Tongan-born artist Kalisolaite 'Uhila acknowledges there have been times when he's wondered whether anyone truly notices and comprehends the experiential performance art he makes.

He's even been spat on and confronted by the police while undertaking sometimes lengthy performances designed to make us think about how we can connect to other people and issues around us.

After last night, 'Uhila says he'll wonder no more.

The 36-year-old, who once spent three months living on Auckland's streets for an art project about homelessness, won the contemporary Pacific Artist Award and $7500 at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards. The annual awards recognise Pacific artists practising contemporary and heritage art forms.

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'Uhila was told about the award this month before flying to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada for The Pacific. An inaugural exhibition, it brought together artists from around the Pacific to look at how their art can highlight historical issues and explore contemporary concerns.

He flew straight from Canada to Wellington to be at the CNZ ceremony, saying it is a privilege to be honoured in such a way. When 'Uhila first got the call, he thought CNZ had telephoned to talk about funding applications.

"Then I realised and I was speechless but, at the same time, privileged," he says. "Deep down inside me, I had tears of excitement. I've been working as a performance artist for some time and I thought nobody understood what I was doing or would get the meaning of my work."

That work has included sleeping rough around Auckland Art Gallery for three months and, before that, at Te Tuhi Gallery in Pakuranga; spending days with a piglet in a pen for Pigs in the Yard at the Mangere Arts Centre and in Aotea Square; conducting the tide at Wellington's Oriental Bay and, in 2012, donning a black balaclava and green fishing net before leaping from a swing bridge into the Waimapu Stream then dragging himself to shore and wandering to the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.

"For me, it's about my experience and trying to find something, 'how can I connect to you? How can we connect?' I could be direct but I will try to find other ways to connect," 'Uhila says.

Sometimes the connections made haven't exactly been life-affirming. At Te Tuhi, a visitor spat loudly and fulsomely on 'Uhila's head thinking he was a homeless man hanging around the gallery.

"When he spat at me, I had that human mind - yes, I wanted to punch him - but he had done what he had done, he'd connected to me and he'd walked away," 'Uhila says.

"I could have responded but then I thought to myself, 'a punch won't go a long way but not responding to what he has done, not responding with violence, is more effective'. I bet when he got home, he probably thought, 'what did I do that for?'"

Despite winning awards for Pigs in the Yard and receiving a 2013 Iris Fisher Scholarship from Te Tuhi, 'Uhila moved his family back to Tonga because he felt he was not achieving the results he wanted to with his art.

He returned in 2014 after being selected for that year's Walters Prize, partly on the basis of the two weeks he spent living rough in and around Te Tuhi for the group show What do you mean, we?. For the Walters Prize work Mo'ui Tukuhausia, 'Uhila spent three months on Auckland city streets.

While Luke Willis Thompson won the 2014 Walters Prize, 'Uhila opted to remain in Auckland and take up a Pasifika post-graduate scholarship (art and design) to work toward his now completed master of performance and media arts at AUT.

He stills works nights at Lion Breweries to support himself and his family, who now include a 10-year-old daughter and an 18-month-old son.

"I'm standing up bottles, standing there for a whole eight hours just looking at bottles and any bottles that fall, you have to pick them up because if the bottles don't stand up, it stops production," says 'Uhila. "When the bottles are all standing, it's like humans; when we are all standing all in line then one of us falls, the other person can come and pick us up."

He will travel to the United States and Japan next year for residencies and there are plans for a PhD which investigates how best to name and describe, using Tongan and Western concepts, the work he makes.

2017 Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Award winners were:
Senior Pacific Artist Award: Nina Nawalowalo
Special Recognition Award with more than 25 years' experience in arts: Noma Sio-Faiumu
Pacific Heritage Arts: Lakiloko Keakea
Iosefa Enari Memorial Award: Filipe Manu
Emerging Artist Award: Tupua Tigafua