Auckland artist drums home the message

Kalisolaite ’Uhila in Pigs in the Yard (Performance Arcade, Auckland), 2011. Photo: Supplied
Kalisolaite ’Uhila in Pigs in the Yard (Performance Arcade, Auckland), 2011. Photo: Supplied
Auckland performance artist Kalisolaite ’Uhila is settling into Dunedin life as the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s 2019 Aotearoa New Zealand Visiting Artist. He tells Rebecca Fox about the origins of his latest work.

Kalisolaite 'Uhila's idea for his latest work, Kapa Ma, has always been within him - he just needed the time and space to draw it out.

''It was already there,'' he says.

It was in his memories of growing up in a Pacific Island family, where cabin bread (large dry crackers, which store for long periods) and drumming was ever present.

''In the Pacific community, there is a tin in every household. It's the best thing to have growing up.''

It was not long before 'Uhila realised a cabin bread tin could be used on stage as a drum.

Cabin bread tins await their fate. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Cabin bread tins await their fate. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
''It speaks a lot of the cabin bread tin. It has a life of its own, a cycle.''

'Uhila plans to drum on about 70 cabin bread tins over the next three months at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, creating sculptures from the metal tins in the process.

He is interested in how the tins become sculptures through drumming.

''They are very soft and fragile. I'm making marks on to the tins and they are already forming shapes. It takes time.''

Asked how he will know when to stop drumming on a tin, he pauses, before saying ''it'll speak to me''.

'Uhila is no stranger to incorporating his Tongan culture into his work or tackling some of the country's big issues, such as climate change, animal welfare in farming and homelessness.

His path to becoming a performance artist began as a print-maker studying at Auckland University of Technology.

''I was brought up watching Mum and Grandma make prints and tapa cloth.''

In his third year of a visual arts degree, he realised that to make an imprint he did not need paper but could bring image and sound together.

Kalisolaite ’Uhila’s Ongo me’i Moana. He conducts the tide at Oriential Bay Wellington. Photo: Supplied
Kalisolaite ’Uhila’s Ongo me’i Moana. He conducts the tide at Oriential Bay Wellington. Photo: Supplied
By recording a sound, you captured it before it was gone forever, he says.

''I realised the body was missing, but if you bring image and sound together in unison they flow together.''

He started to use his body as a tool and his first performance was using an antique saw to make marks on wood.

''There was this lady ... who stood in front and cried. I thought I was in deep trouble, but I did not break out of the performance.''

Instead, 'Uhila's wife spoke to the woman and discovered that seeing the show had triggered a memory of her father working in his woodshed.

''It was then I realised how important performance was.''

He has gone on to develop a range of different projects, including sleeping rough around Auckland Art Gallery for three months and, before that, at Te Tuhi Gallery in Pukuranga; 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 Wamapu Stream then dragging himself back to shore.

His projects about homelessness have won the contemporary Pacific Artist Award at the Creative New Zealand Arts Pacifika Awards in 2017 and in 2014 it was short listed for the Walters Prize.

'Uhila does not appear to think about his own welfare or comfort when planning his projects - he stood on the edge of the sea at Oriential Bay in Wellington in 2015 for several days as the low tide moved to high tide.

''It's about mind control. Time flies by when you are moving, busy doing something. It made me lose time.''

In Pigs in the Yard he spent time lying in a straw-filled pen alongside a piglet in Aotea Square. This performance was presented alongside videos of the daily life of pigs, a recreation of a pen-like structure for people to walk through and the remains of a spit roast.

''That was more about culture.''

In Tongan culture owning a pig confers status on a man and wealth.

''If you have a pig you're The Man. I didn't do it to portray wealth, but to show the connections between humans and pigs.''

In Tonga, pigs range free, with owners knowing their pigs and calling them home when needed, which is in direct contrast to the stalls of commercial pig farming in New Zealand.

This time 'Uhila will be performing periodically in the relative comfort of the DPAG for three months.

''It [the work] will reveal itself throughout that time.''

The tins reference industrial manufacturing and export while the bread represents life.

''It brings it all together.''

His inspiration for the works come from fellow artists such as Michael Tuffrey, who sculptured cows out of flattened corned beef tins, and Andy Warhol's pop art such as his Campbell's Soup canvases.

''It's an acknowledgement of what has come before me.''

To see
Kalisolaite ’Uhila, Dunedin Public Art Gallery until October 25, 2019. Periodic performances.

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