In a groundbreaking exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, art, history and gender lines are redrawn, bringing Pacific fabulousness to the sinking city.
The South Pacific has arrived at the 2022 Biennale di Venezia in a wave of lush, glorious technicolour. It’s late April and Yuki Kihara’s exhibition Paradise Camp has just opened in the Aotearoa New Zealand Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, the world’s oldest and most prestigious visual arts event. On centuries-old stone walls hang ocean-blue island imagery and tapa cloth from floor to ceiling. But there’s more going on here than bright colours and sparkling surfaces.
The salt-water highway that brought Europe to the Pacific has now brought the Pacific back to Europe, this time on the southern region’s own terms. Kihara is the first Pasifika, first Asian, and first transgender artist to represent New Zealand in Venice, a groundbreaking achievement (and one which was supposed to happen last year, before Covid-19 lockdowns put the 2021 Biennale on hold for a year). “It feels surreal,” she says on opening night. “I’m exhausted, excited. All of the above.” When Creative New Zealand let Kihara know she’d been chosen to represent Aotearoa, she was in Sāmoa. She had to show her mum on a map where Venice is.
Dressed in a bright gold suit jacket and green print scarf at the biennale’s opening, Kihara has a sense of poise and energy about her. She’s petite, diminutive even. But she stands and sits very upright, talking in precise, measured tones — a natural presenter. Then suddenly she’ll interrupt herself, veering into a spontaneous side-comment, or burst into gently self-mocking laughter, clapping her hands before recomposing herself. Kihara helped organise some of New Zealand’s first fa‘afafine beauty pageants in the early 2000s, and she has an energy about her which is pure pageantry — an outgoing warmth that’s immediately inclusive and appealing. At the biennale she has initiated a “Firsts Solidarity Network”, an initiative for artists who are at the biennale as first-time representatives from a marginalised or under-represented community in their respective countries.
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