“I make sure that within my own practice that I know, does it touch the mind? And does it touch the heart? Because I want both things to connect. Because it’s really important for me as a Pacific Islander, particularly when I prioritize the Pacific community as the main audience, that we both tantalize the mind and the heart. And that’s how I’ve always made art, that’s how I always want the audience to engage with my work. I feel that it’s a Pacific way of making, which is very political. This is my strategy.”
This year’s Aotearoa New Zealand’s representative at the Venice Biennale is one who leads the charge with firsts – the first person of Pacific descent, the first Fa‘afafine, the first without formal art-school training. Yuki Kihara is a globally celebrated interdisciplinary artist of Japanese and Sāmoan descent who has built a reputation for work that pushes boundaries and is deeply immersed in the critical issues of our time.
Yuki’s show, Paradise Camp, is curated by Natalie King, who previously curated artist Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition for the Australian Pavilion at the Biennale in 2017. Shot on location on Upolu Island, Sāmoa, Yuki’s work features a local cast and crew of over eighty people. Yuki worked closely with the Fa‘afafine community to produce an engaging project that draws on issues such as climate change and colonization that impact her community.
From the outset, Yuki’s journey has been one of challenging the status quo and living with conviction. Arriving in Wellington in the late ’80s from Sāmoa, Yuki attended boarding school and later majored in fashion at Wellington Polytechnic, which merged with Massey University in 1999. Originally aiming for art school, she settled on fashion as a family compromise. The desire to create in an artistic way, though, had a strong pull.
“I knew that I wanted to do something big – I had ambition. When I was at fashion school, I was making garments that were so ambitious, I didn’t even know how to make them – but I saw it clearly in my mind. And I’ve always been ambitious, because I wanted to challenge myself, to see if I’ve got it in me to do it.”
At the core of this, Yuki says, is because “I wanted to evolve as a person, I wanted to evolve my creativity intellectually, spiritually. I knew that, particularly, as a migrant in Aotearoa, we all have ambitious plans when we migrate to a new country.”
“I didn’t go into fashion school thinking that I was going into a trade, because I was very much treating fashion school like an art school where I was using fabric as a structural material.” The influences include some notable names such as Yohji Yamamoto, John Galliano, and Vivienne Westwood. It was their sculptural sensibilities that inspired Yuki.
This sculptural use of fabrics also has echoes in Yuki’s Pacific heritage. “To me, it was very similar to how Sāmoans, and people in the Pacific also, use textiles as part of their regalia and ceremony – we wrap ourselves with fine mats and tapa cloth – they are very sculptural.”
For Yuki, it’s the specificity that the audiences are attracted to – that when things start to become too generic, the impact is lost. Her work navigates between a moana-centric vision and one that is globalized. A good example is her series サ-モアのうた (Sāmoa no uta) A Song About Sāmoa [2019–2023], which showed two distinctive artforms: Sāmoan siapo (barkcloth) and Japanese kimono. In the show, five kimono were fashioned from siapo – an expression of Yuki’s Japanese-Sāmoan experience. The exhibition, held at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua, was symbolic for Yuki. “I said to myself, this is kind of like coming full circle, because Wellington is where I studied fashion. If I had gone to art school, maybe I would have made something totally different.”
Read the article in full here on Massey University’s website.