comment 0

Tearing away coloniality: a "way of seeing" in between

* Switch language to english for english version of the article *

''I am not a fa'afafine, I am not gay, I am not transgender, I am just a human being and I am here to rock''.1

        Tuisina Ymania Brown's words at a panel entitled ''Fa'afafine Towards Decolonization''. She refers to the Western desire to categorize human beings and identities. Against this Western desire to classify and categorize, CASOAR will talk about a photographic series made by the artist Yuki Kihara. This series Fa’afafine. In the Manner of Women including three self-portraits was created in collaboration with the photographer Sean Coyle. But who is Yuki Kihara? She is an transdisciplinary artist working on different visual media and performances. You may know of her through her artwork Siva in Motion presented during the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy in London and then, at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. She defines herself as a fa'afafine transgender woman of Samoan and Japanese descent and lives between Aoteroa (New-Zealand) and Samoa. By taking the example of Fa’afafine. In the Manner of Women I would like to highlight fa'afafine identities and their reactions towards decoloniation and post colonial issues. This series was made at a time of personal quest ''to question what a Post Colonial Fa'afafine is today''.2

restricted

Fa’afafine. In the Manner of a Woman, Triptych 1, 2004-5.

         This series is a formal response to colonialism by taking colonial photography codes. Indeed, she is using several characteristic elements from photography made in Samoa in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As a matter of example, photographs are sepia-toned and recreate portrait photography of what was called dusky maiden . Yuki Kihara poses lying on a Victorian couch first wearing a skirt then naked. Such photographs were widely made by commercial photographers based in Apia, in Samoa such as Thomas Andrew or Alfred John Tattersall. Yuki Kihara's series was exhibited in the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology of Cambridge from 2006 to 2008. She was asked to write the label.

''What people see with me is the surface of what's being presented to them, but not necessarily what you would call a reality. I am Polynesian, I am Asian, I appear publicly and live as a woman within my male anatomical body-this is known as fa'a fafine in Samoa-third gender is the closest western interpretation. The Fa'a fafine work questions the western classification of races, gender and sexuality. I can never fit into them, but at the same time I ask myself-are they worth fitting into?''3

       Through those words, it is clear that Yuki Kihara's identity and existence are already a response and subvert this desire to classify inherent in the colonial project. This series can be seen as a project in between. We can conceive of Yuki Kihara's identity as in between places as she is of Japanese and Samoan descent and in between gender as a fa'afafine. Her identity is mentioned as an important part of her work, ''as a member not only of a diasporic minority but also of other marginalised identities relating to her gender, sexuality, and race''.4 To push this 'in between' approach further, I would like to refer to Michael Horswell on the use of the term third gender. It does not mean there are three genders but ''it is rather a way of breaking with sex and gender bipolarities''.5 Her position can be visualized as ''from the precipice, from the corner of what all the gender marquers are''.6 Furthermore, in this 'in-between' reading of the series, I would add the temporal and spatial dimension. She introduces a Victorian couch in this Samoan decor, thus breaking by this way the fetichism and exotism of the representation of the Other. The Victorian couch is a clear reference to 19th British imperialism and colonialism in Pacific islands. Regarding time, Yuki Kihara says that she ''seek[s] for the mystery and mana in order to draw people into exploring ancient Samoan principles by using today's cutting edge technology''.7

restricted (1)

Fa’afafine. In the Manner of a Woman, Triptych 2, 2004-5.

       While she subverts colonialism and imperialism as expressed in19th - century photography, Yuki Kihara shows the legacy of colonial mechanisms in nowadays societies. In a panel, she presented this series as ''a response to a variety of experiences''.8 She explained that she was then an unemployed artist and went to some art institutions in New Zealand to exhibit her work. A man asked her what fa'afafine is. After she explained it, the man replied: ''Oh! You know, my wife and I, we always wanted to have a threesome with a tranny''.9 This story reveals that these colonial mechanisms concerning not only racial categories but also gender and sexual categories are still at play. She argues that the ''obsession with fa'afafine which is based on ''primitive and exotic'' cultural and sexual practices continues to be perceived through this perspective''.10 To develop this point, I would like to focus on the use of terms and on the title of this series. Like other non-Western identities such as Two-Spirit for instance, the word fa'afafine does not have a translation either in English or in French.The second part of the tittle, In the Manner of a Woman, is the literal translation of fa'afafine. As explained by Tuisina Ymania Brown, trying to define fa'afafine in Western words is like trying ''to fit the round peg into a square hole''.11 Fa'afafine is often translated as third gender as we have seen. This word reveals Western failure to understand fa'afafine and desire to name it to control it and make it acceptable. As Yuki Kihara mentions, ''putting you in third-gender is also putting you in some hierarchy within White supremacist capitalist normative patriarchy''.12 Fa'afafine should be understood in a Samoan cultural perspective. Reclaiming this word is seen as ''a form of decolonization per se'' as it ''liberat[es] from Western trope''.13 In a panel, Yuki Kihara explained that the term has to be challenged and discovered. There are different ways to be fa'afafine and so different interpretations. She higlights the danger of the definition. The danger of ''when one wants to put a word on what's authentic. That is what colonial power did to divide us''.14

        What the colonial power also set up is a Western binary gendered vision which is reflected in colonial photography. Maria Lugones developped the concept of coloniality of gender which can be defined as as a process of mutual constitution of colonial domination and the imposition of binary gender. This imposition of a binary gendered vision is evident in concrete examples such as the 1921 Samoa Act voted during British colonial time. By administrative means, colonial institutions have tried to erase fa'afafine identities. In particular, the 1921 Samoa Act includes two laws about the prohibition of female impersonation in public and of sodomy. Erasing fa'afafine identities goes beyond administration. I would argue that the creation and the diffusion of photographic stereotypical representation of Polynesian feminity is also playing a significant role in this endeavour. The stereotype of Samoan feminity is the ''dusty maiden'' living ''in [the]prelapsarian sexual freedom'15 of Pacific islands seen as a paradise. Yuki Kihara subverts this vision of the Paradise by playing with gender expectations. She is mimicking the visual codes of the genre of nude portraits taken by commercial photographers in the 19th century. This ''prelapsarian sexual freedom'' is represented ''through the availability of their bodies to white men''.16 The trope of the dusky maiden is ''intented to suggest the desirability and availability of Polynesian women to the white male''.17 Portraying herself lying on a couch, she uses ''conventional poses of nineteenthcentury popular erotic photography''.18 The naked body is displaced in the stereotypical scenary of paradise, against a backdrop of untamed nature with South Seas markers.19 Yuki Kihara sees this project as a way to respond to the colonial gaze and romanticism about naked bodies. It is also a way to break the binary representation of gender in colonial photography. Colonial photography not only reinforces a binary gendered vision but also turns naked bodies into ''commodified flesh''.20 'By photographing them fully naked, the photographer denies them their status''.21 This denial of the human value of bodies can also be seen in the fact that they are hardly ever named, thus turning them into economic objects. It also becomes an economic object. Represented on postcards, these naked bodies become ''commodified flesh'' in the market for postcard images created by colonial economy and tourism.22 Helen Gilbert notes that photography ''had the effect of commodifying colonised peoples/cultures to an extent rarely possible in other forms of visual(or verbal) art''.23

restricted (2)

Fa’afafine. In the Manner of a Woman, Triptych 3, 2004-5.

     So why did Yuki Kihara choose the photographic medium to respond to colonial mechanisms? As we have seen, photography is deeply rooted in colonialism and Western domination. Nevertheless, this project is a photographic series as well as a performance. This project as a reenactment of colonial photography allows the artist to take it to present times in order to disrupt it. Yuki Kihara challenges the relation of power between the photographer and the subject. These terms actually become meaningless in this project as she turns the situation around. By doing so, she questions the way we look at things. Playing with genres allows her to shift view and to shift the point of view. ''She is looking directly at Andrews and, by extension, at the viewer, thereby disrupting the dominant power relationship of colonial photography in which the sitter is rendered passive and exotic by the active gaze of the photographer''.24 The point of view is particularly relevant in fa'afafine discourses. Shevon Matai says for example: ''I believe that you don't have to look too far to understand who we are because it's right there you just have to have the right eye''. To be fa'afafine is a ''way of seeing''.25
How can Yuki Kihara subvert colonial mechanisms while using the codes of colonial photography? The devil is in the detail. In the background is a mat and what appears to be untamed nature. But the mat is torn away and reveals that this untamed nature is actually a wallpaper. By tearing away the mat, it becomes apparent that all of this is made in a studio. I would argue that, through this series, Yuki Kihara breaches coloniality to make us aware of the masquerade of coloniality. She opens new ways of being beyond classification and categorization. To understand the importance of such detail, I would like to link this series to Michael Fried's analysis of Jeff Wall's photograph Dead Troops Talk. It depicts soldiers on the battle field and all the atrocities of war. Nevertheless, this photograph was made and staged in the artist's studio. In the same way, both projects rely on an almost similarity with their model. The most important part is ''almost''. Both show ''a work of deliberate and elaborative artifice''.26 The mat torn away in Yuki Kihara's series makes us aware of the staged performance. The efficiency of Yuki Kihara's disruption of colonial photography lies in this close similarity torn away by the transparency of the staged photographs. Michael Fried adds that by showing its high artifice, it ''saves it from the risk of  "aestheticization" ''27 that would put back this series into the narrative of giving to the Western eye the pleasure to look at the beautiful picture of a naked body.

Enzo Hamel

Image à la une : Yuki Kihara devant son triptyque d’œuvres Fa’afafine. In the Manner of a Woman. ©Excerpt from Art Through Time: The Body. https://video.kpbs.org/video/thirteen-specials-excerpt-from-art-through-time-the-body/

1 Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artistshigeyuki-kihara

2 TEAIWA, K. M., 2011. “An Interview with Interdisciplinary Artist Shigeyuki Kihara”. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 27. Access through
http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue27/kihara.htm

3 Label quoted In RAYMOND, R., and SALMOND, A., 2008. Pasifika Styles: artists inside the museum. Otago, Otago University Press.

4 TREAGUS, M., and SEYS, M., 2017.  »Looking Back at Samoa: History, Memory, and the Figure of Mourning in Yuki Kihara’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ». Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, 3, pp. 86-109.

5 LUGONES, M., 2007. “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System”. Hypatia 22 (1), pp. 186-219.

6 Tuisina Ymania Brown In Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara

7 TEAIWA, K. M., 2011. “An Interview with Interdisciplinary Artist Shigeyuki Kihara”. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 27. Access through
http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue27/kihara.htm

8 Yuki Kihara In Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara

9 Ibid.

10 TEAIWA, K. M., 2011. “An Interview with Interdisciplinary Artist Shigeyuki Kihara”. Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 27. Access through
http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue27/kihara.htm

11 Phineas Hartson In Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara

12 Yuki Kihara In Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara

13 Phineas Hartson In Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio]. Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara

14 Honolulu Biennale,  »Hard Talks #1: The LGBTQ Diaspora of the Pacific » [online video]. YouTube, April 4th 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI3VA_lNOrQ

15 TREAGUS, M., and SEYS, M., 2017.  »Looking Back at Samoa: History, Memory, and the Figure of Mourning in Yuki Kihara’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ». Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, 3, pp. 86-109.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 WALDROUP, H., 2017.  »The Snark in Samoa: Photography, Privacy and the Colonial Gaze ». Studies in American Naturalism, 12 (2), pp. 171-199.

19 NORDSTRÖM, A. D., 1995.  »Photography of Samoa: Production, Dissemination, and Use ». In BLANTON, C., Picturing Paradise: Colonial Photography Of Samoa, 1875 to 1925. Daytona Beach, Southeast Museum of Photography, pp. 11-40.

20 I will use here the expression of Eva Hayward and Che Gossett (HAYWARD, E., and GOSSETT, C., 2017. « Impossibility of that ». Angelaki, 22 (2), pp. 15-24.)

21 WALDROUP, H., 2017.  »The Snark in Samoa: Photography, Privacy and the Colonial Gaze ». Studies in American Naturalism, 12 (2), pp. 171-199.

22 GEARY., C., and LEE-WEBB, V., (ed.) 1998. Delivering views: Distant Cultures in early Postcards. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

23 GILBERT, H., 1998. “Bodies in Focus: Photography and Performativity in Post-Colonial Theatre”. Textual Studies in Canada, 10/11, pp. 17–32.

24 TREAGUS, M., and SEYS, M., 2017.  »Looking Back at Samoa: History, Memory, and the Figure of Mourning in Yuki Kihara’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ». Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, 3, pp. 86-109.

25 Both quotes In KIHARA, Y., and TAULAPAPA MCMULLIN, D. T., 2018. Samoan Queer Lives. Stroud, Little Island Press.

26 FRIED., M., 2008.  »Three beginnings ». In Why photography matters as art as never before. New Haven, Yale University Press, pp. 5-35.

27 Ibid.

Bibliographie :

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales,  »Fa’afafine towards Decolonization » [online audio].
    Soundcloud, June 3rd 2015, https://soundcloud.com/artgalleryofnsw/quiet-riot-1-faafafine-towards-decolonisation-moderated-by-artist-shigeyuki-kihara
  • FRIED., M., 2008.  »Three beginnings ». In Why photography matters as art as never before. New Haven, Yale University Press, pp. 5-35.
  • GEARY., C., and LEE-WEBB, V., (ed.) 1998. Delivering views: Distant Cultures in early Postcards. Washington, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.
  • GILBERT, H., 1998. “Bodies in Focus: Photography and Performativity in Post-Colonial Theatre”. Textual Studies in Canada, 10/11, pp. 17–32.
  • HAYWARD, E., and GOSSETT, C., 2017. « Impossibility of that ». Angelaki, 22 (2), pp. 15-24.
  • Honolulu Biennale,  »Hard Talks #1: The LGBTQ Diaspora of the Pacific » [online video]. YouTube, April 4th 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI3VA_lNOrQ
  • KIHARA, Y., and TAULAPAPA MCMULLIN, D. T., 2018. Samoan Queer Lives. Stroud, Little Island Press.
  • LUGONES, M., 2007. “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System”. Hypatia 22 (1), pp. 186-219.
  • NORDSTRÖM, A. D., 1995.  »Photography of Samoa: Production, Dissemination, and Use ». In BLANTON, C., Picturing Paradise: Colonial Photography Of Samoa, 1875 to 1925. Daytona Beach, Southeast Museum of Photography, pp. 11-40.
  • RAYMOND, R., and SALMOND, A., 2008. Pasifika Styles: artists inside the museum. Otago, Otago University Press.
  • TEAIWA, K. M., 2011. “An Interview with Interdisciplinary Artist Shigeyuki Kihara”.
    Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 27. Access through
    http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue27/kihara.htm
  • TREAGUS, M., and SEYS, M., 2017.  »Looking Back at Samoa: History, Memory, and the Figure of Mourning in Yuki Kihara’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ». Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, 3, pp. 86-109.
  • WALDROUP, H., 2017.  »The Snark in Samoa: Photography, Privacy and the Colonial Gaze ». Studies in American Naturalism, 12 (2), pp. 171-199.

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.