“Who gets to decide what is ‘authentic’?”
That is one of the questions artist Yuki Kihara raises through her artwork titled, ‘Der Papalagi (The White Man).
‘Der Papalagi is 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.
Ms. Kihara’s will be hosting a free public screening of her 11-minute video of Der Papālagi (The White Man) on the digital billboard located above Maxkar Stationary at Saleufi tomorrow from 6pm to 8pm.
The video will be playing on repeat daily for all to see from Friday to until Tuesday, December 2nd.
She spoke to the Samoa Observer about the inspiration behind the piece and the conversations sparked through her work.
Hailing from the villages of Fa’atoia, Sinamoga and Lauli’i in Tutuila, her work explores themes of indigeneity, spirituality, post colonialism, stereotypes, gender roles, and consumerism.
The title of the new video work Der Papālagi (The White Man), 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 Tuiavi’i, a Samoan chief. The book was widely criticized however, after it was discovered that Scheurmann had created the character of Tuiavi’i and that the descriptions were in fact his own social commentary.
Ms. Kihara first came across Scheurmann’s book ‘Der Papālagi’ from her dad who had a Japanese translation of the book. The book has been translated to over 20 languages, not many people in Samoa have heard of it.
“So I decided to make Scheurmann’s desire to be a Samoan public to see what the people on the street thought about it. While Scheurmann was exposed for inventing the character of Tuiavi’i after his book received critical acclaim, I came to the conclusion after reading the book that while it was problematic that Scheurmann romanticized Samoan life amd culture, deep inside Scheurmann really wanted to be a Samoan.
“Like many other European artists such as Paul Gauguin and Robert Louise Stevenson who settled in the Pacific, Scheurmann despised Europe for its colonialism in the pacific during a time when anyone who spoke against the European regime particularly in Germany at the time was prosecuted.
“So Scheurmann tried to avoid being punished by taking on the position of the ‘underdog’ or the colonized to critique German colonialism in Samoa. So in a way, the German couple Barbara and Christian Durst appearing in Samoan indigenous regalia is a metaphor for Scheurmann’s desire to be a ‘Samoan’.”
The video filmed in Samoa is a direct response to Erich Scheurmann’s book. The varied reactions of the public to the couple are captured in video and raises questions around Samoan nationalism and the politics of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ while exploring the ethical boundaries between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
Ms. Kihara was astounded by the various reactions she observed during the social experiment.
“What completes the public performance is not necessarily the papālagi actors but it’s the varied reactions from the people on the street. Some people were perplexed by what they saw, some people thought it was amusing and some couldn’t care less. All these reactions are relevant and allegorical to what people thought of Samoan culture in general.
“I find it interesting that dressing Papālagi actors in Samoan indigenous regalia would spark a conversation among Samoans about ‘authenticity’. I mean, who gets to decide what is ‘authentic’?” she said.
“I’ve had heated discussions with Samoans who told me that papālagi actors should not have worn the indigenous regalia because they are not indigenous to Samoa, but how is it any different from John Key and Ban Ki-Moon having a matai title? While others would say that a mānaia and a taupou appearing outside of the village or ceremonial context is culturally offensive, but how is it any different from Samoans appear dressed as a mānaia and a taupou to entertain tourists in resorts?”
Der Papālagi (The White Man) series is comprised of five photographs and a video work made with the
support of Creative New Zealand Arts Council through the New Zealand government. Der Papālagi
(The White Man) series is currently presented at Cairns Regional Gallery, North Queensland Australia.
The Artist would like to thank Nicholas Pereira from Maxkar Stationary; Alex Su’a; Her
Excellency Jackie Frizell, New Zealand High Commissioner to Samoa for their generous
support towards the presentation of Der Papālagi (The White Man) in Samoa. Der Papālagi
(The White Man) was made with the support of Creative New Zealand through the
Government of New Zealand.
Yuki Kihara is one of the Pacific regions’ leading interdisciplinary artists currently based between
Samoa and Aotearoa New Zealand. Kihara has performed, exhibited and lectured in Samoa and
internationally. Kihara’s works has been presented at, among others, the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York; Bozaar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels; Sophiensaele Theater, Berlin; Zendai Museum of
Modern Art, Shanghai; Gallery of Modern Art | Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane and Te Papa
Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. Kihara will be participating in the upcoming Honolulu Biennial
curated by Fumio Nanjo, Director of Mori Art Museum, Tokyo opening in March 2017. Kihara is a
recipient of number of prestigious awards, among others, the New Generation Award from The Arts
Foundation of New Zealand.