Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Artist quietly going 'extreme'

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Living Homeless in Te Tuhi by Kalisolaite'Uhila. Photo / Marlaina  Key
Living Homeless in Te Tuhi by Kalisolaite'Uhila. Photo / Marlaina Key

One afternoon last week, for the very first time, I found myself at a KFC in Henderson listening to grace murmured in Tongan.

It's fair to say that - as a non-chicken-eater - I was slightly outside my comfort zone. But then, vacating comfort zones is what my KFC lunch companion, artist Kalisolaite'Uhila, specialises in.

"If you push boundaries you have to go extreme," he says.

The one-time high school dropout and now AUT Bachelor of Visual Arts graduate doesn't do so in a rah-rah, belligerent, shouty-mouthy, fast, flip, aa-ha-tricked-ya or offensive way.

Instead he is kind, friendly and softly spoken, and "goes extreme" in slow, often near-silent performance works (which incidentally allow the performer a lot of dreaming time to "catch up on all the missing pieces of my life").

He's the one who donned a green-leaf skirt and shared a pigsty with a real live piglet at the Mangere Arts Centre and Aotea Square last year to comment on the effects of colonisation on Tonga. Later this year he will slaughter a pig in Leeds; the pig's squeals are to mingle with a Maori korero, and'Uhila will show the process of preparing an animal for eating to people used to buying meat under clingfilm.

'Uhila hopes his audience's nerves will be reminded that, unlike the pig, they are still alive (your call as to what the pig represents).

The influence of Joseph Beuys - the uncompromising German artist who once shared a gallery room with a wild coyote - is alive and well and living in West Auckland.

More precisely - and rather unexpectedly - it's living at a theological institution:'Uhila and his "very supportive" wife, Kalisi Langi, and their 4-year-old daughter live at Laidlaw College, where Langi is studying.

But by the time you read this he will be nearly halfway through a two-week stint of living homeless in Pakuranga as part of What do you mean, "we"?, Te Tuhi's fascinating international exhibition about prejudice. His idea is to demonstrate that, rich or poor, we are all "just humans". But he is also using the metaphor of homelessness for the immigrant experience. A 1.5 generation Tongan New Zealander, he came to Ponsonby aged 6 with his mother, three years after his father died.

Now 30,'Uhila carries immense respect for his mother. His CV states that his "focus is on masculinity: strength, movement and power". But he's interested in inverting this category while celebrating it. "Mothers are the true masculinity," he says. "I couldn't carry the sack of four [children] my mother carries."

Family is important. Recently, at Te Papa,'Uhila's niece used him as a chair, in the Tongan celebration custom of fa'e huki; this was the artist showing how "my body is on the line for my sister's kids".

The body and process are clear foci for'Uhila, as they are for, say, Campbell Patterson, another young Auckland artist whose recent exhibition at the Michael Lett Gallery included a video of the artist bloodily plucking out his moustache hairs.

'Uhila says his art school tutors were more interested in seeing "a piece of drawing on the wall" than in the bodily process of art-making.

But he confounded them by making prints on machete-slashed cardboard boxes and carpets and a table he'd smashed up - "things that involve real life".

Amen to that.

- NZ Herald

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