8 Dec 2018

Kalisolaite 'Uhila - Performance artist heads to Honolulu Biennial

From Saturday Morning, 11:15 am on 8 December 2018

Kalisolaite 'Uhila, whose performance art saw him spend three months homeless in Auckland, is heading to Honolulu's Biennial.

The award-winning Tongan-born experiential performance artist lives in Auckland.

His works have involved him spending days in a pig pen, being 'cooked' in an umu, and conducting the tide at Wellington's Oriental Bay.

His performance at The Honolulu Biennial - which this year employs the theme To Make Wrong / Right / Now based on a poem by Hawaiian artist and poet Imaikalani Kalahele - explores climate change, he says.

"It would be a performance work … I can give you a clue: it's to do with climate change - rising sea levels and also using sand."

Kalisolaite 'Uhila

Kalisolaite 'Uhila Photo: www.artnews.co.nz

'Uhila is perhaps most well known for his project Mo'ui tukuhausia where he lived for three months on Auckland's streets. That won him last year's Contemporary Pacific Artist award at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards.

He was also shortlisted for the 2014 Walters Prize for an earlier iteration of that concept, where he spent two weeks outside Te Tuhi gallery in Pakuranga in 2012.

"In Pakuranga I was fully covered … by a mask, I was fully covered in black and no one could tell who I was or what I was, what culture or what identity I was."

He says the idea came to him while he was in a depression.

"I was looking for a way of how I could portray prejudice … I felt so lonely, I just felt an ugliness that, you know 'why am I going through this?

"The only thing that came to me was to portray the homeless people."

The second time he explored this concept in Auckland he lived on the streets for 24 hours a day for three months, without seeing his family.

He says the idea was to be completely honest and immerse himself in the experience.

"There's no such thing as pretend, I don't believe in that in my practice.

"I was wanting to make a difference but because the whole idea of the work … was about my self experience, it was more about myself."

He shares the story of one of the homeless men.

"He had been inside prison and then came out not really wanting to burden his family again so he chose to be on the street, chose to live on the street.

"Not only that he tried to reconnect with his family but most of his family have moved out of Auckland and he doesn't know where the family's moved to."

'Uhila learnt from the experience.

"When I went through the living with the homeless people I realised I was judging myself, I was being prejudiced to myself and the homeless people.

"It's not until you live amongst the homeless people that you realise the whole truth and everything about them, so that's how the whole idea and the work started to form."

But his depression continued and he felt his work was not understood, so he and his family moved to Tonga and he thought about doing other work.

"I fully moved with my family to Tonga, we took every single thing that we had, all of our possessions and everything back to the islands.

"I felt a bit better … kind of like 'okay, I'm going to leave art'. I just felt that no one understood what I was doing."

Then he got a call saying he had been nominated for the Walter Prize, but he couldn't quite believe it.

"I think this is just a prank call from someone trying to prank me to come back to New Zealand or want to make fun of me for … moving to Tonga."

He asked his wife to check if it was real, and even then had to think seriously about whether to come back to New Zealand for the award, but it changed things for him.

"It was a big affirmation, it was a turning point in my life."

Since then he's been all over the world - to Berlin, California and Japan. One piece he performed in all these was "Maumau-taimi", about wasting time and being useless.

"I was in Germany for that piece, where I just sat in the field … a place of refuge and I was also looking at that time for green grass, and the only place I could find the green grass was where the refugees were staying."

Most recently, his trip to California lasted from February to April this year.

"To be in America was mostly about spending time with my people, with the Tongan people, the Tongan community … there's quite a lot in the San Francisco area."

His work there involved painting - but it had a performance aspect too.

"I was action painting, so mostly the painting I did was mostly with tools and with tools that the Tongan people were doing with the labouring in America … and also the colours and that I was using were mostly vibrants, vibrant colours of the city and the place that I was exploring."

His residency in Japan before that focused on the Pacific people living there, he says, and involved mapping.

"A drawing with the strings on the map of Tokyo and the map of Japan and marking out - like, on the walls and that - places that are little district areas … where the Tongans and Pacific Islanders are spread out."

He says he also experienced how the performance artists in Japan make a living, where they would perform at a cafe - making art and being paid by the spectators.

"The spectators would pay to come and see the performances and that."

However, his work is not about the money, he says, and it's hard to make a living from performance art. 

"I make happiness … it puts a smile on the table. It doesn't put food, but it brings us as a family together."

At the moment, the New Zealand government is supporting him.

Last year 'Uhila won the contemporary Pacific Artist Award at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards. He's completed residencies in California and Tokyo this year, exhibited at Auckland's Michael Lett Gallery with First will be last and last, first, and is about to exhibit at the 2019 Honolulu Biennial