“Although Gauguin has never actually set foot in Samoa, some of his major paintings were actually directly inspired by photographs of people and places (there),” she said.
Kihara also believes that Gauguin’s models may not be cisgender women, referencing the research of Māori scholar Dr. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, who has written
that the “androgynous” models he painted were likely Māhū — the Indigenous Polynesian community that, like Samoa’s Faʻafafine, are considered to be a third gender and express a female identity.
With these connections in mind, Kihara set out to improve upon Gauguin’s famous works from a Pacific perspective. In her take on the painting “Two Tahitian Women,” called “Two Fa’afafine (After Gauguin),” the two Faʻafafine 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 their props, creating an altogether new iconography.
According to Kihara, her portrait challenges the very concept of paradise. “The idea of paradise is actually heteronormative,” she said, referencing the Bible’s Garden of Eden, home to Adam and Eve. In famous literature and art, as well as commercial imagery of honeymooning newlyweds, “paradise has been perpetuated by many people, including Paul Gauguin,” she said. “He comes from a canon of (the) Western gaze that impose this idea.”
Calling a place paradise also glosses over the complexities of the seemingly idyllic regions where tourists travel to escape, she added, including the land’s history of colonial violence and the looming threat of climate disaster, a battle in which Samoa is on the front lines.
After the Biennale concludes, Kihara plans to exhibit the work for her own community in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia.
“I’m taking the integrity and the dignity back to where it belongs to us, in the Pacific,” she said.