Shigeyuki Kihara's video tribute to the victims of the 2009 tsunami in Samoa won the Wallace Art Award this week. She talks to Adam Gifford.

When the judges did the initial cull of the 502 entrants for the Wallace Art Awards, all they saw of Shigeyuki Kihara's work were two stills. They did not see the whole 4.49 minute video until after rating most of the other 118 finalists, but as judge Warwick Brown said, all three judges immediately made it their top pick, the first time a multimedia work has taken the supreme prize.

More than anything else in the show, Galu Afi: Wave of Fire justifies the Wallace's status as a premier contemporary art prize - and with the cash and residencies totalling more than $160,000 it's also one of the most well endowed.

Kihara will spend six months in residence at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York.

Born in Samoa in 1975 and raised in Japan and Samoa before coming to New Zealand to study, Kihara's art training came through immersion in fashion (including studying fashion design and technology at Wellington Polytechnic in 1996), theatre, dance, hip-hop and electronic music.


"Producing fashion shows and shoots and gigs led me to understand how I could use those production skills to pursue my own work," she says. "I pretty much had to source the studio, the models, the clothes. They don't teach you that at art school."

Kihara has built up a vocabulary of forms and techniques that allows her to move beyond core themes like racial and gender identity and colonisation to add a powerful poetic element.

Like the work Siva in the Home AKL show at Auckland City Art Galley, Galu Afi is an extension of The Last Taualuga, which was performed at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2002 and subsequently in Melbourne, with a recording of that performance now held by Te Papa.

That piece was inspired by an image of a Samoan woman wearing a Victorian mourning dress. It was taken by Thomas Andrew, a New Zealander who moved to Apia in 1891 and made a living making studio portraits and images for the booming postcard industry.

"When I found the photo, I wanted to understand the context of how this came about," Kihara says. "Then I thought, 'wouldn't it be amazing if I could see her performing the taualaga - maybe I should do this myself.' Whenever I am performing it, she is on my mind, she is the muse behind my performance."

In Samoan culture, the taualaga is a dance of celebration. Kihara wanted to explore how it could function as social commentary. The fact that many of the images of classical non-western cultures come through the colonial gaze and studio creations of photographers like Andrew has given many post-colonial and indigenous artists a tool to reclaim their image.

"Colonial administrators and missionaries enforced rules on Samoans to appear civilised, including wearing clothes. Only in the photography studio were we asked to take off our clothes and become the noble savage, dusky maiden, heathen cannibal, for the gaze of photographers who wanted to make money from the postcard boom.

"New Zealand was part of that image-making industry of Samoan people, and those early photographs set precedents for the racism that continues today."


Galu Nia and Siva are both laments for the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga that killed at least 189 people, and were done in the same day-long session, with Rebecca Swan on camera and Kirsty MacDonald in the editor's chair. While taualuga also usually involves music, lyrics, sound, the artist has turned the dance into a silent movie.

"Performing the taualuga in silence was awkward at first but the more I was in the studio with my production crew, I did a couple of takes as soon as I found my rhythm then I was able to pursue it. It's shot in real time so in my choreography I have to manipulate and slow down certain movements based on how they would be used in post-production to show the tracking.

"If you YouTube taualuga you see the speed of performance is drastically different from mine, so I am not performing a taualuga but the movements are informed by it."

The camera was shifted from a vertical axis, which emphasised the full body undulations of Siva, to a horizontal shot that captured Kihara from the chin to the waist, with the attention on the hand movements which become multi-tracked. The effect could be seen as a metaphor for the inexorable movement of water swallowing up the horizon.

The early photographic references are to Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Morey, whose pioneering of stop-action photography to capture motion was a crucial step in the development of cinema. The title was lifted from a book by Lani Wendt, commissioned by the Samoan Government to gather recollections of tsunami survivors.

"I thought her translation of galu awhi as waves of fire was brilliant, water that behaves like fire."

Kihara's Living Photographs exhibition in 2008-2009 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York - the first New Zealander to show there - means there is already keen interest in her work in North America.

She will be breaking up her New York stay with commitments in Ottawa, Germany, Australia and Samoa, and also intends to reach out to diaspora communities in Utah and San Francisco. A priority is to spend time in the Margaret Mead Hall at the Natural History Museum going through the archived material behind the anthropologist's Coming of Age in Samoa.

"I want to unpack and repack the controversy. The book became a best-seller, it contributed to the feminist movement, modern thought and the ways Americans think of their own society, but after Mead's death many of the women she interviewed in American Samoa came forward to say everything they told her was based on lies."

How that will manifest itself in future remains to be seen. "All my work is research-based and the work is created in response to my findings, so it's a post-studio practice, where the studio is in my head," she says.

Who: Shigeyuki Kihara, paramount winner of this year's Wallace Art Award
Where and when: The Award Winners & Travelling Finalists, Pah Homestead, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to November 11; Salon des Refuses, Pah Homestead, to November 18