Yuki Kihara, an internationally renowned artist and curator of Japanese and SaÌmoan descent, is making history as New Zealandâs representative at the 59th Venice Biennale.Â
Yuki Kihara is a formidable force in the art world both here and abroad, so itâs little wonder she was selected to represent Aotearoa at the 59th International Art Exhibition â La Biennale di Venezia. But it seems we have Natalie King, who is curating Kiharaâs work for New Zealandâs pavilion, to thank for the artistâs decision to apply. âIt was really a surprise to me when the Arts Council invited me to represent the country, because I wasnât actually intending to submit a proposal at all when Natalie approached me,â says Kihara. âI initially said no to her.â
There were a variety of reasons Kihara originally rejected Kingâs suggestion they collaborate on a proposal for the Venice Biennale, one being that she had worked on proposals twice before with two different curators, but had never managed to complete them. âSo by the time Natalie had approached me, I was just so jaded and bitter and I had said to myself maybe it was the universe telling me that Iâll never get the gig. But Natalie kept persisting.â
When Kihara finally agreed, King was surprised to discover the artist had already completed around 50 percent of the work thanks to her previous attempts at proposals. Even then, Kihara worried they wouldnât be able to complete the proposal in time due to the extensive application criteria. âWe submitted it then it was like, this is it. I wished we could have done better, but given the time constraints we just submitted it and hoped for the best.â
The humour of her delivery when Kihara tells the story of how she found out she had been appointed to represent New Zealand at Biennale Arte is hard to convey with words on a page, but she paints a highly amusing picture of the ecstatic scene. âI received an email from former Arts Council chair Michael Moynahan
about wanting to have a Zoom with me and Iâm thinking, âWhy the heck does the chair of Creative New Zealand want to have a Zoom with me?â Kihara says. She was âcurious and nervousâ about what he was going to ask her, not confident that she knew the ins and outs of her sizeable proposal well enough to be quizzed on it at short notice. âThen Michael Moynahan got this piece of paper and started reading this script and I thought it was really weird. And then one of the sentences he read was, âThe Arts Council would formally like to invite you to represent the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennaleâ. And I graciously accepted.â
Kihara left the meeting, farewelling both Moynahan and her composure. âWhen I closed off the Zoom screen I screamed at the top of my lungs! My gosh, I was so elated.â At this point, Kiharaâs mother ran into the room to find out âwhat the heck was going onâ. âAnd I said, âMum! Mum! Iâm going to Venice!â And mum was like, âWhereâs Venice?â So I had to use Google maps and show her where Venice was,â Kihara laughs. âAnd then my mum asked me whether she was coming and I said, âOh, I guess so.â
Itâs too early for Kihara to disclose the title or describe the content of her presentation at the Biennale Arte. But what she can reveal is that she already created the majority of the work before COVID took hold early last year. Kiharaâs appointment was made early enough to allow her to travel to Italy to scout sites for the presentation of her work (New Zealand doesnât have a permanent national pavilion in Venice). âIâm pleased to say that Iâve secured a really good venue,â says Kihara. âItâs so fabulous.â
While Kihara canât say what the work will look like or specifically discuss the ideas explored, she says anyone familiar with her art practice will have an indication of what to expect. Kihara has become well known for her research-driven interdisciplinary practice, which challenges hegemonic historical narratives and explores themes of gender, race, sexuality, decolonisation and climate change, or in Kiharaâs words, âall the good stuffâ.
Unfortunately, the Venice Biennale has been postponed until 2022 due to the pandemic – upon hearing this news, Kihara was concerned the work she had already created might no longer feel relevant by the time itâs presented. âI was kind of caught off guard, and I was pondering whether my work would be current by then,â she says. âBut I realised that it actually might add a layer to the work that Iâve created. So itâs not necessarily about whether the artwork will be dated, itâs about revisiting the framing of how the work is presented.â
When Kiharaâs appointment to represent New Zealand at Biennale Arte was announced, she said âthe glass ceiling has been shatteredâ. âThis moment is so much bigger than me, especially for the Pacific art community,â she said at the time. She believes appreciation of Pacific art and how it has influenced New Zealand art and culture is long overdue. âThe Pacific arts community has been contributing to the aesthetic development of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand art for a very long time,â Kihara says. Itâs not lost on her that prior to her appointment, the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale had only featured MaÌori and Pakeha artists. âIâve always wondered, when are people outside of the traditional treaty partners going to be acknowledged for the contribution theyâve made in this country?â
Kiharaâs recognition of artistry not only reaches across cultures, it also extends into other industries. âI come from a rather artistic family, because my father was a civil engineer and my mother was a chef. I donât know if people would call them artists, but I certainly did,â she says. âAnd because their work involved some form of creativity, I feel like that has always rubbed off on me.â
Although their creativity was significant in her own artistic development, Kiharaâs parents discouraged her from choosing art as an occupation. âWhen I discussed pursuing my career as an artist with my parents, they were very much against it because they told me that thereâs no money in art, so they said, âYuki, you have to choose something else.ââ
That caused Kihara to look to a career path that still served as a creative outlet. âI thought that I could supplement my creativity by being a fashion designer, using fabric as a sculptural material.â She attended Wellington Polytechnic, but confesses that she âdidnât really do wellâ in fashion school. âAlthough it is renowned for graduating some of Aotearoaâs top fashion designers, the course was really about getting graduates to be industry ready. I wasnât necessarily interested in the fashion industry, I didnât really care for fashion trends and so forth. I was more interested in using clothing as a form of expression, as an extension of the body. I was talking about fashion in artistâs terms, not necessarily talking about fashion from a designerâs point of view.â
After graduating, Kihara felt there wasnât a place for her in the fashion industry. So she sought other ways she could feed her creative fire. She worked as a wardrobe manager and a costume designer for choreographers, playwrights and film directors; and also worked as a freelance fashion editor for various newspapers and magazines.
But it was when she created Teuanoaâi: Adorn to Excess, a series of t-shirts featuring reappropriated corporate logos, which went on display at Te Papa in 2001, that the penny dropped.
âWhen I saw my t-shirts in Te Papaâs gallery spaces, thatâs when I knew that the gallery was a space in which I could talk about my experience and talk about what is happening around me.â
Following her intuition towards creating artwork has seen Kihara become an artist who has achieved a number of firsts. In 2008, she became the first New Zealander to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with her show Living Photographs, which was the first presentation of Samoan contemporary art at the Museum. Now, Kihara is set to become the first Pacific, first Asian and first faâafafine (SaÌmoan third gender) artist to represent New Zealand. Kihara feels the weight of responsibility having achieved these milestones.
âHaving a series of firsts means that there is a chance for an artist like myself to be able to contribute to the global discourse about art, and I know that this series of firsts also means that Iâm breaking barriers and moving into spaces that have often been blocked from me,â she says.
âBut Iâm also well aware that if I f*** up then people like myself will never have the chance in the future. So I take this role very seriously. And I know that Iâm in a very, very privileged position with such a prestigious opportunity to have a solo presentation at the Venice Biennale. So I really do hope that I can make an impact and generate some discussions around my work and around our pavilion.â