Kalisolaite ’Uhila: Life Set Aside
Issue 3: Softness
Edited by Kelvin Soh
published by DD/MM/YY
Over a two-week period, from 19 March to 1 April 2012, artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila lived homeless around Te Tuhi’s building and surrounding parkland. ‘Uhila experienced and received numerous responses, from overwhelming generosity, in the form of food donations and friendship, to venomous discrimination such as verbal abuse and being spat on. The following conversation between curator Bruce E. Phillips and ‘Uhila took place on the day after the performance ended.
B: Tell us about the beginning of the work.
K: The 19th of March, 6 a.m. is when time stopped.
I left my watch, I left my family. I left them in the early hours as they slept. I packed up my gear then, looking at the time for the very last minute, I closed the door and walked out onto the road.
It was a nice rainy morning. It was good that it was raining. I caught the Cockle Bay bus No. 50, which passes through Pakuranga on its way to the eastern suburbs. When I jumped on the bus there was an instant silence and I noticed people looking at me and the way I was dressed. I felt that I was not accepted.
B: Because it is a bus to a particular neighbourhood.
K: [laughs] Yes, it is a particular bus, out to Pakuranga, out to Howick, out eastern ways.
So once I stepped on the bus I felt like I had passed my first test.
I also ended up falling asleep and almost slept through the whole bus drive. The only reason I knew I was in Pakuranga was that I caught a glimpse of a restaurant sign. That was a big lesson for me, in a very simple way. A key aspect to survival is to be aware of your surroundings. If I had missed that sign I would have missed Pakuranga. I would have ended up somewhere that I didn’t know, with no money.
Once I got off the bus I made my way to Te Tuhi. It was still raining hard, but I just appreciated the rain that day. The rain made me aware that I needed to look for shelter.
B: As well as finding shelter, I noticed that you also spent a long time just sitting.
K: Yes, I was doing a lot of sitting, a lot of observing, just listening and being aware of what was happening around the area. That was when I realised that I didn’t really need to know the time, because this was my time. By paying attention to what was going on around the area I would notice life happening like clockwork.
B: So other people’s daily routines gave you a sense of what the time was?
K: Yes, but it is more like a shadow of time. People had the time but I was moving in their shadow. They would be moving but I was moving at my own different pace.
It also made me appreciate the community at Te Tuhi. I initially thought that this community is dead. That was my first honest judgement when I first started. I realised that I had been prejudiced myself. I quickly realised that this place is the complete opposite. Te Tuhi is alive from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at night. From the first workers coming in to the last person that closes the building.
B: I remember you saying you also met a local homeless man on your first night.
K: Yes, he was living nearby in the park. We were talking, and I explained that I was doing an experiment at living homeless as an artwork. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Bro, I am glad you are doing that, man, it is good that someone is doing this to understand us better’. I felt privileged that he had said this. It reinforced to me that homelessness is a life of being unheard.
B: The Te Tuhi staff noticed and received a wide range of responses due to your presence. From overwhelming generosity to verbal abuse. Aside from the verbal abuse you received directly, were you aware of the intense reactions your presence was having on people?
K: I sensed that a long way off. Before anyone had said anything I could see the judgement in their eyes. I found that the eyes were more killing than the verbal or the physical reactions that I received. The first and hardest punch I received from people was from their eyes.
Being spat on gave me strength; it was the validation or the strength that I needed for the day. Someone actually came up and decided to spit at me. I was not human to him, just a ‘thing’ sitting on the ground.
B: It is remarkable how the simple action of loitering can reveal engrained social pressures. Pressures and assumptions of so called ‘acceptable social behaviour’ that end up being integral to the social structure of urban life.
K: It is. I had no problem being there. For me, being brought up in the islands, I have a much different perspective on how society can function. For instance, our community is centred around a fale. A fale has no walls, no chairs, all you do is sit there. It is a space where everyone is more or less equal. We also have a more open understanding of space, there is no fence to divide you from your neighbour. There is more respect for one another. You could go to your next-door neighbour and grab his tools. I might not know him well but you would return the tools and say, ‘I was just using your tools’ and he would say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s all right’. And you could likewise go over to your other neighbour to get some salt and, in kind, you would give them a bit of what you might have. It is like sharing knowledge bit by bit.
B: Could you talk about your experiences with the police? Especially what happened on the last day.
K: I was stopped three times by the police. They called me an ‘unusual suspect’. Each time they stopped to question me I would challenge them in very simple ways. I wasn’t intending to be smart, I just wanted to make the point that I am human and to ask the police ‘Are you human?’ – and if we are both humans, then we can talk together on equal grounds.
The experience on the last day of my two weeks was the best ending to the project. I was out in the middle of the night about to write on the pavement, a statement in chalk to conclude my time. But before I wrote anything the cops turned up and I knew that this would be the end of it. The cop came up to me and I gave him my letter from Te Tuhi that explained what I was about, it was like my passport, and the cop just ripped it up and told me to move on.
B: He actually ripped up that official letter I had written for you which also had a statement from the local constable supporting the project.
K: Yes. I realised then that they had their eye on me the whole time, even though they were not harassing me all the time. They had their killer eyes on me from afar. So I just thought, This is it the end, I have done what I came to do. I just rang my wife to pick me up and it was over.
B: Why did you wear the mask and what did it mean for you?
K: That mask was my fence. Not only my fence, but also I wore it out of respect for others. I was brought up to have my head down for others. I had these gloves as well, so it was like an extra skin to hide my skin inside. I wanted to make people question: Is he European? Is he Chinese? Is he Tongan or Samoan? To question any perceived racism people might have.
Although, if you did have a proper look at what I was wearing you would realise that I was an islander because of my black tupenu and my sandals. But it seemed that most people misread, or didn’t read, the whole outfit. They just saw no face. I became that shadow. I became that ‘thing’, that ‘monster’.
The black clothing was also in respect for my monarchy. During that time I couldn’t be back home [Tonga] to pay my respects, but in my own way I was there in this action. What I was wearing and with my head down, that was in respect for my King who had just passed away.
B: We had some interesting responses about your outfit. It seemed, all of a sudden, that people were experts on what a homeless person looks like. Someone commented with full certainty that ‘Homeless people don’t wear balaclavas!’
K: Yeah, I also read in the comments book: ‘He should smell like urine and faeces. This guy smells too clean, I am not yet convinced’. [laughs]
B: Yeah, with this crazy idea that you are trying to act out an authentic homeless person experience.
K: Some people were totally missing the real issue. They still wanted to put me in a box, so they could understand me on their terms.
B: Can you explain the use of the handmade cardboard signs and the chalk drawings?
K: The signs were partly a strategy to keep me moving and for something to do when I was in a spot. But most importantly it was a way to share my experiences and to reach out to people around me in a non-verbal way.
B: I would like to talk about your influences. In your previous work Pigs in the yard (2011) at the Mangere Arts Centre there was a reference to Joseph Beuys’ work I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) when he lived with a wild coyote over three days. In your Te Tuhi work, I can see some similarities with Tehching Hsieh’s work One year performance 1981–1982 when he lived homeless for one whole year throughout New York City. More generally, I can also see similarities in your work with New Zealand artists such as David Cross, Mark Harvey and Jeremy Leatinu‘u who all intervene into social space and interact by very humble means with people. It was also interesting to learn from you what influence your Tongan culture has played in your art and in your life.
K: There are a lot of influences. But for me my biggest influence is myself. Of course, I am greatly influenced by my friends, family and other artists but at the end of the day I never forget who I am. I have always been in search of a father’s voice. My father passed when I was three and I have always been looking for an influence and I have always wanted my father to be that influence. I realised, though, that I am that father, I am that son, I am that brother, and I realised I need to just search inside myself for that voice.
What I really want to continue doing from here is to have a voice for those who are voiceless, because that is who I am – a person with no voice.
It is also important for me to embrace challenge and to go out of my own comfort zone. Like going outside your own kind. I when I was at high school I spent time outside of my own kind, away from my Tongan boys, to spend time with goths and skateboarders. I spent time with all different types of people: black, white, orange, purple, and that has been a big influence.
There are other artists who have influenced me but sometimes I can’t spend a lot of time sitting down to read books and researching in a library. I would rather move around and experience people’s work and get to know who they are. Because, for me, my library is my heart and my mind.
B: You also mentioned to me that the kava ceremony has been an inspiration for you.
K: Yes. For me, I was one of the youngest sitting there in a kava circle, seeing the kava bowl and seeing different people coming in. There was the minister, the fisherman, the plantation guy, the guitar player, all different people bringing in their knowledge to the circle. For instance, the minster might want to learn how to fish and that is where the fisherman talks. Then he might ask the minister how to work with people. At the end, they all go away with a plate of food, except it is not food but a plate of knowledge.