Early in the morning of 2008, before the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, artist Yuki Kihara sat down in front of two paintings by French artist Paul Gauguin and examined them in a 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, which depicts two female figures in an Eden-like setting. One holds a flower and leans towards her companion, who presents the viewer with a tray of fruit, but does not raise her eyes to meet her gaze. Fourteen years after he first saw the painting, Kihara “reworked” – or reimagined – the painting, along with many of Gauguin’s other works, in a series of photographs called “Paradise Camp” for the Venice Biennale.
“It doesn’t feel like a re-enactment or a re-stage because when I say upcycling it means I’m actually improving it from the original,” Kihara said during a video call.
Kihara is the first Pacific Indigenous artist from Samoa’s fa’afafine community assigned a male at birth but expresses a female identity to represent New Zealand at a prestigious global art show. In Heaven Camp, curated by Natalie King, Kihara weaves the themes of LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism and decolonization. In her lavish shots, shot on Samoa’s Upolu Island with nearly 100 cast and crew, she casts Fa’afafine in the lead roles, retaining the familiarity of Gauguin’s compositions but shedding his exploitative point of view.
“Two Tahitian women” by Paul Gauguin, 1899. Credit: Paul Gauguin, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Opening and upcycling
How true are the works of Gauguin and how many were built? Kihara found the scenes supposedly set in Tahiti all too familiar.
“The closer I looked at the background and then the closer I looked at the models, it reminded me of people and places in Samoa,” she said.
Through her extensive research on colonial photography, Kihara found a clear connection to the archipelago, particularly through the photographs of Thomas Andrew, a New Zealand photographer based in Samoa. for the second half of his life, from 1891 to 1939. Kihara found compositions identical to those of Gauguin, as well as evidence that Gauguin visited the Auckland Art Gallery in 1895, where some of Andrew’s images were kept.
“While Gauguin never actually set foot in Samoa, some of his major paintings were actually directly inspired by photographs of people and places (there),” she said.
With these connections in mind, Kihara decided to improve Gauguin’s famous works from a Pacific perspective. In her interpretation of the painting “Two Tahitian Women” titled “Two fa’afafins (after Gauguin)”, two fa’afafine models stand in front of the manicured gardens of a local spa, dressed in traditional fabrics. Kihara decided to use local wildflowers and a plate of rambutan as props, creating an entirely new iconography.
According to Kihara, her portrait challenges the very concept of paradise. “The idea of paradise is actually heteronormative,” she said, referring to the biblical Garden of Eden, the home of Adam and Eve. In well-known literature and art, as well as commercial depictions of newlyweds on their honeymoon, “paradise has been immortalized by many people, including Paul Gauguin,” she said. “He comes from the canon () of the Western view, which imposes this idea.”
She added that the place’s name “paradise” also hides the complexities of the seemingly idyllic regions where tourists travel to escape, including a history of colonial violence and the looming threat of climate catastrophe, a battle in which Samoa is at the forefront.
After the biennale is over, Kihara plans to exhibit work for her community in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
“I am returning honesty and dignity to where they belong to us, to the Pacific Ocean,” she said.