Art, Gender and contemporary Identity

June 16, 2009

1927 photograph

1927 photograph

Exotic and foreign images depicting the South Pacific is nothing new. In fact you can trace this practice back to the first contact periods between Pacific dwellers and European sailors or missionaries. The 1860s was a time of exploration of the Pacific by Europeans, and a time when developments in photography made the region much more accessible.  “The resulting flow of images of Pacific peoples back to Europe created and interest in the exotic ‘other’ while the subjects of the photographs were as much fascinated by the process itself” (Torr, 2004). Ethnography soon played a role in documenting and capturing further images of Polynesian peoples, shortly followed by Western artists and painters contributing to the images and meaning making of the region. Esteemed and renowned artists such as the French painter Paul Gaugin, or the kitchy retro art form of black velvet paintings, artists such as Edgar Leetag and Charlie McPhee capturing their own “dusky maidens” on their velvet canvasses.

French Artist: Paul Gaugin

French Artist: Paul Gaugin

Dusky Maiden- velvet painting by Charlie McPhee

Dusky Maiden- velvet painting by Charlie McPhee

The image commonly created were the ones of Polynesian femininity, usually referred to as the “Pacific Belles” or the “Dusky Maiden”, and these usually signified images of pliant, bare breasted women. According to Taouma (1998), the Dusky Maiden image is a woman who is never too dark, and her hair is never too frizzy, the acquiescent submissive woman. “Pacific women in European art traditions became the passive object of an active Western (and male) gaze (Smith, 2008). maiden early taken shotGiven the predominance of stereotypical representations of Polynesian people by non-Polynesian cultural producers, Pacific documentary film making practices and Pacific contemporary artists have often focused on the ‘sober, evidentiary representational strategies of realism’ to counter these fantastical representations (Pearson, 2005,3). Sarina Pearson notes that Pacific arts and documentary practices are changing.

ART, Gender and contemporary Identity: In the manner of a woman (Exhibition by Kihara)

Shigeyuki Kihara - In the Manner of a Woman

Shigeyuki Kihara - In the Manner of a Woman

One of the aforementioned contemporary artists is 34 year old Shigeyuki Kihara. Her work is well known for throwing off traditional establishments and re-appropriating the stereotypical images of the past, in turn making them her own.

Using “fashion and the body as her primary tools of expression, Kihara works across a variety of mediums and with a variety of subject matters” (Message, 2008), including the re-appropriation of ethnographic pictures and gender reconstruction. Renov (2004) explains that “the ethnographic project has long been haunted by the legacy of its colonialist past”. Kihara’s 2002 exhibition took the images of topless and submissive looking women exposed to the objectifying gaze, common of early photography and ethnographic pictures, and covered their naked bodies with brightly covered Tee-shirts, presented them as “refusing to meet the voyeuristic gaze” (Message, 2008).

In the year 2000, Kihara stirred up a media storm with a collection of T-shirts that subverted the logos of well known brands, and drew attention to some of the more ludicrous commercial images of Pacific life (Colchester, 2003). She not only engages with fashion as a form of communication, but with broader ideas about the comodification and consumption of cultural stereotypes.

The work that Kihara has received noticeable attention for is her creative attributions on gender roles and identity in contemporary society.

Jim Vivieaere acclaims;

Shigeyuki Kihara was born to defy categorisation. Her very existence blurs and challenges the organisation of mainstream thought and practice”.

According to Kylie Message;

“Kihara’s work asks the viewer to move away from the idea of the authentic body, and in the Dusky Maiden style images, in particular, we can see her desire to question the processes and procedures that have been involved in the naturalisation of such stereotypes”.

Shigeyuki Kihara’s cultural background is Japanese and Samoan, Kihara is a Fa’afafine. In Western terms this has commonly been interpreted as transgender or a third gender. Samoan people understand this term to translate more closely as; fa’afafine – in the manner of a woman.

Traditionally, images of the faafine have been overlooked by Western depictions of Pacific femininity. Shigeyuki Kihara readdresses this point within her work, rather than simply imitating the “dusky maiden” stereotype or providing a “direct reversal of the model, Kihara integrates a more reflective style of re-interpretation” (Message, 2008), as well as the intention to generate new forms, viewpoints and meanings.

Building upon Judith Butler’s gender theory, Butler highlights that ‘we are taught particular roles according to our biological sex and these roles become our gender’ (Butler, 1993). The roles of woman and man are ‘actively learnt through a system of socialisation that rewards gender appropriate behaviours and punishes deviant ones’ (Schlunke and Anderson, 2008). Kihara’s work appears as an expression of Butler’s theory, as she challenges stereotypes of colonialist representations as well as gendered stereotypes and their specified associated roles.

According to Butler, gender is a performative effect that ‘arises from repeated acts, these acts congeal over time, to produce a substance, of a natural sort of being’ (Butler, 1999).

Through her work, Kihara demonstrates gender as being a “fundamentally unstable product, in contrast to identity, which appears to be more crucially connected to the ways that we choose to perform certain versions of our self” (Message, 2008).

If postmodernism represents the blurring of boundaries, than Kihara’s art can be viewed as a form of post modern expression. ‘Postmodernism knows no boundaries; it delights in the blurring of cultural boundaries and in hybridisation’ (O’shaughnessy & Stadler, 2005).

‘Displacing the authority of an established stereotype in questioning its universal ‘truth’, and about historical agency – making the ambivalence (Bhabha’s term for the quality of colonial subjectivity and deliberate mimicry) inherently subversive’ (Kuchler & Were, 2005).

If you visit her work she asks that you come with an open mind, and to consider the way that ‘cultural stereotypes have sustained currency within contemporary culture’ (Message, 2008). Artists such as Kihara are making new meanings from the constructed representations of the past,  a ‘decolonizing’ of the image, transferring these images from a colonial past to forge new Postcolonial futures (Torr, 2008).

Article by D. Lewis Boucher


Anderson, N & Schlunke, K (2008). Cultural Theory in Everyday Practice. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ Routledge New York.

Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Colchester, Chloe (2003). Clothing the Pacific. Berg Publishers.

Kuchler, S & Were, Graeme (Ed.). (2005). The Art of Clothing; A Pacific experience. Routledge Cavendish.

Torr, Jo (2004). Jo Torr. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from Mark Hutchins Gallery Web site:

Message, Kylie (2008). Contemporary Identity, Culture and the Art of Redress: Tokyo Street Style and Shigeyuki Kihara in Aotearoa New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Media Studies , 9, Retrieved May 25th, from

O’Shaughnessy, M., & Stadler, J. (2005) Media and Society: An Introduction (3rd ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Taouma, Lisa (1998). Repicturing paradise: Myths of the dusky maiden. . Masters Thesis: University of Auckland.

Pearson, S (2005). Darkness and Light: Dusky Maidens and Velvet Dreams. Camera Obscura: Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture and Media Studies, 20, Retrieved May 25th, from

Renov, Michael (2004). The Subject of Documentary, Visible Evidence Vol 16, University of Minnesota Press. Ch:14 Domestic ethnograpghy and the construction of the “other” self pp. 216- 267

Smith, Jo (2008).Postcolonial affirmations: The return of the dusky maiden in sima urale’s velvet dreams . Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. 22, 79-88.


One Response to “Art, Gender and contemporary Identity”

  1. I found very informative. The article is professionally written and I feel like the author knows the subject very well. keep it that way.

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