Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Fa’a fafine: In a Manner of a Woman, Triptych 1
In the Western world today, the dichotomy between man and woman, male and female is often taken for granted. In many parts of the world, and, in fact, during other periods in Western history, the two-sex, two-gender model was not the norm.
In Samoa, for example, there traditionally has been an accepted “third gender” category. Originally this group was comprised of biologically born men who lived as women. Today, individuals who identify as third gender, or fa’a fafine, might be gay, lesbian, transgender, or intersex.
Multimedia and performance artist Shigeyuki Kihara was born in Samoa to Samoan and Japanese parents. Kihara’s identification as a Pacific Islander as well as a third gender individual is central to her triptych series Fa’a fafine: In the Manner of a Woman. In these three pieces, Kihara poses herself in scenes based on colonial photographs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Taken by non-native photographers for purposes that ranged from the ethnographic to the pornographic, such images helped to create and fuel many stereotypes about the people of the South Pacific Region, among which was the fantasy of the Belle Sauvage, the beautiful, primitive woman who was simultaneously innocent, eroticized, and available.
In the first of the three images in the triptych, seen here, Kihara poses as this Belle Sauvage, reclining in a grass skirt with her breasts bared to the viewer. The second image shows Kihara in the same pose, only now completely naked. In this photograph, the artist appears to be physically a woman. The final image of the series is identical but for one striking difference—the artist’s penis is revealed, her identity as a fa’a fafine uncovered. By undermining Western assumptions, many of which were adopted by Pacific Islanders during the colonial period, Kihara demands that her audience reconsider their assumptions about history, desire, gender, and the body.
Anne D’Alleva, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut
“Yuki is a very interesting artist because she is working from the position and the experience, the identity of the fa’a fafine, who is a person, a man, who dresses and lives as a woman. This is a long-standing role in Samoan culture and other Polynesian cultures as well. And it’s hard for us to understand, again, coming from a Western perspective, where people who are what we might call transgendered, who are living outside their assigned genders, are really marginalized in society and often are the targets of so much hate and violence, it’s hard to understand a culture or cultures in which these people are honored and accepted and fully integrated into society. One of the things that I think is so interesting about fa’a fafine is that you can understand from just the word itself some of the performative dimensions and artistic dimensions of the role. Because fa, the first part of the word means ‘to do’ and fafine is ‘woman.’ So ‘to do as a woman’ is the literal translation. So it is about the performance. It is about taking on women’s dress, performing women’s dance, making cloth, for example, which is typically a woman’s art form in Samoa. So it is very much about the performance of gender and about the kind of art traditions that are implicated in gender as well. And of course Yuki picks up on that in terms of her performances, draws very much on Samoan dance traditions and Samoan costuming traditions. And so, she, in ways that are very forward looking, she is also very much drawing on these traditions.”
Shigeyuki Kihara, Artist
“The fa’a fafine community in Samoa is generally an accepted group of people in Samoan society. But once when Colonialism came to Samoa and started sort of imposing us with their binary understanding of gender, race, and sexuality, we were encouraged to look either one or the other. Now, one of the reasons why I made these works is because much of the Pacific has been personified by the exotic Polynesian femininity. For me the idea of beauty and harmony in the Pacific, and specifically to Samoa, is embedded in the combination between male and female energy. Much of the post-Colonial dialogue today has been discussed amongst heterosexual people—and gays as well—but there hasn’t been much contribution from people like myself that are in this third gender category. I felt a responsibility that in order for me to, like, really make a statement, I would have to go this far. It’s one of the most hard things that I’ve ever done. But for me, the encounter with Colonialism is so intense that in order to bring my game, I have to be that intense to counteract those measures. One of the reasons that it was hard for me is because the transgender body is not necessarily one that is seen in the mainstream.
When I exhibited this series of work I aimed to first of all exhibit these series to Pacific Island people and specifically Samoan people as well. Because the idea of homophobia and transphobia that came with the arrival of the missionaries is a post-contact phenomenon. And I’m not only trying to educate the West but I’m also trying to educate the people in my own community as well. And these works have also been exhibited with exhibitions with a grass roots focus, with involvement of the Pacific Island community as well.
Now that I see my Fa’a fafine works being bought and hung on display at the Metropolitan Museum, what it is doing is that it’s surfacing grass roots voices that are being marginalized in a mainstream space.”
Rosi, Pamela Sheffield. “About the Artist: Shigeyuki Kihara.” The Contemporary Pacific 19.1 (Spring 2007): vii–vii.
“Shigeyuki Kihara: Living Photographs (October 7, 2008 – February 1, 2009).” In Special Exhibitions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2008/shigeyuki-kihara.
Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust Web site. http://www.tautai.org.