How artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila made a statement by vanishing into the streets

by Anthony Byrt / 10 April, 2017
Portrait by Pati Solomona Tyrell

Auckland artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila.

One of New Zealand’s most intriguing and gifted artists, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s work is a series of disappearing acts which include living as a homeless person for three months – and making Auckland’s inequality starkly visible in the process.

It’s 10am on a sticky day and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has just finished work. We meet for coffee near the intersection of Ponsonby and Karangahape Roads, not long after his night shift at Lion Breweries’ East Tāmaki factory. His job is to stand on the production line straightening up Stella bottles so the process doesn’t stall. He grins, and tells me to think about that the next time I’m drinking one.

‘Uhila is one of Auckland’s most intriguing and gifted artists. He first entered the public consciousness with his 2014 Walters Prize live performance Mo‘ui tukuhausia (“to be absolutely stranded, or to be left destitute and friendless”), in which he lived homeless for three months around central Auckland. The work was a redux of a shorter performance he made in 2012 at Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, well before the city’s homelessness crisis became a daily conversation.

I ask him how his loved ones cope when he puts himself in such vulnerable scenarios. “My wife has been by my side since day one,” he says. But things have been trickier with his wider family, who have often asked what he’s doing and why he bothers. It took him seven years to finish his undergraduate degree. There were times when his family suggested he give up and do a building apprenticeship with his older brother instead.

Things weren’t much better for him within the art world. Before his Walters Prize breakthrough, he was depressed and convinced nobody understood his work; ‘Uhila, whose parents are Tongan, grew up in Ponsonby, but had decided to move to Tonga with his wife and daughter. The plan was to never come back. His wife wanted to study theology there. His goal was to reconnect with the world around him – to try and get well again. “Before we left, the family challenged us, saying, ‘Why are you going back to Tonga? Why are you going backwards?’” he says. “But you’ve got to go back to go forwards. The future is the past.”

He was in Tonga when he got the call telling him he’d been nominated for New Zealand’s richest contemporary art award, the $50,000 Walters Prize. Every two years, a jury of experts select four works they consider to be major contributions to New Zealand art; in 2014, the jury thought Mo‘ui tukuhausia was one of them. ‘Uhila admits he didn’t even know what the Walters Prize was – he handed the phone to his wife because he thought it was a prank call. Around the same time, he also received a scholarship from AUT to do his Masters degree. These affirmations drew the couple back to Auckland.

‘Uhila in Maumau-taimi, 2016, where he sat in the window box of St Paul St Gallery for hours; the audience could watch or interact by sitting inside the window box with him. Credit: Raymond Sagapolutele]

Luke Willis Thompson (a good friend of ‘Uhila’s) eventually won the Walters Prize, but Mo‘ui tukuhausia became the major talking point. ‘Uhila’s performance was both powerful and ephemeral: there was almost no evidence of him in the Auckland Art Gallery itself; instead, visitors had to imagine him living anonymously outside of the gallery for the duration of the show. The brilliant contradiction here was the way he simultaneously vanished into Auckland’s streets while also making one of the most upsetting aspects of inequality starkly visible: the plight of young Pacific men caught between the cultural expectation to provide for their families, and the financial pressure of living in one of the world’s most debilitatingly expensive cities.

‘Uhila – who lives in Māngere, makes next to nothing from his art and works nights at Lion to support his family – is one of those men. But he’s also keen to point out that his work stretches beyond socio-political commentary. When I ask him what really drives his thinking, he laughs. “Wasting time,” he says.

He elaborates with a complex explanation of “maumau-taimi”, a Tongan concept of time that he says is different to the Western, linear sense of how the hours pass. “It’s like, we’re sitting here and we see someone across the road, and he looks like he’s wasting his time,” he says. “But we don’t even know who he is and we’re making judgements. It’s that perspective that I’m trying to address. It’s not to cause tension, but it’s the awareness of how we judge people sometimes. For me, I need to create that understanding: don’t judge me, don’t see me as useless or as this person wasting time.

“It’s a philosophical way of thinking,” he continues. “Doing the homeless piece, my own time kind of left. You’ve got high tide, low tide, daylight, nighttime, you’ve got traffic at eight o’clock and five o’clock. Five in the morning is when the cleaners come. People become a shadow of time; they’re moving while I stay still. Everything repeats. Life and art aren’t separate. They’re connected.”

Being nominated for the Walters Prize changed ‘Uhila’s family’s perceptions about his career choice. So did getting a Masters degree and, he laughs, being interviewed on TV about Mo‘ui tukuhausia – all signs that his art was becoming something, rather than being, ironically, a waste of his time. The fact that he travelled to Europe is also seen as a big deal. He went there for a short residency at ifa-Galerie in Berlin, an institution that promotes cultural exchange and dialogue. He describes the experience as a “culture shock” and “alienating”, though I sense in both phrases an exhilaration rather than fear.

‘Uhila talks to one of the audience members, Aldous Nissen, in the window box of St Paul St Gallery. Credit: Raymond Sagapolutele

In Berlin he made a series of videos in some of the city’s most historical sites, including spots where the Wall once ran, which are now gathering points for drug users and the homeless. As we search the crowds, we realise ‘Uhila is in there too, standing or sitting still as people move around him. One of these videos was recently shown in the Artspace exhibition Politics of Sharing – On Collective Wisdom. Shot at Tempelhof Airport – one of Berlin’s most intact examples of Nazi architecture, recently turned into a shelter for thousands of refugees – we can just make out ‘Uhila, sitting alone in a field of long grass.

“I like the idea of that book, Where’s Wally?” he jokes. “I’m in that space, but where am I? I haven’t got the red and white stripes, or a dog and a cane though.” Underpinning the works are serious ideas about empathy, transition and democracy; as with his decision to live homeless, ‘Uhila clearly identifies with the people many of us choose not to see.

This is the crucial point: ‘Uhila’s profound inventiveness is based on a conceptual shift for his audiences, forcing them to move from the idea of “looking at” to “being with”. And that’s still the case when he isn’t literally present. Think, for example, of everything you project onto his absent body when you imagine him living on the streets – all your empathy, all your fears (both of and for him), all your prejudices.

‘Uhila’s actions often cast him as an outsider: as a wanderer, philosopher, poet, and sometimes prophet. He seems capable of being all these things at once. Not that he’d necessarily say this. He’d probably just call himself an artist.

I ask him where he thinks it’s all headed. He pauses before he answers. “I like the fresh smell of coffee. The smell of existence. The present. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. At the moment, what I’ve got in mind is to just live life. Being honest in what you do is not telling someone else’s story. That’s what the work is about.”

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