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First encountering Kalisolaite Uhila’s performance Mo’ui tukuhausia for the Walters Prize made me uncomfortable and angry. A performance in which you perform homelessness seemed inherently exploitative to me. However, the more I discussed and thought about the intention of this work, the more I realised it was as much about perception of race as it was about homelessness. I’m not suggesting that this performance isn’t problematic, nor that it doesn’t deserve its highly criticised inclusion among this year’s Walters Prize nominees, but it is generating an important dialogue.
Born in Tonga and raised in New Zealand, Uhila draws inspiration from performance art histories and from his Tongan heritage and relationship to his environment. An MFA graduate of AUT, Uhila was nominated for the Walters Prize for Mo’ui tukuhausia (2012) from the exhibition What do you mean we? at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland. During this performance, Uhila was overwhelmed by the amount of public support, yet also experienced being spat on.
Mo’ui tukuhausia was a successful restaging, and as a result has established a community of homeless people around the gallery. Uhila lived solely on food donations from the public, and is donating his entire artist fee from the Walters Prize exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery to the City Mission. Despite a thorough explanation of the work’s intent, Uhila has experienced being ‘moved along’ by security staff. It is through this invisibility that Uhila’s work can be seen as being as much about the colour of his skin as it is about addressing homelessness in Aotearoa. This work recalls a performance by African-American artist Fred Wilson, in which he dressed as a security guard only to be walked past and made invisible. Traces of his endurance performance can be seen around the gallery, with his belongings scattered around the outside of the gallery.
This is the first in a two-part feature introducing this year’s Walters Prize nominees. Part two will appear in next week’s magazine.