SHIGEYUKI KIHARA, Tonumaipe’a, How She was Saved By the Bat, Vavau, from the series “Tales of Ancient Samoa,” 2004, C-print on dibond aluminum, 85.1 × 64.8 × 2.4 cm. Photo by Sean Coyle. Courtesy October Gallery, London.

ethKnowcentrix: Museums Inside the Artist

October Gallery
New Zealand Japan Samoa

Of the four artists in “ethKnowcentrix,” a group show of contemporary Pacific art, it is co-curator Rosanna Raymond, born in New Zealand of Samoan descent, whose engaging works dominated the exhibition space through quantity, diversity and force of personality. Costume, photography and the written word were all in evidence, drawn from a series of photographs created in collaboration with New Zealand artist Amanda Luise Barnes. Raymond’s characters are, in her own words, attempts to portray “the Pacific woman, as she is today, to counter those old postcards and dusky maiden images which sexualized the Pacific body.” 

Around four principal photographs hung elements of costumes worn by Raymond to achieve her transformations, including necklaces of aluminum, shark vertebrae and shells; a curved staff in the shape of a black eel; and a stiff, elaborate dress of Samoan bark cloth, which stood guard at the show’s entrance. Overt references to sex and religion were woven together with a sense of playfulness and sensuality, subverting and updating the contentious subject of the exoticized Pacific woman. 

Against this barrage, the works of the three other artists seemed almost retiring in comparison. Japanese-Samoan artist Shigeyuki Kihara, fresh off an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, presented three works from her “Faleaitu, House of Spirits” (2003) series, and two from “Vavau, Tales of Ancient Samoa” (2004). These photographic self-portraits, in the manner of erotic American velvet paintings of the 1960s, depict Samoan folktales, parodying the genre while reclaiming it and utilizing it to control our gaze. Flared, saturated torsos emerge from dark backgrounds. The enigmatic, baroque images that result explore issues of colonial exploitation and rigid Western notions of gender. Kihara herself is a fa’a fafine—a Samoan term denoting third-gender individuals—born biologically male but living as a woman.

Four life-size, full-length photographs by Maori artist Lisa Reihana render male atua—Maori deities—imposing yet otherworldly, perhaps most obviously in the case of Dandy (2007). Assured in his elaborate European dress coat and Ta Moko facial tattoo, he challenges preconceptions that these diverse decorative elements, and those who wear them, need to exist in separate spheres. The model is a takatapui, an individual who possesses both male and female characteristics, and Reihana uses the opportunity to both embrace the fluidity of gender roles in Maori society and imbue the model, and wider Maori culture, with dignity and poise. 

Maori artist George Nuku’s waharoa (“gateway”) sculpture, Outer Space Marae (2009), hung over the heads of visitors. Carved in translucent Perspex rather than traditional hardwoods, it glowed in the artificial light, while small touches of paua shell added color. The innovative use of materials is important to Nuku, but he is also concerned with the status of the wooden originals, keen to play upon how such items are perceived and valued in much different ways by Western curators and Maori artists.

The overall experience remained somewhat confused and claustrophobic. Certainly “ethKnowcentrix” provided an important forum for Pacific artists to address a European audience—a cause for some satisfaction for the gallery and the artists involved—but the actual spaces were not adequate to host an international survey, and struggled to contain these large, dense works. The exhibition seemed overly weighted to Raymond’s work, and it was hard to reconcile Nuku’s particular concerns with the dominant theme of the show and its accompanying information: the reassertion of ownership of the Pacific body from pervasive European classification and control.