|Sina Ma Tuna: Sina and Her Eel, 2003|
In the series Vavau - Tales from ancient Samoa Shigeyuki Kihara mimics the tradition of velvet painting through photography and self-portraiture. “Where the velvet painters are notorious for portraying Pacific people from the colonial gaze, what I do is re-occupy that gaze" she says. "I come from a point of view from the insider.”
The work Sina Ma Tuna: Sina and Her Eel depicts Kihara in the role of Sina from the traditional Samoan myth ‘Sina and the Eel’, in which the origins of the coconut are explained. After being attacked by the eel some men kill it and, in mourning, Sina buries the head of the eel. The head then grows into the first coconut tree.
Kihara, in this image, has chosen to portray the grieving Sina with her head turned, out of the blackness, toward the viewer. Holding up the eel, the object of her loss, with blood running down her arm, the viewer is invited into her pain.
One possible interpretation of this re-enactment, in relation to gender performance and the ambiguity surrounding the ‘third gender’, would see the eel as a phallic symbol. While society expects her to grieve the loss of her masculinity Kihara is ironically pointing out that there is in fact nothing to grieve: she is both male and female, breaking the binary. Again Kihara is challenging her own marginalisation and societal categorisations about who she is and how her body should be portrayed. Through the image of a beautiful grieving ‘dusky maiden’ Kihara is confronting the expectation that she has anything to grieve or feel sorry for at all. On the contrary, it is others who should be feeling sorry.
As Jim Vivieaere puts it “‘Who am I, what am I, and what are you?' are questions that will never haunt or torment Kihara.” But, these certainly are questions that Kihara wants to confront us, and our colonial legacy, with. It is this myriad of questions, challenges, ambiguities and compromising of binaries, throughout Kihara’s work, that never leaves the viewer without feeling challenged.
C. Vercoe, “The Many Faces of Paradise” in Paradise Now: Contemporary Art from the Pacific (Auckland: David Bateman Ltd., 2004), 46.
J. Vivieaere, Exhibition Catalogue for Shigeyuki Kihara: In the manner of a woman. Sherman Galleries, 2005.