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May 29, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

She is just a poem

(come if you dare

to these mysterious islands)

frozen in glossy post-card form

  she is adorned

     with dreams

        ready for you / to



           over gorgeous big brown eyes

              gorging thighs¹


The newspapers locate us. “Struggles of farming and living without water”; “Moana Directors say thank you Samoa”; “Samoa’s $131m project approved”; “Win a Toyota Hilux!” Small, filtered glimpses of a place like our own but different; where ads for holidays in “White Sand Polynesia” still get printed even though we’re already there. Some places exist only in photographs, or, maybe — the sand is always whiter on the other side.

We are in Samoa. Turn around and face the ocean. Look at how blue it is. How the horizon is not a line but a gradient. How the sky and sea never look better than when they become one. Think of the peace that comes with having at once everything and nothing to look at. Behind us, the sand; the bush; the shade. A few empty fale. A dream.

Europeans first placed foot on this soil in 1787. They came ashore on the north coast of Tutuila in what is now American Samoa. 12 members of the landing party and 39 Samoans were killed. What did each see in the Other — light hitting tense arm; a glint in the eye; the arch of a furrowed brow; blood spilt on the sand to be washed away as the tide rises? Does a threat look like what you know, or what you don’t?

Yuki Kihara’s Coconuts That Grew From Concrete, on display at Artspace until July 1, explores how one’s Other can be shaped into another’s Own. The wall, on the left as you enter, is covered with a large poster: paradise. In the centre of the room is a standalone structure, covered in newspaper pages: a land with wants, needs, desires. And hanging — one in a gilded frame, others unframed canvas — around us, are beautiful Frankensteins: women stitched together from early 20th century tableaux photographs of Samoan subjects by Pākehā photographers, destined to be postcards, and painted portraits by European Old Masters.

The Burton Brothers are among the photographers whose images are used. They kept a diary of their time in the Pacific, which was published as The Camera in the Coral Islands. They wrote of a Samoan woman they photographed:

“Here, for instance, is a girl dressed but little according to civilised ideas, very much of her form, her bosom, her shapely limbs being freely revealed. She is just a poem, and no thought of impropriety suggests itself for a moment…”

In Kihara’s Odialisque (After Boucher), a Samoan woman lies on her side, head propped up by one arm, the other covering her breasts. Her hair is tightly curled. Her face is round. Her eyes slant toward the camera. A flax skirt and woven mat reinforce the Otherness that would define how she was read when turned to postcard. Kihara has transposed her, cropping the photograph so that she is cut off at the waist, onto Boucher’s The Odialesque: a woman reclined on a huge bed of pillows and velvets with her naked back to the viewer. The two images fit seamlessly: the figure’s legs extending easily from ‘ie tōga to bedspread.

Where does fantasy end? The paintings are reproductions, their pixels visible if you look up close. The wallpaper has fractures down its seams. Paradise has its fault lines, where tensions heighten to the point of collapse. Its end point is its source. To follow the lines, from pale leg to flax skirt, or brown stomach to white hip, is to look for the connections in difference: to shape someone’s Other into your Own and be made complicit in the act.


looking with new eyes

  nothing is left

     she one the post card

        has Frozen to death.¹


  1. Selina Tusitala Marsh. “Statued (stat you?) Traditions.” Wasafiri 25 (1997): 52-54.

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