The work of life
Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust
In the short space of three years, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has created a strong body of work that has been performed in arts festivals and public art galleries throughout Auckland. Each performance has been greatly different, ranging from humble actions to bold theatrical-style interventions. Public reaction to his work has also been widely diverse, triggering everything from deep sympathy and kindness to anger and bewilderment. While it is difficult to pin down his performances, the one consistency is an uncanny ability to get under the skin of social behaviour and reveal the hidden workings of society.
I recently caught up with ‘Uhila in his studio at Corban Estate, Henderson, to better understand his work and to find out what motivates him. There is a striking difference between ‘Uhila’s studio and the others in the Corban complex. Most of the studios are hives of conventional creative clutter: visual research covers walls, piles of accumulated materials wait to be assembled, half-finished paintings and drawings rest on tables and easels. ‘Uhila’s studio has none of this. In fact, it would be completely empty if it were not for a stack of old beer crates that divide his studio from the others. ‘Uhila explains to me that he has always been attracted to humble simplicity in his art making. He attributes this to growing up with limited means. As a father, artist and masters student, money is scarce in his adult life also: “I may have no money but I am rich in life. Quality time with people is what matters. And it is quality time with people that has also been the leading knowledge and influence for my work.”
A pivotal moment in his life that fuelled this interest in human behaviour and social groupings was when he moved to Australia as a teenager. Finding reading and writing difficult,‘Uhila struggled at school and dropped out when he was 15. As a result, his mother sent him to stay with an aunty in Mildura, Australia. ‘Uhila explains:
After I dropped out of school I thought I was a great failure. But in Australia I had a different life. I enjoyed hanging out with different types of people and cultures. That is how I study, I study people. I study the ways that they live, work, move and interact with each other. By channelling yourself in the ways of different people, you can gain a lot of knowledge.
Although much of this lived knowledge remained untapped until ‘Uhila received a strong reaction to one of his performances while studying a Bachelor of Visual Arts at AUT. At the time he was interested in artists and forms of western art production that shared some similarity with his experience of Tongan art. He saw a correlation between Jackson Pollock’s large action paintings with the process and massive scale of the Tongan tapa cloth. This led to a series of mark-making performances that ‘Uhila based on his concept ‘sound makes the mark, mark makes the sound’. In one of these works, which involved ‘Uhila carving marks into a wall with a hand saw, a woman in the audience started crying. He found out afterwards that his movements with the saw reminded the woman of her father who had recently passed away. It was this strong emotive reaction that made ‘Uhila aware that performance could ignite very real personal reactions through connections to everyday objects, behaviour and memory. This realisation led to a raft of performative experiments that connected his personal memories of people through actions that also drew on the influence of artists such as Francis Alÿs, Joseph Beuys and Santiago Sierra. He walked along the Otuataua stone walls and transported rocks around the township of Mangere in memory of building stone walls with his father in Tonga. He carried a bag, made by his grandmother, leaking sand on journeys mimicking how she would distribute bird feed. He climbed and jumped between trees to remind him of the support of his ancestors and the growth of future generations.
His performances outside of art school would continue to carry memories of being at home in Tonga. ‘Uhila’s first work was Pigs in the Yard (2011) performed at the Mangere Art Centre. Here ‘Uhila reversed the relationship of humans and animals by allowing a group of pigs to run free while the artist and the audience were con ned behind fences. In a later development of the work for the Performance Arcade, a group of performances housed in shipping containers in Aotea Square, he shared a container with a piglet for a week. In these works ‘Uhila was interested in juxtaposing Polynesian and European societal structures. As is the case in many Polynesian societies, pigs in Tonga are reserved as a sacred animal linked to wealth, prestige, used as a ceremonial food and due to this status they are allowed to roam the earth freely. In most Western societies pigs are often farmed in adverse conditions and are a symbol for uncleanliness. ‘Uhila was also in influenced by the pig Napoleon in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. The political allegory that plays out in Animal Farm held added significance to ‘Uhila as a reflection on the compulsion of human nature to create social structure and how this often involves an occupation of space.
‘Uhila was later invited to perform a new work for the Wellington edition of the Performance Arcade. Being prominently located on the waterfront walkway he used this opportunity to draw on the story of an uncle who made his journey to New Zealand by hiding in a shipping container. The work Stowaway (2012) also had various levels of experiential meaning. ‘Uhila explains:
My intention for that work was to use the container as a metaphor for the body. People stowaway all sorts of things in our minds that are out of sight to others. In the container I had built a wall in the middle out of cardboard boxes which I would hide behind. So the people that come into the container are the ones that come into your life, they come in but only so far and then they will go. I also had a live video feed of me that could be viewed from Te Papa, so there was this virtual separation, they could not see me entirely in the real, they could only see me on the screen. For me, it was the difference between getting to know someone personally to being reduced down to a representation. The video component was also about the security and surveillance of national borders.
In 2012, ‘Uhila developed a series of performances that explored further relationships of life and customs in Tonga within a New Zealand context. With Living Chair, as part of the Tautai exhibition The Anatomy of Paradise, he literally acted out his symbolic family obligations as a seat for his nieces and nephews. For the work Mo‘ui Tukuhausia he lived homeless for two weeks at Te Tuhi. This was a challenging lived experience for ‘Uhila that was in influenced by his upbringing and in sympathy with the homeless community in Auckland. His loitering presence around Te Tuhi’s neighbourhood revealed the best and worst of human nature from members of the local community. In the work Umu Tangata, performed in the presence of Tongan Princess Pilolevu Tuita at the Mangere Art Centre, ‘Uhila sat meditatively motionless within a wood stack resembling an earth oven. By confronting the Tongan history of cannibalism he also made a poignant symbolic statement of the martyred role and service that artists contribute within society. The acceptance of the work by the Princess was a validating moment for ‘Uhila:
“I was very pleased that she understood the piece, not for my own bene t but for my Tongan people to understand and that it might open up the acceptance for other artists. I felt good because finally the work I am doing is being recognised by and for my people.”
It is this sense of service to people that is the source of his desire to challenge himself and those around him. However, he is cautious of being recognised as a voice for anyone in particular: “You cannot assume anything of people and you cannot honestly answer for the people.” He also knowingly occupies a middle ground between the realms of visual art, performance art and theatre to which he says “just put me in the middle, just put me on the ceiling or on the floor. As long as my body is there, there is my art.” To this end, ‘Uhila works not as a provocateur, nor as a representative, rather he crafts humble actions that freely slip between art forms and various social perspectives to incessantly confront what is suppressed or unheard.