Yuki Kihara: A Study of a Samoan Savage

Yuki Kihara: A Study of a Samoan Savage

Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Auckland

27.02.2016 - 22.05.2016

Interdisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara's provocative exhibition, A Study of A Samoan Savage opened at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery this February. Inspired by a racist comment made about a Samoan rugby player, the exhibition interrogates the colonial agendas that have enabled the objectification of indigenous bodies, drawing a pertinent continuity between 19th-century anthropological discourse and the enduring stereotypes about Polynesian athletes in the media today.

Pristine white walls and the echo of heels on concrete capture the sense of entering a laboratory as we are confronted by a presentation of large-format nude photographs. In each image, Kihara's model, "Maui", stands still while horrifying metal instruments intrusively pinch and probe the folds of his brown flesh. Maui's dazzling nakedness is made fully available for inspection and scrutiny, his limp arms and solemn gaze hint at nervousness and indignity. Kihara's new body of work references the 19th-century phenomenon of anthropometry - a technique of gathering data which used photography to catalogue perceived racial "types" and played an important role in propounding the emerging discourses of social evolution and white supremacy. Alongside a display of rare archival material presented on the back wall, Kihara cites inspiration from Louis Sullivan's 1926 handbook Essentials of Anthropometry which outlined the required anatomical measurements for classifying racial difference: head length, head breadth, face breadth, face height, nasal width, skin colour and hair colour.

On the next wall, Maui is depicted performing sequential movements which echo the training of athletes on the rugby field. The series draws upon the history of objectifying Samoan men in Völkerschau or "human zoos". Capitalising upon stereotypes of savagery, primitivism and a putative physicality, such touring fairs showcased Samoan men's athleticism through wrestling, running and dance performances. Through Maui's demonstrations, Kihara draws an enduring parallel between fin de siecle exotic spectacle and the representation of Polynesian sports stars in the media today where descriptors such as "animal", "childlike", "spontaneous", "intuitive" or "untamable" are commonplace. "Colonised peoples have been compelled to define what it means to be human," Kihara says. "Because there is a deep understanding of what it has meant to be considered not fully human, to be savage." Intensely objectifying in their stark chiaroscuro, the photographs have an almost erotic, neoclassical mood. Maui, the epitome of masculine perfection, is depicted with lustrous skin and glistening muscles. It seems that Kihara employs a strategy of parodic subversion to comment on how the voyeuristic consumption of Polynesian bodies can constitute a form of positive racism.

Maui’s god-like status is central to the exhibition. "What you see here is Maui under the scientific microscope," Kihara states. "I’m interested in how is it that you measure a divine" she continues. This experimentation becomes clear as we reach Maui Descending a Staircase II (After Duchamp), a life-size projection of Maui repeatedly descending and reascending a staircase. Kihara uses a high-speed motion capture technique to multiply and overlay Maui’s movements, splintering his figure into simultaneous temporal realities. In his fluid movements, Maui asserts his divine agency as an illusory shape-shifter who transcends the teleological narratives of scientific progress and social evolution and ultimately eschews the primitivist implications at the core of ethnographic representation.

We are initially seduced by the slow progression of Maui's multiplied form, but at several points during the video, Maui turns to the camera and confronts his audience with a resistant glare - an interaction which forces us to reassess who is looking at who. At the end of the six-minute performance, Maui exits the frame defiant and re-empowered; the ineffable brown-bodied god regains control of his own image. Drawing upon Polynesian creation myth and parodying the racialised representation of the "savage" within ethnographic photography and performance culture, A Study of A Samoan Savage dismantles the colonial impulses at the core of ethnographic representation. Kihara illuminates the impossibility of attempting to standardise native bodies, instead navigating a subversive reimagining in which indigenous identities transcend the colonial gaze.

Text by Verity Seward

© 2020 by Verity Seward