How do you mobilize people who fear change, who fear shifting the status quo, and how do you suggest to them that as a minority they can win?
(Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies)
Transformative art is rule-breaking art, all the more so when addressing the obsolete norms, values and laws hindering Indigenous rights and Decolonizing Gender. For the purposes herein, Decolonizing Gender is defined as the process of removing all stigmas placed on gender roles by society, religion, and popular culture.
For example, transforming the normative model of gender as a binary (i.e. male and female) is about transcending the concept that all outsider gender identities are freakish. A self-identified gendered person, here defined as a transgender-identified individual, is a person born of one gender, who eventually identifies with the opposite gender.
Decolonizing Gender is also a process that recognizes the ongoing history of colonization in relation to gender, whereby colonization is a defined, foremost, as a process of assimilation. Thereby, Decolonizing Gender recognizes the traumas of assimilation and offers an opportunity to self-educate and overcome through active participation in social justice. Decolonizing Gender affirms human identity as fluid, with regard to individual self-expression.
Indigenous cultures have a legacy recognizing two-spirit, or gendered identities. Settler (un)civilization is marred by an implacable lack of capacity to harmonize socio-economics with ecological sustainability. Nowhere is this dysfunctional relationship more revealing than in inter-social conflicts between dominant hetero-normative and settler cultures with Gendered and Indigenous ways of knowing, being and relating.
Multimedia and performance artist Shigeyuki Kihara essentially decolonizes the image, decolonizes art and the body in the same breath, or the same pose, as she decolonizes gender. The first living artist from Samoa, New Zealand and the Pacific region to hold a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Kihara’s work is now part of its permanent collection. Kihara’s signature series, Fa’a Fafine: In a Manner of a Woman is on loan from the Met for the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibition that was held from May 17 to September 2, 2013. Sakahàn means ‘to light a fire’ in Algonquin languages.
Expressly stating her identity as an artist first and foremost, before fa’afafine gender and ancestral heritage, part of Kihara’s work in decolonizing art itself has brought her to what in Samoan is called ‘tanaloa’. As she translated for ABC Sydney speaking of her 2010 work for the Sydney Festival, Tanaloa – Walk the Talk: “Tanaloa in the Samoan philosophy translates as a process of discussion between two parties coming together in order to find mutual ground based on love, harmony and peace.” In Tanaloa – Walk the Talk, Kihara gathered different cultural, religious and ethnic communities through musical collaborations to exhibit social harmony.
Kihara’s work speaks to decolonization in the context of the LGBT liberation movement, where for example, Kihara is quoted in Aesthetica Magazine speaking to the independence of the Fa’a Fafine: “Because most of the time the Western queer movement is driven by, catered for, and to benefit gay white men.”
As in the wider area of international indigenous art, Fa’a Fafine: In a Manner of a Woman confronts normative misrepresentations of transgender persons, “particularly with those who are documentary filmmakers, journalists and anthropologists who continue to misrepresent Fa’a Fafine purely through their fascination with the ‘primitive and exotic’ cultural sexual practice,” Kihara said for Aesthetica.
Themes related to how exoticism and primitivism play into authenticity and representation are a focal point of reflection for indigenous artists in the Sakahàn exhibit. Kihara’s art stands among over 150 works of art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, including the work, Blanket Stories by Seneca artist Marie Watt from Seattle, USA, which invites public participation. Kihara’s work, exhibited at Sakahàn, invites viewers to take a closer look at the human body as a medium in and of itself, in the creative project of modern history.
Indigenous art, in the manner of Kihara, addresses colonial history through both austere criticisms as well as through satire, relating to Western history as a history of relation to the human body as subversive in its natural form. Historic representations of the gendered and feminine body are re-presented to the dominant psyche through transformative and self-expressed representations of the full spectrum and innate diversity of human identity.
With a background in fashion education, Kihara addresses not only the decolonization of the human body through gendered perspectives, but also the decolonization of body coverings, such as clothing and consumer accessories that so often define modern identity.
“To me the global fashion industry is one of many imperial forces that is driven by, catered for and to benefit the First World through the exploitation of the Third World resources,” Kihara said in an interview with Peril Magazine. Other indigenous artist express similar distaste for the representative values and norms of fashion consumerism, such as Canadian First Nations artist Kent Monkman’s satirical pieces such as East vs. West, Sunday in the Park or Charged Particles in Motion which displaces the Western imagination of the stoic Indian with the homoerotic fantasies of Louis Vuitton-toting Aboriginal men dominating white settlers in the pristine landscapes of the pioneer days.
Here, again, the artist challenges normative gender perspectives in light of a racially biased history, most illustratively emphasized through culturally dominant re-presentations of the human body.
Literally, Fa’a Fafine translates from the Samoan, ‘like a woman’, the complex gender identity has been defined by Kihara as ‘Samoan of Third Experience’ and also as the central and foundational human gender identity, from which male and female originally derives. To many, including those at the Asia Pacific Triennial, Kihara is simply Diva, where in 2002 she exhibited a dance performance celebrating the role of women and simultaneously recognizing the impacts of colonization and Christianity with a subversive and entertaining twist.
Kihara’s art conveys a universal depiction of how colonization seeks to deface indigenous cultures and eventually makes a big spectacle of it, packaging it and making a profit off of it. To survive is to see through the power of control. After privately engaged in active cultural preservation, survivors become highly educated and rise above the oppressors, while passing on vital knowledge to future generations.
In its more immediate and poignant forms, art is not merely show, or exhibition. Art is the most accurate representation of life, and most able facilitation of cultural knowledge, especially where it voices the internal psyche, or the spirituality of an individual or community. Everything else – worldly experience, common perception, media information, and modern consumerism – is more characteristic of a show, as nothing more than appearance, spectacle or display.
“Swamped by the knowledge of external objects, the subject of all knowledge has been temporarily eclipsed to the point of seeming nonexistence,” wrote Carl Jung in 1946. Throughout his life, Jung alluded to the notion that reality occurs first and foremost in the psyche, and that the objective world ‘out there’ is merely a reflection of a more true, internal experience. Similarly, Jung’s notion continues with the meaning of stories shared from Gendered worldviews and Indigenous art since time immemorial.
Contemporary Samoan novelist, painter and poet, Sia Figiel embraces her multifaceted intercultural spirituality, as she exemplifies Jungian existentialism, through creativity. “I definitely work towards a merging of the physical and the metaphysical to create a more spiritual space with my art,” said Figel in an interview for Issue #3 (September 2001-June 2002 ) of Frigatezine. “Beauty and peace and chaos. I am a painter of the twenty-first century — a walking contradiction.”