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A photo of Pacific Native artist Yuki Kihara reveals the truth about an 1899 painting

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Early in the morning in 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 inspected them in the silent, 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 a setting resembling Eden. One holds a flower and bends over her companion, who presents a platter of fruit to the viewer, but does not quite look up to meet the gaze. Fourteen years after first seeing it, Kihara “recycled” – or reinterpreted – the painting, along with many other works by Gauguin, in a series of photographs titled “Paradise Camp” for the Venice Biennale.

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

Kihara is the first indigenous Pacific artist from the Fa’afafine community of Samoa – who is male at birth but expresses a female identity – to represent New Zealand at the prestigious World Art Exhibition. In “Paradise Camp,” curated by Natalie King, Kihara mixes the themes of LGBTQ+ rights, environmentalism, and decolonization. In her lush footage, shot on the island of Upolu in Samoa with a cast and crew of nearly 100, she cast Fa’afafine in the lead roles, retaining the familiarity of Gauguin’s compositions but abandoning her perspective of operation.

In modern art, Gauguin’s colonial gaze on paradise was formative. The painter, who died in 1903, spent a decade of his later life in French Polynesia exoticizing the young indigenous women he encountered through a prolific number of canvases, and also had predatory relationships with them – a complicated legacy. which was discussed in the “Gauguin Portraits” exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2019. Among the teenage girls he painted was a 13-year-old girl named Teha’amana a Tahura, who experts consider his second wife, although his identity has been debated.

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

Discovery and upcycling

How true are Gauguin’s works and how many are constructed? For Kihara, the scenes, supposed to take place in Tahiti, seemed 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 into colonial photography, Kihara found a clear connection to the archipelago, particularly through the images of Thomas Andrew, a New Zealand photographer who lived in Samoa. during the second half of his life, from 1891 to 1939. Kihara discovered compositions identical to Gauguin’s work, as well as evidence that Gauguin in 1895 visited the Auckland Art Gallery, where some of Andrew’s pictures were kept .

“Although Gauguin never set foot in Samoa, some of his major paintings were in fact directly inspired by photographs of people and places (there),” she said.

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

With these connections in mind, Kihara set out to enhance Gauguin’s famous works from a peaceful perspective. In her rendition of the painting “Two Tahitian Women”, titled “Two Fa’afafine (after Gauguin)”, the two Fa’afafine models stand in front of the manicured gardens of a local resort wearing traditional textiles. Kihara chose to feature local wildflowers and a plate of lychee – her favorite fruit – as props, creating a whole new iconography.

According to Kihara, her portrayal challenges the very concept of paradise. “The idea of ​​heaven is actually heteronormative,” she said, referring to the Bible’s Garden of Eden, home to Adam and Eve. In famous literature and art, as well as commercial images of honeymooners, “paradise has been perpetuated by many people, including Paul Gauguin,” she said. “He comes from a canon of (the) Western gaze that imposes this idea.”

Calling a place of paradise also glosses over the complexity of the seemingly idyllic regions where tourists travel to escape, she added, including the history of colonial violence and the looming threat of climate catastrophe, a battle in which Samoa is in the front line.

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

“I bring integrity and dignity back to where it belongs, to the Pacific,” she said.

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