As a finalist for the Walters Prize, artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila lived rough on the streets of Auckland for three months. It was scary, challenging and uplifting, he tells Linda Herrick.
We are sitting in the warmth of the place artist Kalisolaite 'Uhila calls his lounge. It's a nice sunny day in Albert Park, behind Auckland Art Gallery. 'Uhila - known as Ite - has been sleeping rough for the past three months in Auckland's CBD as part of his project as a Walters Prize finalist, an experience where time slowed into nothing and he entered the life of a person who has no place to call home.
His project, called Mo'ui tukuhausia, means a life set aside, coming to a dead end and being unprotected.
The Tongan-born 33-year-old started his homelessness in the middle of the cold blast of an Auckland winter. Leaving his wife and 7-year-old daughter at the Pakuranga home they share with family, he rose early on July 12, discarded his watch and set out for the city.
'Uhila has done it before, for two weeks in 2012, as part of a group show called What Do You Mean, We? at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. This time, he faced a longer, more daunting challenge.
"I had to take my watch off because my family is my time," he explains. "I was coming out to a bigger place and trying to find somewhere I can keep myself safe, somewhere I can be more aware of what is happening because the town is the busiest place during the day."
He had access to the Auckland Art Gallery facilities, but he didn't want to play it safe and huddle around the edges of the gallery precinct. Rough sleepers, he found, are constantly on the move, trying to find warmth, safety, food, somewhere to sleep. Somewhere to avoid the hostility of the public, the police, drunks looking for someone to pick on. Somewhere to be invisible.
"There was plenty of time to move and I thought I would be part of the people who were moving as well. Even though I had permission - I'm an artist and I'm allowed to be on this ground, the gallery wrote their permission; I called it my passport - we had a few times with the cops always checking up, security looking and thinking, 'Okay, this guy might have a weapon' but instead he's got an umbrella on his back. So if there's trouble, we all have to go. We all go as a pack or a family. We all watch out for one another."
Once 'Uhila felt more comfortable with his surroundings, he started introducing himself to people living on the streets. "They knew I was a new face in town, they called me a newbie," he laughs. "Meeting these people, you had to be honest. I told them the truth, that I am here for three months doing my project on homelessness, and what did they think about it? A few people were surprised and a few people weren't happy and a few people were like, 'It's good to give homeless people a voice, they don't get a voice at all'."
He learned to contract the 24 hours of each day into two periods of time: night and day. "You've got that whole time to sit there, watch and observe. When I hear the cleaners, they are the first ones to open up the city, and that's 3am, 4am, and then you hear the buses, that's about 5.30am, and then the traffic starts and people come in about 8am or 9am. At lunchtime you see all the people busy running around, so that becomes my time, my surrounding. I become more aware, it's the rhythm of the city, it's a whole pattern, repeating over and over again.
"When evening starts to fall and the city was emptying out, there is dinner at 5pm, either at the City Mission or there is somewhere where we can try to find dinner. At 6pm, when it starts to be a bit darker, that's when everyone is in their places where they sleep or rest. We try to sleep early so we get more sleep and we can make the most of the sun. When I first came on to this project, I slept during the day and I wandered during the night so I can see what is actually happening and who's who. Everyone has their little shelter where they feel safe. Once I knew where everyone was, I was looking for somewhere where I can go and find my rest.
"But," he adds, "most of the time I did feel unsafe. I'd say, all the time. I had a few friends who had my back but still I didn't really feel that safe. It was mostly the public. There was a sense of hostility. It's kind of like when you look at a painting that is crooked on the wall. You want to straighten it. The vibe was like, it's just not right."
Auckland City Missioner Diane Robertson says through regular street counts they estimate about 80-120 people sleep rough in Auckland, "although it's hard to tell at any one time.
"I often feel that rough sleepers are like refugees in a strange country," she observes. "A lot of them are invisible. People want to make homeless people disappear. If a homeless person sits outside the library in Remuera, you can guarantee we get a phone call within five minutes to pick them up.
"Basically, people seek places where they are invisible and they can get the things they need. They are isolated, excluded by other people, less than a person. I think there is a natural fear of anything we don't know and there is a lot of bad media about homeless people. The media swings between the homeless being victims when there is a murder to being the villains and attackers. Sometimes you have to walk in people's shoes before you can make comments on what and how and why it works and I think as an artist, that is what Ite has been doing."
'Uhila had a shocking experience when he was doing the project at Te Tuhi: when he was sitting on the floor, a man spat on his head. "It was an old Palagi guy, an old chappy," he recalls with a shudder. "He said, 'disgusting'. I thought he had gone past but he was standing there and all you could hear was him hoicking and I was like, 'Ooh.' I thought he was going to spit somewhere else but it landed on my head."
He wipes his face with his hand. "To be honest, I reacted in my mind but it was like, 'he's done it, it's not worth reacting.' But human nature, of course you want to get up and ..."
Te Tuhi director James McCarthy says the public reaction to 'Uhila at the gallery was unlike anything he has ever experienced. "There were a couple of instances where we received shouting and abuse towards us on the back of people being so upset about Ite. They dehumanised him, so we would offer for them to meet Ite. That never really worked. People were in a blind rage."
At the time, Ite concealed his race by wearing a hoodie and a black face mask, which he has said was worn partly to honour the King of Tonga, who had just died.
"The fact that he was trying to remain raceless with his 'facelessness' ended up being perceived as threatening," says McCarthy. "People found that hoodie and the mask really threatening but more so the parents than the children. People were saying, 'That's terrifying for my children'."
Bruce E. Phillips, who curated the Te Tuhi show, recalls, "The children would run to him. We have a creche at Te Tuhi and he was a favourite for the children and the teachers really loved having him around. But there had been a number of calls throughout the two weeks, calling up concerned about some unknown figure loitering about. It's the perception thing, that judging that we all do. We like to put things in categories, it helps us find our way socially through the world, but it can be so destructive."
Te Tuhi was visited by the police three times during 'Uhila's performance, even though they had told the local constable about the project and given the artist a letter authorising his presence. On his last day at the gallery, a police officer arrived, tore up the letter and shuffled him along.
Over the past three months, 'Uhila has made friends with people living on the streets. "They told me their stories, how they end up here. They like sleeping in Karangahape Rd, Albert Park, Albert St, Britomart, the university. I moved around and just talked to them. It worries me when I see very young kids on the street. You can't really see them during the day but at night you see the really young kids. The youngest I have come across was 13, a girl, she has had a hard life. You hear the stories, the father dies and another fellow comes in. There are a lot of unwell kids.
'Uhila's performance inspired by the impact of the Rena disaster, at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic in 2012. Photo / Bay News
"Then there are the older people, who have been on the streets for more than 15 years. They come out of prison, they can't trace where their family is or they don't want to go back to their family and put more burden on them."
'Uhila's project included the period leading into the general election in September. "The funny thing is, I asked some of the homeless people, 'have they voted', and they said no. Because they don't have an address they can't enrol. So I asked some people, 'do you want to vote, though?' And they said, 'Yeah'."
'Uhila was torn about attending the Walters Prize event last month but there he was, resplendent in full Tongan costume, accompanied by his friends and father-in-law. He had to step out of character from homeless guy to celebrated artist for the glamorous three-course dinner ceremony.
"That was the hardest decision to make," he says. "I was sitting there looking up at the amphitheatre [at Albert Park, behind the top of the gallery] and I saw a couple of my friends just standing there, looking down. At first I was like, 'Uh oh', but then I thought, 'I am here at this table, representing you.' I talked to some of my friends on the street later and they said, 'Man, you looked really good, really happy' and they were happy that I went. If I hadn't turned up it would have been a waste of time, what I was doing."
The Walters Prize dinner [Aucklander Luke Willis Thompson was named the winner on the night] was quite a contrast with another night at the gallery. This time, 'Uhila was the person on the outside looking into a wing which houses the gallery's Renaissance paintings. That night, it was hosting a private dinner function.
"There were a couple of us homeless on the outside, just talking, and all of a sudden there were three cop cars coming to chase us away. They were saying they thought one of us had a weapon but there was no weapon. We were trying to figure it out after we got chased off the premises and I was just assuming it was because there was a function and they don't want to see us guys."
He says that living Mo'ui tukuhausia for three months was often a lonely, often surreal experience.
"Sometimes I would just go into the gallery and I would not feel like talking to anyone. But my family were really happy and supportive. Every Sunday I made a day that me and my wife and daughter can go to church. I found myself back on the right path when I was travelling all alone. I just kept reading my scriptures, reading my books. I'm not hungry for food, I'm more hungry for experience. I have grown more spiritually than worldly and when it came to thinking about money, it can help but it wasn't really the point.
"I have learned a lot about myself, a lot about what's happening in this world and also what's happening in this big art building. All the systems have become more clear to me. It was a wild experience, everything went out of control. A lot of things happened. It came to my mind: visible/invisible.
"When I am inside the gallery, I become visible, this artist, or whatever. But when I am outside, I am invisible. Everyone I talked to inside is walking right past me."
But is it really art?
Kalosolaite 'Uhila, who graduated with a Bachelor of Visual Arts from Auckland University of Technology in 2010, uses his performances to experience situations and address issues that concern him, in this case the growing numbers of Pacific Island people who have come to New Zealand to seek a better life and instead find themselves in dire circumstances. Mo'ui tukuhausia also explores the wider issue of homelessness and public and institutional attitudes towards those people who end up on the streets.
Immersive performance art has been a valid form of expression since the rise of the Dada movement as a reaction to World War I, including artists like Hans Richter and Marcel Duchamp.
'Uhila spent a day with a piglet in a pen for his Pigs In The Yard performance artwork at the Mangere Arts Centre in 2001, repeating it for eight days in Aotea Square. Photo / TV3
Bruce E. Phillips of Te Tuhi points out that one of 'Uhila's earlier works, Pigs In The Yard, where he lived with a piglet in a pen for a day at the Mangere Arts Centre in 2011, referenced Joseph Beuys' 1974 piece I Like America and America Likes Me, where the German artist lived with a wild coyote for three days. Pigs In The Yard won the Auckland Fringe Festival award for best visual arts work, and he later repeated Pigs In The Yard for eight days in a container in Aotea Square. 'Uhila sleeping rough echoes One Year Performance by Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh, who lived outdoors in New York City for a year from 1981-82.
In 2012, 'Uhila - wearing a black balaclava and draped in a green fishing net - leapt from the swing bridge into the Waimapu stream in the Bay of Plenty, before hauling himself ashore and staggering up the path to the BoP Polytechnic's campus. The piece, inspired by the environmental impact of the Rena disaster, was described by an onlooker as "an exposing and honest portrayal of emotion".
Mo'ui tukuhausia is special, says Te Tuhi director James McCarthy, because "it gets outside the often established conversations and uses that vehicle to turn the focus on to a socially relevant matter".
Adds Phillips: "There's this great slowness in the way he operates. He is very perceptive in analysing social situations. He seems to be able to slip into places and engage with people in a very honest way. We were talking about the legacy of performance practice. If you look at it from that perspective, there is nothing terribly new about what he has done but it's the ability that he has to socially intervene in the here-and-now to what is happening in this city that makes a profound work.
"Some artists produce works which follow a conceptual formula that could be enacted but Ite lives his work. You can't put it in a box, it is so porous."