Representation, Misrepresentation and Re-Presentation: Contemporary Pacific Art and Ethnographic Photography

Samantha McKegg


Art can be a representation of all aspects of a society – cultures, philosophies, politics, religions, and the identities of both groups and individuals. Historically and paradoxically, mainstream art by and of Indigenous cultures around the world has often been defined by Western colonial powers. Up until the late twentieth century, Pacific art consisted of artifacts and ethnographic representations of the Pacific and its people that were heavily veiled by colonialist and capitalistic Western agendas. These romanticised visual representations have had a long-standing authority in defining traditions and culture across the Pacific Islands, and consequently have been detrimental to any realisation of a genuine representation of the Pacific.

In particular, ethnographic photography has served as an enduring misrepresentation of the Pacific. In the late-nineteenth century, photographers like John Davis, Alfred John Tattersall and Thomas Andrew took up residence in the Pacific and produced photographic works of local people that would contribute to thriving postcard markets in Europe and North America.[i] The images they produced identified Pacific equivalents of stereotypical figures from the Orient; primitive brutes and exotic odalisques were soon identified as noble savages and dusky maidens.[ii] Men, women and children were represented in often sexually suggestive images, wearing little or no clothing and placed in settings filled with ‘authentic’ Indigenous paraphernalia. The Pacific was viewed as particularly primitive and existing within a child-like state amongst nature, which meant its portrayal was especially passive.[iii]

The value in ethnographic images was defined by the Western legacy of ‘salvage ethnography’, which focused on preserving ‘primitive’ cultures before they disappeared into modernity. As the Western taxonomy views society as evolving in a linear sequence: savage to barbarian to civilised, Oriental cultures, as discovered and defined by the West, were viewed as primitive and as an embodiment of an earlier stage in societal development. However, by the time a large export market for photographs of Samoan peoples emerged, the majority of the young population was dressing in Victorian-style clothing. The true concern for the European producers of such imagery was to play into the Western expectation and fantasy of the Pacific as a prelapsarian paradise.

Many contemporary Pacific artists refuse to entirely disregard these misshapen products of Colonial history and instead employ the imagery and iconography of European representations of the Pacific to highlight the erroneous and constructed nature of such images. In the re-presentation of these images, contemporary Pacific artists construct identities to redress the popular understandings of the Pacific, both on intimate individual and wider socio-political levels. Shigeyuki Kihara and Greg Semu are two independent Samoan artists who are known for their critical postcolonial contemporary art practices.

Both Kihara and Semu have broad practices that address a wide range of Western misrepresentation, and engage with a contemporary Samoan and Pacific identity. Arguably, their most nuanced works are those that are informed by Samoan ethnographic photography. Both artists have engaged with ethnographic photography through a variety of technical and conceptual techniques in order to deconstruct the authority implied by this historical genre. By re-presenting ethnographic photography in their contemporary art practice, Kihara and Semu are able to create visual representations of their own cultural identity that is capable of transcending the Western notions of history and art.

Kihara and Semu re-present ethnographic photography through the Samoan concepts of (time) and (the space in-between), which are part of the medium of existence that informs art.[iv] Samoan art is the aesthetic result of the transformation of these ideas into representations. The transformation could be either of the internal experience into a visual one, or of an external experience transformed into a communicative form.[v] and are ontological mediums of existence, but they are also epistemological social constructs that can be studied comparatively across cultures.[vi] While Western history has a linear view of time and conceives of space in terms of physical presence, the extrinsic qualities of the Samoan social construct of andcreates a praxis that allows for societal experience and the abstract condition of existence to be converted into an artwork. and are both present in the form of the work and in the content, and the harmony between the two creates a certain aesthetic beauty.


Greg Semu, Self Portraits with back of P'ea, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay (2012) 1000 x 720mm, digital c-type print, Courtesy of Greg Semu and Alcaston Gallery
 Greg Semu, Self Portraits with back of P’ea, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay (2012) 1000 x 720mm, digital c-type print, Courtesy of Greg Semu and Alcaston Gallery.


Greg Semu, Self Portraits with front of P'ea, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay (2012) 1000 x 720mm, digital c-type print, Courtesy of Greg Semu and Alcaston Gallery
 Greg Semu, Self Portraits with front of P’ea, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay (2012) 1000 x 720mm, digital c-type print, Courtesy of Greg Semu and Alcaston Gallery.

Born and raised in New Zealand, Greg Semu (b.1971) calls Samoa his ancestral and spiritual home.[vii] Using photography for both his commercial and art practice, Semu has a photographic style that incorporates high production values with thoroughly researched critical ideas. Semu has developed an oeuvre that explores Indigenous cultures as well as his own personal identity in profoundly engaging images. He has completed residencies around the world, and his works are held in major international institutions.

In 1995, Semu first documented his Samoan waist-to-knee pe’a tattoo in the triptych Self Portrait with Pe’a, Basque Road, Newton Gully. Semu created three cropped and sharply focused perspectives of his recently completed tattoo. The black and white, front, side and back views of Semu’s pe’a closely resemble the nineteenth-century ethnographic images of Samoan men. However, as Semu is both the photographer and subject, this is not a passive representation, but rather a self-conscious auto-portrait. As he positions his body or hands to cover his penis, Semu expresses his control over this self-representation and reminds the viewer that unlike the highly sexualized historic images, this is an image of cross cultural interest – not sexual curiosity.[viii] Like the studio set-ups of ethnographic photographs, the focus is entirely on his tattooed skin, but in Semu’s photographs there is a sense that his own cultural self-discovery replaces the notion of any ethnographic inquiry.

Operating in the Samoan diaspora, Semu acquired a pe’a in order to recover his cultural identity.[ix] Interestingly, Semu reveals through the triptych’s title that the photographs were taken in Auckland, where vast populations of Samoan and Pacific people live. Within Samoa, malaga (migration) actually implies going back and forth. Samoan people are not historically bound by land and they circulate easily across the ocean. The need to travel, and therefore move within the vā, provides the opportunity to better serve āiga (family), and their associated fanua (land).[x] By referencing his own position in the Samoan diaspora, Semu refers to a tradition of migration and interchange that has been excluded in Western ethnographic depictions.

In 2012, Auckland Art Gallery’s Ron Brownson commissioned Semu to revisit the 1995 triptych, which resulted in a second triptych, Self Portraits with P’ea, Sentinel Road, Herne Bay. The new works introduce a fluctuating sense of as Semu is able to employ both Western and Samoan notions of time. In the photographic medium, Semu’s images are permanent records of his pe’a, however, in mimicking the first series Semu now introduces a Western sense of a linear existence: the new series reveals the pe’a smudging and fading over time.

Multi-disciplinary artist Shigeyuki Kihara (b.1975) was born in Apia, Samoa to a Japanese father and Samoan mother and grew up in Indonesia, Japan and Samoa before moving to New Zealand in 1989. After studying fashion technology, Kihara began to work as art director before committing to full-time art production in 2000. Kihara first encountered ethnographic photography as a student while researching the adornments and costumes of world cultures. While going through the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongerewa’s extensive collection of colonial images, she recognized that the photographs perpetuated the myth of the Pacific as an exotic paradise.[xi] In a series commissioned by Pulp Magazine, titled Savage Nobility (2001), Kihara first appropriated the style of ethnographic photographs to present a mixture of Western and Pacific clothing. Her series Black Sunday (2002) is a collection of ethnographic photographs that have contemporary clothing and fashion items collaged onto the nude subjects.


Shigeyuki Kihara, Ulugali'i Samoa; Samoan Couple (2005) chromogenic print, 800 x 600 mm, Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara
 Shigeyuki Kihara, Ulugali’i Samoa; Samoan Couple (2005) chromogenic print, 800 x 600 mm, Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara
One of Kihara’s most revered series, Fa’a Fafine: In a Manner of a Women (2005), continued Kihara’s appropriation of ethnographic photo style. In these works, Kihara imposes the guise of the colonial images on herself and reveals part of her own identity. Kihara uses photo manipulation along with varying states of dress and undress to construct and present herself as man, woman and fa’a fafine. Like Semu’s self-portraits, the images are entirely controlled by the subject as Kihara is both subject and author.

Since 2006, Kihara has played the character of Salome, the woman in mourning, across performance (Taualuga; The Last Dance, 2006-2012), video (Siva in Motion and Galu Afi; Waves of Fire, both 2012) and photographic works (Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?, 2013). The image of a Samoan woman in a Victorian mourning dress originated from a Thomas Andrew photograph called Samoan Half-Caste (1886) that Kihara came across while researching at Te Papa. The photograph of the confident woman stood out to Kihara amongst the eroticized pseudo-ethnographic images.


Shigeyuki Kihara, After Tsunami Galu Afi, Lalomanu (2013) 595 x 840 mm, c-type print, Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara
 Shigeyuki Kihara, After Tsunami Galu Afi, Lalomanu (2013) 595 x 840 mm, c-type print, Courtesy of Shigeyuki Kihara.

Originating form the New Testament, Salome’s story has become an archetypal representation of Oriental beauty, seductiveness and immorality through creative revisions. Salome performs the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils,’ a dance so alluring it leads to the execution of John the Baptist. Kihara’s Taualuga combines this feminine Oriental dancer model with her practice of subverting Pacific colonial representations. Kihara’s Salome, although originating in colonial photography, is a spatiotemporally fluid figure. Her dress is a symbol of colonizing powers – but in the Pacific context it signifies the denial of modernity and the problematic representation of ‘other’ in a persistently Occidental global world. Salome reveals the realities of the Pacific but is not reductive to any one reality. Both Kihara’s Salome and Semu’s Self-portraits with Pe’a exist in the past, present and future. As artistic representations of the Pacific, they draw all three together to show that the Pacific is consistently referential and constantly changing.

With their Samoan heritage, both Kihara and Semu are concerned specifically with Samoa, the cultural and social context that they work in, and with the Pacific and its contemporary art scene. While ‘Samoa’ refers to the specific culture and history of the nation-state, the idea of the ‘Pacific’ is inherently problematic as it risks homogenising a vast array of cultures and histories. However, in the contemporary Pacific there is a unity that could excuse the sweeping label ‘Pacific’: the Pacific may imply diversity but also comprises a mutual resistance to Eurocentric monoculture.[xii]

Contemporary art is an appropriate term for creative activities in the region, as it indicates significant changes in society and encourages art that is critical of social, political, or religious developments from the legacy of colonialism. Many artists claim two or more Pacific identities, and many operate outside of the Pacific region. Artists incorporate elements of Indigenous beliefs and customs through the inherited cultural knowledge of many skills, techniques and materials. They also incorporate Western technologies, methods and influences that have been introduced since colonisation.[xiii]

In their art practice, Kihara and Semu acknowledge the specificities of an Indigenous society. Using colonial imagery, both artists re-present Western history and its legacy of misrepresentation of Indigenous cultures; yet through Indigenous Samoan concepts of space and time, they actually represent multiple histories. This type of practice also, and quite significantly, brings to attention the cultural relativism of critical frameworks. Both artists are critically acclaimed, and their wider practice identifies them more broadly as ‘Indigenous artists’ and ‘global artists.’ They are part of a movement amongst international art to move away from Eurocentric visions of art and towards a multifaceted worldview.




[i] Mallon, Sean. Samoan Art & Artists: O Measina a Samoa, (Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton Publishing, 2002), 153.

[ii] Lisa Taouma, ‘”Doubleness of Meaning”: Pasifika Clothing, Camp and Couture,’ in The Art of Clothing: A Pacific Experience, ed. Susanna Küchler and Graeme Were (Wellington, N.Z.: Te Papa Press, 2002), 111.

[iii] Patty O’Brien, The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 218.

[iv] Māhina, ‘Okusitino. ‘Art as tā-vā “time-space” transformation’ in Researching the Pacfic and Indigenous Peoples: Issues and Perspectives edited by Tupeni Baba, ‘Okusitino Māhina, Nuhisifa Williams and Unaisi Nabobo-Baba. 88

[v] Māhina, 86.

[vi] Māhina, 86.

[vii] Greg Semu Biography, Alcaston Gallery.

[viii] Nicholas Thomas, ‘The Case of Tattooing’ in Contemporary Art and Anthropology, by Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright, eds. (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005), 186.

[ix] Michael Fitzgerald, ‘Greg Semu: Redefining Cultural Roots,’ Art Asia Pacific (Nov/Dec 2012) issue 81, 67.

[x]  Sa’iliemanu Lilomaiava-Doktor, “Beyond ‘Migration’: Samoan Population Movement (Malaga) and the Geography of Social Space (Vā),” The Contemporary Pacific 21, no.1 (2009): 14.

[xi] Virginia Were, ‘Dance of History and Loss,’ Art News New Zealand 32, no. 4 (2012): 77.

[xii] Susan Cochrane, Bérétara: Contemporary Pacific Art (Rushcutters Bay, New South Wales: Halstead Press, 2001), 27.

[xiii] Cochrane, 46.




Samantha McKegg is a Dunedin based freelance writer, critic and publicist. In 2013 she graduated Otago University with a Bachelor of Art History with Honours,...


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