Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 27, November 2011

    An Interview with Interdisciplinary Artist Shigeyuki Kihara

    Katerina M. Teaiwa

    Yuki, you have spoken before about how your Japanese and Samoan ancestry allows you to think and practice your art between peoples and places. Much of your work actually brings together diverse cultural groups, ideas and histories in both very critical and very creative ways. How does gender also influence this process?

  1. For me being a Samoan and a Fa'a fafine (gender of no limits) goes against every thread which makes up the social fabric that is essentially Western based. This has been explored in a number of my past artworks including the Fa'a fafine; In a manner of a woman 2005 series which involves a series of self portraiture photographs where I masquerade and perform a variety of gender identities in Samoan culture. The photographic works visually reference while subverting the colonial gaze and romanticism found in late-nineteenth-century postcards of Samoan people staged and taken by western photographers in Samoa.

    Figure 1. 'Tama Samoa; Samoan Man', 2005.
    From 'Fa'a fafine; In a Manner of a Woman' series 2005, Shigeyuki Kihara. Source: Courtesy of Photographer Sean Coyle and Artist Shigeyuki Kihara.
    Figure 2. 'Teine Samoa; Samoan Woman', 2005. From 'Fa'a fafine; In a Manner of a Woman' series 2005, Shigeyuki Kihara. Source: Courtesy of Photographer Sean Coyle and Artist Shigeyuki Kihara.

  2. The Fa'a fafine; In a manner of a woman 2005 series undermines and interrogates a divisive scheme of gender classification that the West and, to an extent, Anglophone Pacific islanders, today base a major part of their lives on, and that is deeply embedded in their cognitive system without knowing it. The series also talks about how anthropologists', documentary film makers' and travel writers' obsession with Fa'a fafine is based on 'primitive and exotic' cultural and sexual practises so that the twenty-first-century Fa'a fafine continues to be perceived through eighteenth-century Enlightenment eyes.

    Figure 3. 'Ulugali'i Samoa; Samoan Couple', 2005. From 'Fa'a fafine; In a Manner of a Woman'
    series 2005, Shigeyuki Kihara. Source: Courtesy of Photographer Sean Coyle and Artist Shigeyuki Kihara.

  3. When you are a Fa'a fafine, and you are essentially placed and perceived by the wider majority of hetero-normative society where men continue to rank at the top of the socio economic ladder, women coming second, followed by dog shit ranking third and Fa'a fafine ranking fourth at the gutter, you get to understand how far and how much you have to do in climbing the 'ladder' in order to get the same equal benefits and recognition as those who are of non Fa'a fafine origin. So when you are a Fa'a fafine you see the world for what it really is, whereas many non-Fa'a fafine take it for granted.
  4. So although the Fa'a fafine; In a manner of a woman 2005 series of self portraitures informed by my identity, the photographic series also directly and indirectly informs and critiques this 'ladder'; that is the current social, political and economic dynamics that are essentially based on 'power' in relation to how is it made, who makes it, who owns it, who controls it, how it's used and for what purpose.
  5. The creation of the Fa'a fafine: In a manner of a woman 2005 series has resulted in my research to question what a Post Colonial Fa'a fafine is today.

    How have these challenging and diverse artistic and personal experiences shaped your relationship with the body and particularly performance art and dance?

  6. There is an expectation in society (including Samoa to a certain extent) where a person's genitalia determines their gender and the lifestyle they are expected to lead. For me, one of many stereotypes attached in being a Fa'a fafine is that we are expected to be flamboyant comedians in drag snapping finger tips; however, most people have a honeymoon over the 'drag' aspect of our lives both on and off stage but find they can't move beyond this point. The challenge in my performance is getting the audience to look and engage beyond this point into deeper layer of ideas and meanings I'm exploring in my work.
  7. However, drag cabaret shows are a big part of the Fa'a fafine community that is partly based on an ancient practise of Faleaitu—a comedic skit which challenges the status quo, where the drag pantomime is used as a tool for exploring taboo social issues that are unable to be discussed out in the open.
  8. I'm not saying that Fa'a fafine cabaret is not important, as I have participated in a number of Fa'a fafine beauty pageants in my time so it has its relevance in Samoan culture, however as a practising artist I don't want to limit myself to just cabaret as I'm interested in exploring social and political issues in many different contexts involving collaborations with variety of people and mediums.

    In your latest work, Talanoa–Walk the Talk, you managed to bring together communities, often who lived right next door to each other, and who had very little to do with each other. Can you describe your methodology and how this played out in terms of space or place, rhythm and movement? What were some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

  9. In Samoan culture, talanoa is loosely described as a process of finding a mutual common ground through exchange of ideas. Talanoa; Walk the Talk is the title of an on-going performance series which explores this very ancient Samoan principle of talanoa to see how it can be universally manifested in both contemporary and cosmopolitan times through a collaborative and intercultural musical and dance performance between two diverse communities.
  10. There are four stages in the Talanoa; Walk the Talk project: 1. the consultation process where I meet with the community leaders and elders to discuss the cultural exchange and collaboration; 2. community groups coming together to discuss the ideas behind the collaboration and physically play it out in the studio where I moderate the process and help choreograph in partnership with the communities involved; 3. the staging of the live public performance; and 4. the live performance is recorded and edited into a short 21-minute documentary given to the participants involved. The documentaries are later presented as a multi-media installation.

    Figure 4. 'Talanoa; Walk the Talk IV' 2009, Shigeyuki Kihara. Documentation of performance featuring Muriniri Australian Aboriginal Music and Dance, Ingleburn and Campbelltown Highland Drummers and Shigeyuki Kihara. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney. Source: Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara.

  11. Previous collaborations include: Talanoa I between a Scottish highland pipe band and Chinese dragon dancers; Talanoa II between Brazilian samba and Cook island drummers (both commissioned by Auckland City Council, Aotearoa/New Zealand); Talanoa III between Hindu singers and Christian singers; Talanoa IV between Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo players and Scottish highland drummers (both commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre, Australia) and Talanoa V between Chinese dragon dancers and Cook island drummers (commissioned by Gallery 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art for Sydney Festival, Australia); Talanoa VI was between Japanese Taiko Drummers and a Maori Kapa Haka cultural performance group (commissioned by Auckland Triennial, March 2010 (Aotearoa/New Zealand); and most recently Talanoa VII between the South Sudanese and the Kiribati communities (commissioned by Multicultural Arts Victoria, Melbourne, Australia). Talanoa VII was also accompanied by Talanoa Forum where community leaders from the participating groups were given a chance to publicly discuss what they learnt from each other in the process.

    Figure 5. 'Talanoa; Walk the Talk III' 2009, Shigeyuki Kihara. Documentation of performance featuring Muktigupteshwar Mandir Society, Samoa Congregational Church Minto and Shigeyuki Kihara. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney. Source: Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara.

  12. The documentation features moments of awkwardness in the performance, however these moments are just as 'real' as when both communities are performing in harmony with each other. The communities featured in Talanoa I and IIIhave resulted in establishing more collaborative projects together without my involvement. Talanoa performances are public art but not like the iron statues the general public associates with public art. It's a public art where communities are invited to interact with each other through engaging in the process of my work. The bridging of communities through the Talanoa performances goes further in bridging the gap between the grass roots community to city council, to regional government which represent the communities involved—where the Talanoa performances utilise both grass roots community networks and government infrastructure in staging the live performance, thus activating an opportunity to foster, nurture, establish and re-establish relationships for all parties involved. The genuine interest of the participants in exploring ways of working together in the Talanoa project is what makes it appealing to the participants, including the public institutions who commission the projects.
  13. There is something in music and dance that cuts through people's insecurities, prejudice and misunderstandings about each other while going deep into the hearts, the minds and the spirit of the people. I have been fortunate enough to witness people transform and become enlightened though the Talanoa process while finding out more about each other in the process. Every Talanoa performance has made shivers run through everyone's spine. The Talanoa project in many ways is an extension of my identity as an interracial person.
  14. When you see two different cultures with their distinct cultural contexts, beliefs and philosophies coming together, it is not only about them, it is also about the audience. I hope they begin to think about how they fit into this complex matrix—tradition, cliché, the present and the future informed by their past—how do they fit into this wider world. When people walk away from the performance I hope it inspires them to talanoa with someone outside their everyday world. I hope that my Talanoa project and method can operate as a catalyst for social change.

    We hear the term 'Asia-Pacific' all the time. Yet there is such difference between and within the two regions. How do you reflect on these connections and boundaries in your work?

  15. Politically speaking, Asia-Pacific relationships and power dynamics have been part of on-going research in my art practice. I am, essentially at the intersection between Asia and Pacific being Japanese and Samoan and speaking both languages. Although I have lived in both Japan and Samoa for long periods of time, my attraction to the wisdom and the promise of Fa'a Samoa and a Samoan worldview has opened my mind to see the global power dynamics for what they really are—that within the current global power dynamics, the Moana region and specifically those Indigenous to and of the Moana, have always been excluded in the conversations of self determination and global participation more so then Asian countries. These dynamics are essentially based on who has control over the mighty dollar and resources.
  16. From what I have seen so far, Japan's interest in the Pacific leans more towards diplomacy through foreign aid programs. My Japanese father was a Japanese government-funded aid volunteer in Samoa back in the early 1970s which is how he met my Samoan mother.
  17. There have been many developments in Samoa over the past years through the assistance of the Japanese government, and this assistance continues. However, I would like to see the Japanese government—as one of the world's foremost fishing nations—taking more proactive steps in addressing issues around biodiversity and climate change if they continue to extract fish and whales from our Moana region to fuel their first world economy.
  18. Historically-speaking, I'm aware of Japan's colonial past with the Moana region, and culturally-speaking Samoa and Japan have many similarities with ancient ceremonies. These, together with many links between Moana and Japan, are something I continue to research in my practise.

    Is there a particular event, object, image or encounter that has profoundly impacted your work?

  19. My parents both told me as a child I was going to be a 'failure' in life because of the way the world and to a certain extent Samoa perceived Fa'a fafine people as a menace to society. Although they now have fully embraced me as a Fa'a fafine in my adult life, people had always had a problem with my existence ever since the minute I was born. I always thought about the kinds of social and political factors that informed people such as my parents, which made them disgusted by Fa'a fafine. My case is certainly not new in Samoa as there are other Fa'a fafines I know who share similar experiences, which is opposite from the popular [belief? rhetoric? discourse?] that Fa'a fafine in Samoa are totally embraced. Samoan society does accept Fa'a fafine to a certain extent, but, however, won't tolerate any public displays of 'homosexuality'. Homophobia and transphobia in Samoa are both post-contact phenomena that I hold christianity and colonisation responsible for. It's sad that many Samoans don't realise this; they rarely want to question how they have got to this point in their lives, because when they do it challenges everything about the world they live in and they realise they have been living a lie of someone else's imagination that is non-Indigenous to Samoa. This, together with various ideas, triggered me to think about where this 'fear' of Fa'a fafine was coming from which is all linked to empire building and imperialism.
  20. My Samoan step-grandmother once offered to teach me how to weave a Samoan fine mat and I naïvely and stupidly declined because I thought, living in New Zealand, I wouldn't be needing such skills. Now she has sadly passed away and I regret the opportunity lost. So when I see an opportunity that presents itself, I go for it.
  21. My dad was a Buddhist and my mother is Christian. When I was growing up I was exposed to both religions together with Buddhist temples and churches, so religion and spirituality had an effect on me. I remember walking into a church for the first time in Samoa as a child (after living in Japan for so long) and being scared of looking at a half dead man hanging on a cross that everyone was praying to. This was my first encounter with Jesus.

    In your opinion, what is the relationship between traditional and contemporary Pacific dance or performing arts and how can we utilise this medium for more critical and transforming endeavours?

  22. The strong protectionist approach to anything customary and traditional, particularly in Dance across Moana culture, is a reaction to colonialism and globalisation, where anything made today continues to be undermined and underestimated because it's either seen as a joke or a threat to tradition. This can be linked to the overt commercialisation of Dance in the Moana through tourism and many other contributing factors which has stripped off its mystery and mana.
  23. When I function through dance and performing arts I seek for the mystery and mana in order to draw people into exploring ancient Samoan principles by using today's cutting edge technology. It is my hope that through Dance I can trigger important discussions about the state of our world today.

    For more on Shigeyuki Kihara's work see:


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 24 November 2011 1141