Yuki Kihara talks breaking barriers and the Venice Biennale

Yuki Kihara, an internationally renowned artist and curator of Japanese and Sāmoan descent, is making history as New Zealand’s representative at the 59th Venice Biennale. 

Yuki Kihara is a formidable force in the art world both here and abroad, so it’s little wonder she was selected to represent Aotearoa at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. But it seems we have Natalie King, who is curating Kihara’s work for New Zealand’s pavilion, to thank for the artist’s decision to apply. “It was really a surprise to me when the Arts Council invited me to represent the country, because I wasn’t actually intending to submit a proposal at all when Natalie approached me,” says Kihara. “I initially said no to her.”

There were a variety of reasons Kihara originally rejected King’s 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. “So 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 I’ll never get the gig. But Natalie kept persisting.”

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 wouldn’t be able to complete the proposal in time due to the extensive application criteria. “We 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.”

Part of Phase 1 entitled ʻVasa (Ocean)ʻ from ʻSāmoa no uta (A Song About Sāmoa)ʻ [2019] series by Yuki Kihara. Photo by Glenn Frei. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries Dunedin.

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. “I received an email from former Arts Council chair Michael Moynahan
about wanting to have a Zoom with me and I’m thinking, ‘Why the heck does the chair of Creative New Zealand want to have a Zoom with me?” Kihara says. She was “curious and nervous” 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. “Then 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, ‘The Arts Council would formally like to invite you to represent the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale’. And I graciously accepted.”

Kihara left the meeting, farewelling both Moynahan and her composure. “When I closed off the Zoom screen I screamed at the top of my lungs! My gosh, I was so elated.” At this point, Kihara’s mother ran into the room to find out “what the heck was going on”. “And I said, ‘Mum! Mum! I’m going to Venice!’ And mum was like, ‘Where’s Venice?’ So I had to use Google maps and show her where Venice was,” Kihara laughs. “And then my mum asked me whether she was coming and I said, ‘Oh, I guess so.”

ʻThe Rokeby Venus (After Velázquez)ʻ [2017/2020] by Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries Dunedin.

It’s 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. Kihara’s appointment was made early enough to allow her to travel to Italy to scout sites for the presentation of her work (New Zealand doesn’t have a permanent national pavilion in Venice). “I’m pleased to say that I’ve secured a really good venue,” says Kihara. “It’s so fabulous.”

While Kihara can’t 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 Kihara’s words, “all the good stuff”.

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 it’s presented. “I was kind of caught off guard, and I was pondering whether my work would be current by then,” she says. “But I realised that it actually might add a layer to the work that I’ve created. So it’s not necessarily about whether the artwork will be dated, it’s about revisiting the framing of how the work is presented.”

When Kihara’s appointment to represent New Zealand at Biennale Arte was announced, she said “the glass ceiling has been shattered”. “This moment is so much bigger than me, especially for the Pacific art community,” she said at the time. She believes appreciation of Pacific art and how it has influenced New Zealand art and culture is long overdue. “The Pacific arts community has been contributing to the aesthetic development of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand art for a very long time,” Kihara says. It’s not lost on her that prior to her appointment, the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale had only featured Māori and Pakeha artists. “I’ve always wondered, when are people outside of the traditional treaty partners going to be acknowledged for the contribution they’ve made in this country?”

ʻApple Orchard, Heretaungaʻ (2017) by Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries Dunedin.

Kihara’s recognition of artistry not only reaches across cultures, it also extends into other industries. “I come from a rather artistic family, because my father was a civil engineer and my mother was a chef. I don’t know if people would call them artists, but I certainly did,” she says. “And because their work involved some form of creativity, I feel like that has always rubbed off on me.”

Although their creativity was significant in her own artistic development, Kihara’s parents discouraged her from choosing art as an occupation. “When I discussed pursuing my career as an artist with my parents, they were very much against it because they told me that there’s no money in art, so they said, ‘Yuki, you have to choose something else.’”

That caused Kihara to look to a career path that still served as a creative outlet. “I thought that I could supplement my creativity by being a fashion designer, using fabric as a sculptural material.” She attended Wellington Polytechnic, but confesses that she “didn’t really do well” in fashion school. “Although it is renowned for graduating some of Aotearoa’s top fashion designers, the course was really about getting graduates to be industry ready. I wasn’t necessarily interested in the fashion industry, I didn’t 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 artist’s terms, not necessarily talking about fashion from a designer’s point of view.”

After graduating, Kihara felt there wasn’t 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 Teuanoa’i: 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.

“When I saw my t-shirts in Te Papa’s gallery spaces, that’s 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.”

ʻA Study of a Sāmoan Savage: Nose width with Vernier Caliperʻ (2015) by Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries Dunedin.

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 fa’afafine (Sāmoan third gender) artist to represent New Zealand. Kihara feels the weight of responsibility having achieved these milestones.

“Having 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 I’m breaking barriers and moving into spaces that have often been blocked from me,” she says.

“But I’m 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 I’m 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.”

The most memorable looks from the 2021 Met Gala

The stars have arrived on the Met Gala’s ‘beige’ carpet, delivering their interpretation of American fashion.

After cancelling last year, the iconic Costume Institute event returns in celebration of American Fashion. This year’s Gala is hosted by co-chairs Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka, and honorary Met Gala chairs Tom Ford, Adam Mosseri and Anna Wintour.

Following on from previous years’ themes including ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’, ‘Fashion and the Catholic Imagination’ and ‘Fashion in the Age of Technology’, this year’s theme will focus on the “Renaissance” of American fashion, alongside major political, social and cultural touchstones of the past year.

The stars returned with the kind of out-there fashion that has become synonymous with the Gala.

From JLo’s sexy cowboy look, to Lil Nas X’s gold-plated suit, see below some of the most memorable looks from the 2021 Met Gala: