Powerful photo of Pacific Indigenous artist reveals truth about painting from 1899


Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Early one morning in 2008, before the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened for the day, artist Yuki Kihara sat across from two paintings by French artist Paul Gauguin and inspected them in the quiet, empty gallery.

The Japanese and Samoan artist, who was exhibiting at the New York museum at the time, was particularly interested in ‘Two Tahitian Women’ from 1899, featuring two female figures in an Eden-like setting. One holds a flower and leans against her companion, who presents the viewer with a tray of fruit, but does not look up completely. Fourteen years after he first saw it, Kihara has ‘upcycled’ – or reinterpreted – the painting, along with many of Gauguin’s other works of art, in a series of photographs entitled ‘Paradise Camp’ for the Venice Biennale.

“It’s not like reenactment or re-aging because when I say ‘upcycling’ it means I’m actually improving it over the original,” Kihara said in a video call.

Kihara is the first indigenous artist from Samoa’s Fa’afafine community – assigned a male at birth but expressing a female identity – to represent New Zealand at the prestigious global art exhibition. In ‘Paradise Camp’, curated by Natalie King, Kihara interweaves themes of LGBTQ+ rights, environmental awareness and decolonization. In her lavish photographs, taken on Upolu Island in Samoa with a cast and crew of nearly 100, she casts Fa’afafine in the lead roles, retaining the fame of Gauguin’s compositions but losing its exploitative perspective.

Gauguin’s colonial view of paradise has been decisive in modern art. The painter, who died in 1903, spent a decade of his later life in French Polynesia, exoticizing the young native women he met through a large number of canvases, and he also had predatory relationships with them – a complicated one. legacy covered in the “Gauguin Portraits” exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2019. Among the teenage girls he painted was a 13-year-old named Teha’amana a Tahura, who experts believe is his second wife, although her identity has been debated.

“Two Tahitian Women”, from 1899, by Paul Gauguin. Credit: Paul Gauguin, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Discover and upcycle

How true are Gauguin’s works and how much was built? To Kihara, the scenes, supposedly set in Tahiti, felt all too familiar.

“The closer I looked at the background, and the more I looked at the models, it reminded me of people and places in Samoa,” she said.

Through her extensive research into colonial photography, Kihara has found a clear link to the archipelago – particularly through the images of Thomas Andrew, a New Zealand photographer who lived in Samoa for the second half of his life, from 1891 to 1939. Kihara discovered compositions identical to Gauguin’s work, as well as evidence that Gauguin visited the Auckland Art Gallery in 1895, which housed some of Andrew’s images.

“While Gauguin never actually set foot in Samoa, some of his most important paintings are directly inspired by photographs of people and places (there),” she said.

Kihara also believes that Gauguin’s models may not be cisgender women, citing the research of Māori scholar Dr. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who has written that the “androgynous” models he painted were likely Māhū – the indigenous Polynesian community who, like Samoa’s Faʻafafine, are considered a third gender and express a feminine identity.

With these connections in mind, Kihara set out to improve Gauguin’s famous works from a Pacific perspective. In her version of the painting ‘Two Tahitian Women’, titled ‘Two Fa’afafine (Na Gauguin),’ the two Faʻafafine models stand in front of the manicured gardens of a local resort, dressed in traditional textiles. Kihara chose to use local wildflowers and a plate of rambutan as props, creating an entirely new iconography.

According to Kihara, her portrait challenges the concept of paradise. “The idea of ​​paradise is actually heteronormative,” she said, referring to the Biblical Garden of Eden, home of Adam and Eve. In famous literature and art, as well as commercial images of honeymooners, “paradise has been preserved by many people, including Paul Gauguin,” she said. “It comes from a canon of (the) western view that imposes this idea.”

Calling a place a paradise also obscures the complexities of the seemingly idyllic regions from which tourists travel to escape, she added, including the country’s history of colonial violence and the looming threat of climate catastrophe, a struggle Samoa faces. standing on the front line.

Following the Biennale, Kihara plans to exhibit the work for her own community in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.

“I’m bringing integrity and dignity back to where it belongs to us, in the Pacific,” she said.

“Yuki Kiharas”Paradise Campwill be on display at the New Zealand Pavilion of the Venice Biennale from April 23 to November 27.

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