Auckland fa'afafine artist Shigeyuki Kihara has won the 2012 Wallace Art Trust Paramount Award.

Kihara, 37, was presented with the award last night at the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre at Pah Homestead in Hillsborough for her digital video work Galu Afi: Waves of Fire, in which she performs a taualuga (traditional solo Samoan dance) as a memorial to the victims of the 2009 tsunami in American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga.

Kihara was in New York when the 2009 tsunami hit Samoa, where her mother was living.

"I went straight to Samoa and saw all this devastation. I wanted to make a work where the hand movements mean waves and fire," Kihara said.


This is the first time video art has been admitted into the running for the awards, established by arts patron Sir James Wallace 21 years ago.

"As a rule I don't like performance art or video art," admitted art writer Warwick Brown, on the judging panel with Associate Professor Derrick Cherrie of Elam School of Fine Arts, and artist Sam Mitchell, who won the Paramount Award in 2009.

"But the moment we saw this work we were mesmerised. It's such a beautifully classic piece of work. It consists of this performer dressed in 19th century mourning dress with the performer's face only half-visible, moving her arms and hands in what looks like very elegant hand movements.

"Technically it is clever because it is done as fluttering photography so there is a fading trace whenever the hands move and when the hand movements get quite complicated you are looking at hundreds of hands all at once. Once you know about the tsunami being the genesis of it, you do get the effect of rolling water."

Kihara, born in Samoa to a Japanese father and Samoan mother, moved to New Zealand in the late 1980s. She trained as a fashion designer at Massey University before breaking into the art scene in 2000.

Other winners last night were John Brown, who received a three-month residency at the Altes Spital studios in Switzerland; Katie Theunissen, who takes a two-month residency at the Vermont Studio Centre in Vermont; and runners-up Karin Hofko and Tessa Laird, who each received $2000.

The finalists' works are on show at Pah Homestead from today until November 11.