kihara eerily opening the door on stage, she stepped out and turned away from the audience, just as a soft light reveled her erect and still, ensconced in a black, Victorian-era mourning dress. She remained motionless and barely discernible as a slideshow of black-and-white photographs paraded at her side, depicting events from the colonial history of Samoa, including a haunting image of the funeral of Tupua Tamasese, an important leader of the Mau movement, which campaigned non-violently against British occupation. (Tamasese was killed during a peaceful protest in 1929, shortly before Western Samoa achieved independence.) Another blackout brought Kihara to the middle of the space, and a new light projected her shadow onto the now neutral screen.
Accompanied by a recorded Samoan choir, Kihara danced her taualuga or “last dance,” a form which comes at the end of Samoan gatherings and public events. Kihara’s presence was remarkable: spare, stern and generous all at the same time. The way that her gestural manouvers, which seemed suffused with brooding ambivilance, echoed through the rest of her largely obscured body reminded me of another expressively modest garment––Butoh Kazuo Ohno’s dress in “Admiring La Argentina”––not in terms of how they expressed gender, but more in how obscuring the costume also seemed to add to the expressiveness of the body. Story began in the hands, but terminated all over the body and nowhere quite at all.
The dress, which Kihara wears in much of her work, is not traditional. It references the subject of a photograph the artist found in archives of the Museum of New Zealand. The picture was taken in 1886 by an anglo and titled simply “Samoan Half Caste.” (Kihara herself is Afakasi, her father was Japanese.) It’s the opposite of most British, German and American images of Samoan women from the era, which play up the exoticism of their garb and sexualize them for Western (male) consumption. Though she doesn’t know this woman’s name or for whom she was mourning, she channels her dead-on gaze chillingly in her choreography.
The post-colonial reclamation of photography––still and moving pictures––is central to the installed portion of Kihara’s, which is still on exhibition until January 5. It’s a small, tight group of pieces, some of which explore more directly the artist’s gender identity, environmental issue and more recent events in Samoa’s history. For those who missed “Taualuga: The Last Dance,” there are two videos which further explore Kihara’s dancing. Kihara’s work is almost hidden away, cleverly tucked in obscure corners or hiding in plain sight within the Museum’s permanent collection of “Pacific Art,” but it’s definitely worth seeking out. This woman’s unique perspective is more than the sum of its already fascinating parts.