|Fa’afafine: In the Manner of A Woman, 2004-5|
The colonisation of Samoa coincided almost exactly with the announcement of the invention of photography in the early 19th century. By the 1850’s photographers were travelling from Europe all over the world with anthropological aims to capture through photography a cultural ‘Other’ whom they saw as exotic and savage, bringing back the images for study and sale within a number of contexts. Over time Samoa began to be imaged in, as academic Alison Nordstrom puts it, “a few manageable and marketable clichés. These clichés consistently presented Samoans as primitive types inhabiting an unchanging Eden that did not participate in the Western world of technology, progress and time.”
These clichés included that of the South Sea Belle or Dusky Maiden, the stereotype of a sexually available exotic female body. Images were sold as exotic postcards and pornography, disconnecting the photographic representations from the identities of their subjects. As artist Shigeyuki Kihara explains: “There [were] more [other] people photographing Samoans than Samoans photographing themselves.” As such Samoan identities were defined not by Samoans but by the voyeuristic colonial gaze. A gaze that was largely white, straight and male.
In the triptych Fa’afafine: In the Manner of A Woman Samoan-born, Auckland and Sydney based Shigeyuki Kihara takes on the stereotype of the ‘dusky maiden’ as a way of criticizing and reconstructing the colonial gaze. Kihara herself had relatives who posed in such 19th century portraits and by choosing to photograph herself in the role of the ‘dusky maiden’ she is able to pay homage to her ancestors while simultaneously examining the hurtful legacy of colonial portraiture. By the time photography arrived in Samoa, Samoan people were already dressing in Western clothing, yet when they were invited into the studio they were often asked to strip nude so they would more fully embody the European fictional idea of the exotic ‘noble savage’.
This confronting series portrays Kihara in three states of undress posing in a traditional Western art historically influenced reclining pose. The third image disrupts the viewer’s expectations further by challenging the Western classifications of male/female gender. Kihara herself identifies as fa'afafine, “a liminal gender that encapsulates both a male and a female gender," as Kihara explains it. It takes a moment for the viewer to see the difference between the two fully nude figures. When one does, in viewing the final image, the confrontation is complete. She goes on to say, “I feel that portraying man and woman is a responsibility of mine because I am a manifestation of both.”
A parallel is made here between the ‘construction’ of her body to match her gender identity and the highlighting of the social construction of the stereotyped native belle. The double meaning of the title references this further. In the manner of a woman: fa’afafine, and, in the manner of a woman: exotic beauty.
Here we have a Samoan Olympia. And just as with the painting by Manet her body may be nude but she is not as vulnerable as this would suggest. Kihara is not merely an object for male delectation. Instead she is upright and confident, challenging and reoccupying the white male gaze. Her pluralities heighten this confrontation with the viewer further. Three people stare out at us from what we are tricked into imagining is three period photographs (which in reality were photographed on a digital camera).
The extraordinarily direct gaze is the dead give away though (even more so perhaps than the phallus) that these images are distinctly post-colonial and very much contemporary. For this ‘native belle’ is no passive exotic subject as her ancestors were. She is in on it: the subject, the photographer, the viewer herself in one. In this way she has become the (de)coloniser of her own body. As Kihara herself puts it “'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?”
Alison Nordstrom, “Persistent Images”, Continuum: The Australian Journal of media & Culture vol. 6 no. 2 (1991), 1.
Alison Nordstrom, “Paradise Recycled: Photographs of Samoa in Changing Contexts”, The Journal of the Society for Photographic Education, vol. 28, no. 3 (1991-92): 15.