Thursday 21 August 2014

Curator’s response: Kalisolaite ’Uhila’s Mo’ui Tukuhausia

Presented Bruce E. Phillips, Senior Curator, Te Tuhi, on 10 August 2014 at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, as part of a series of public talks in relation to the Walters Prize 2014.

This is the story of Kalisolaite ’Uhila’s project Mo‘ui Tukuhausia as it originally occurred at Te Tuhi in 2012.

I was first introduced to Kalisolaite through my friend and colleague James Pinker who had worked with him to realize Pigs in the Yard at the Mangere Arts Centre in 2011, which was his first performance in a public art gallery. Later that year I began researching for an exhibition called What do you mean, we? to be held at Te Tuhi. This exhibition aimed to explore the psychology of prejudice through the practice of artists who take on strategies to draw out suppressed bias. Artists included in the exhibition did so through social intervention, linguistic deconstruction, psychoanalysis or by working through the spectres of past trauma. Kalisolaite’s emerging practice at the time fitted well into this context and so I arranged to meet with him to explore the possibility of his inclusion.

During this meeting I learnt that he employed an experiential approach in his practice rather than the head-in-book style of research that is so much more common these days with Fine Arts graduates – ‘my library is my heart and my mind’ he would later share with me1. At this time he was engaging in opposing aspects of participatory research into homelessness by spending the odd day or night living on the street while conversely working as an inner city security guard often required to move homeless people off private property. These experiential tests would build upon his knowledge of urban survival but also of how public space is implicitly controlled via social conditioning and more overtly through forms of legal and political enforcement.

This fact was reinforced to me when he mentioned that on one such occasion of research he was ushered out of the Auckland Art Gallery due to his appearance. This story fundamentally challenged me because it revealed that those of us who are in charge of what should be thee most tolerant public institutions are also complicit in maintaining the veneer of social acceptance. Despite this, my colleagues and I took on Kalisolaite’s challenge of allowing him to live ‘homeless’ around the grounds of Te Tuhi – an action that could render Te Tuhi politically vulnerable and liable for his safety.

Kalisolaite’s inclusion in the show What do you mean, we? was important as it was the only live performative work that would engage with the public and place of Pakuranga where Te Tuhi is situated. Real time engagement with Pakuranga was integral, for it was one of the driving motivations of the exhibition.

Originally a burgeoning suburb for the white middle class of the 1970s, Pakuranga along with neighbouring areas in the precinct have since diversified demographically. Due to this tensions had been stirred up by conservative white factions of the area in opposition to Māori and also the growing Asian community. Notable moments indicative of these tensions included Pakuranga being one of three areas in New Zealand chosen by the Right Wing Resistance to distribute their ‘Asian Invasion’ pamphlets2. Other moments of controversy at the time included the resistance to a whare to be rebuilt in Howick3 and also the formation of the area’s new Super City political ward to be named after the prominent Māori Chief Te Irirangi4. Kalisolaite was aware that he was walking into a situation charged with various social and racial tensions. However, the reality of bearing witness to these tensions was something else entirely.

The duration of the piece also proved to be an integral development that was finalised only a month prior to the show opening. In a meeting, I remember trying to float the idea with Kalisolaite of periodically coming and going from Te Tuhi over the period of the exhibition. In retrospect I realise now that I was trying to tiptoe around the very real implications that actual living onsite might cause. It was Te Tuhi’s assistant curator at the time, Shannon Te Ao who argued the importance of Kalisolaite dedicating to a solid period of full time occupation: “if you are going to do this you do it full time or not at all” he said – or something to that effect. Kalisolaite agreed to this and we bit the bullet.

For Kalisolaite the action began at 6am on the 19th March, the moment when he closed the door of his house leaving his wife and daughter behind. He had only what he needed – a small bundle of belongings and just enough spare change to catch the bus to Pakuranga.

Kalisolaite told me that time stopped the moment that he walked out that door5. For Te Tuhi staff the passing of time was also altered, as we were kept busy facilitating a food bank, answering a barrage of questions, deflecting abusive confrontations with the public, and in my case sleeping with my cell phone close by in case of emergency.

On a daily basis Kalisolaite’s presence ignited responses that could have been produced by a 1950s social science experiment where the very best and worst of our local constituents were eked out. Public responses varied greatly and within a day had become instantly polarised. He was referred to as ‘that Thing!’ by one visitor, was spat on by another, and even accused of not smelling enough of ‘urine and faeces’.

Kalisolaite was periodically visited by friends, family and supporters but was on the most part left alone to exist day and night in the open like many other people do in urban centres around the globe. The necessity of learning urban survival is amongst the most insightful of his accounts to me. He told me:

A key aspect to survival is to be aware of your surroundings … 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 … 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.6

This required him to develop an intimate knowledge of the area. He sought shelter from the wind and rain, located safe nooks in which to hide, and found warmth in patches of sunlight between buildings to air out his clothes. On his first day it happened to be raining and Kalisolaite told me that he saw the rain as a blessing as it forced him to think about finding shelter. He found part of an old broken tent, that we had for some reason kicking around the office, and by accumulating cardboard he established himself a sheltered spot beside the building in which to sleep.

Through this deeply attuned observation he gained a perspective on the workings of society passing around him. So well was his knowledge of the area that I found it hard to keep track of his movements.

As you can see in some of these photos he did well to linger out in the open but camouflaged in the shadows. This survival strategy was intended to protect himself against adverse attention from other people – which I find a revealing of how vulnerable the human body is to the potential physical and physiological abuse of other humans. I think about this and consider how poignant the title for the work is – Mo’ui Tukuhausia – a Tongan phrase which means life set aside.

While Kalisolaite’s survival was dependent upon his own deeply attuned knowledge of the area, he was in fact also dependent upon the local community for one crucial thing – to support his existence through a food bank located at Te Tuhi’s reception. This food bank was his primary food source and a very smart strategy to give the community the responsibility to keep him alive.

Te Tuhi advertised Kalisolaite’s work and the need for donated food but it took a couple of days for the idea of giving to take effect. Ultimately, it was Kalisolaite’s presence that was a trigger for people to give. Often people would strike up conversation with staff and would learn about the project and would then be compelled to give. By the start of the second week Te Tuhi received more food than Kalisolaite could eat so our Director James McCarthy started making daily donation trips to the Auckland City Mission down town.

So while Kalisolaite received heated opposition to his presence he also received overwhelming kindness and generosity. Even weeks after the performance had ended I found gifts of food left outside his tent.

It is important to note that Pakuranaga being a suburban area typically does not have many visibly homeless people. Due to this and also to recent issues of racism in the area, Kalisolaite became sensitive to the fact that people would associate his Tongan ethnicity with being poor or destitute. To avoid this racial profiling, he decided to cover his face hands and all exposed skin in black clothing so that he would simply be an unidentifiable figure.

From the outset Kalisolaite and I decided that the work was to be an experiment – an opportunity for him to try something radically new, to test his limits, to test Te Tuhi and to contribute a true challenge for the exhibition. As part of this experimental ethos Kalisolaite’s presence around the building changed overtime.

He decided to be mostly silent during his time at Te Tuhi but he also wanted to establish some sort of communicative engagement with the public. He started by leaving behind cardboard signs asking for spare change as he had observed others do during his research. This form of communication evolved rapidly in scale and message to the extent that Kalisolaite was beginning to take over the building with messages written in chalk and signs put up around the neighbourhood.

Kalisolaite’s signs replicated words of condemnation that had been said to him directly. Other messages were more defiant reminding people that he was indeed a human being. What was most intriguing about these signs is that they oftern were intentionally humorous and witty. "Lets do lunch u buy" said one. "Homeless attraction" and “Homeless on show $2” said others.

This sign making reached new heights when he established an impromptu homeless sign making workshop during Te Tuhi’s annual community carnival day. Kalisolaite simply sat on the ground and without saying a word children naturally gathered around him and started making signs of compassion, encouragement or statements of good will.

Kalisolaite was motivated to gain a lived understanding of homelessness. However, it was the provocation of his performance that triggered the enforcement of social order. As the title of the work implies, the action placed him outside of what is socially acceptable and due to this he was deemed someone to be corrected or deterred from being as he was. This reality was evident through the many police visits he received, which were the reason his performance ended a day earlier than its planned conclusion. Kalisolaite told me:

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. I realised then that they had their eye on me from the beginning, 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.7

Two years on and Kalisolaite’s original iteration of the work still strikes me as being profound for its ability to fracture the veneer of social niceties through such a passive action. In New Zealand there are some who consider it unfashionable to embrace emotion or humor in contemporary art. I don’t know why this is, perhaps it is a modernist hangover or that emotion and humour is deemed not serious or academic enough. It is also considered unfashionable to earnestly stand for a cause. However, it is for all these reasons that Kalisolaite’s work has been influential to others. I also understand that it is for these reasons that this year’s selection committee nominated this work for the Walters Prize 2014.

In art, sometimes it is the simple actions that are the hardest to execute but more often than not they are the most important and powerful. Through simplicity and humility, Kalisolaite puts his body and mind towards an artwork that has a single strong message that cuts to the heart of a complex issue that we are all responsible for and complicit in creating.

– Bruce E. Phillips, Senior Curator, Te Tuhi

Bruce E Phillips, ‘Discussing Mo’ui Tukuhausia’ in What do you mean, we?, Bruce E Phillips and Rebecca Lal (eds), Te Tuhi Centre, Auckland, 2012, p47,, accessed 21 May 2014
TVNZ One News, ‘Anti-Asian Leaflets Leave Community “Very Alarmed”’, 11 May 2011, community-very-alarmed-4166648, accessed 20 May 2014
TVNZ Te Karere, ‘Ngai Tai in Howick Demolish Te Umupuia Meeting House’, uploaded 18 October 2010,, accessed 21 May 2014
TVNZ Te Karere, ‘Ngai Tai Iwi Are Happy a Ward in Auckland Will Be Called Te Irirangi’, uploaded 22 March 2010, watch?v=tpnTUgBYtU8, accessed 21 May 2014; Lincon Tan, Howick: Name Game Over – Now Who Will Lead’, New Zealand Herald, 25 August 2010,, accessed 21 May 2014
Phillips. p52
ibid. p 47-8
ibid. p50

Image credits:
Kalisolaite ’Uhila
Mo’ui Tukuhausia 2012 (documentation of a two-week performance at Te Tuhi, 19 March – 1 April 2012)
Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Auckland
Photos: Bruce E. Phillips

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