First Samoan, Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand at international Art Show

Samoan multidisciplinary artist, Yuki Kihara, will be the first Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand at the  Venice Biennale in 2021.

Ms. Kihara, who is from Fa'atoia and Sinamoga in Samoa and Lauli’i and Lefiti in American Samoa, said her appointment speaks volumes about New Zealand’s relationship to its Samoan citizens.

“For the fact that New Zealand has chosen me to tell a story about New Zealand and where they are at is very significant,” she said.

Founded in 1895 the Venice Biennale is the “Olympics of the art world,” Ms. Kihara said, where 80 countries send their best artists to tell stories of their nations.

Not known for shying away from brutal colonial histories in the region, the artist is ready to reveal New Zealand as she has experienced it. And with the rigorous selection process of Creative New Zealand behind her, she feels confident New Zealand is ready for it.

“They wouldn’t have chosen me if they didn’t want to tell the kind of stories I am interested in.”

Since 2001, New Zealand has sent just ten artists to exhibit at the Biennale, and Ms. Kihara will be the first Samoan and first Pacific Islander to do so, bringing a previously untold story to a stage New Zealand has occupied infrequently.

“I bring a new kind of narrative that has been undermined by New Zealand society,” she said.

“Given the long history of marginalisation of Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islander’s art in New Zealand, my appointment is really significant and it’s going to open up so much conversation about our place as Pacific people, and specifically Samoans in Aotearoa.”

She said she is not sure if her appointment is coincidental to the government’s Pacific Reset, a foreign policy on improving New Zealand’s engagement with the region, but the timing is significant.

“Samoa is very much part of New Zealand, just as New Zealand is part of Samoa,” Ms. Kihara said.

Her appointment is also a game-changer for other artists of Pacific descent, either from New Zealand or further afield.

There have been very few Pacific artists to ever exhibit at the Biennale, though an exact number is hard to ascertain. Kiribati exhibited for the first time in 2017, the only Pacific Island to hold a pavilion there.

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“The glass ceiling has been shattered,” the artist proudly declared.

“No more limitations. Go forth, and go well, because there is a whole world out there looking to engage with us, and I am looking to engage with them.”

It is also an achievement for other fa’afafine, Ms. Kihara acknowledged, saying it is “part and parcel” of who she is.

Actually being selected for the Biennale previously seemed unlikely, and she has never submitted a proposal before.

Ms. Kihara was not considering it, thinking the timing was never right, until curator Natalie King approached her to submit something together.

“I actually told Natalie that I hoped she had a plan B, and she said no, I don’t, you’re the only one.

“So I said okay, if you say so – but I am not holding my breath.”

So they put together a proposal in just six weeks, and waited for the result. Ms. Kihara finally found out two weeks ago, and said she is surprised she kept her strictly embargoed secret for so long.

Ms. Kihara is an interdisciplinary artist of Japanese and Samoan descent who tries to challenge historical narrative through her art. She works with postcolonial history and representation in the Pacific, and their intersection with race, gender, spirituality and politics. 

Aside from the Biennale project, Ms. Kihara is working towards curating a series of exhibitions focusing on local artists in Samoa.

She has exhibited work all over the world, including a solo exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she was the first New Zealander to do so. She has exhibitions in Wellington, Queensland, Los Angeles, and London, among others.

Today, Ms. Kihara is a research fellow at the The National Museums of World Cultures in The Netherlands and in 2020 at the end of her fellowship she will present a solo exhibition commissioned by The National Museums of World Cultures in Amsterdam.

She is also curating artist and scholar Katerina Teaiwa’s solo exhibition Project Banaba, commemorating  the history of Banaba Island in the Pacific Ocean, which was ravaged by phosphate mining in the 20th century.

The Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa also revealed Natalie King will be the curator for New Zealand’s participation. 

She is the Enterprise Professor at the University of Melbourne and has curatorial experience in contemporary art across Australia, Asia-Pacific and Europe, including Australia’s art pavilion in 2017’s Biennale.

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