Photos by Charles Buenconsejo

Elisapeta Heta works at architecture firm Jasmax, and is a poet, artist, and member of Architecture + Women and Ngā Aho, the collective of Māori design professionals. 


Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa is an exhibition of the work of more than 90 women graphic designers and artists that began as a way of expressing the breadth and depth of women's creativity in response to their lack of recognition in the upper echelons of the design profession. The posters are currently occupying Britomart’s construction hoardings on Customs Street and Gore Street. Elisapeta Heta was one of the women who contributed her work to the exhibition. Here, she talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about the poster she created, and the challenges of making the voices of women, people of colour and people of marginalised backgrounds heard in the design industry and beyond.

Jeremy: Your poster contains a poem. Can you tell me why you decided to respond to the open call for posters in this way?

Elisapeta: When Catherine [Griffiths] and I were initially talking about this poster project I had been writing a lot as my art practice — basically as a means of processing, collecting thoughts, analysing ideas, and observing changes in my life around me. The poster call felt like a call to action for womxn, and I particularly wanted to speak to indigenous, brown, womxn, and those who identified as womxn, to hear the call. I was ‘accused’ once of being too ambitious, and I liked that this particular piece of writing might connect our ambitious wahinetanga to a lineage of tupuna whose ambitions call out to us...

What made you decide to support the project in the first place?

Catherine and I have collaborated over the years, and the kaupapa is important. It was a no-brainer to tautoko — the lack of diversity still in many of our organisations, institutions and the lack of recognition of the excellent work being done by so many in our awards systems (which is what prompted Catherine’s original posters) is important to speak up against. While Aotearoa does so well in so many respects, and we need to celebrate our achievements, it’s frustrating having institutions accept lazy tokenism as fair and diverse representation and inclusivity. Enough is enough, quite frankly. So, I will always support kaupapa that are genuinely seeking to making change and provide platforms for the many voices of that change. 

You’re an architect and you’re also an activist, involved with Architecture + Women, Ngā Aho, the collective of Māori design professionals, and other groups. Does all this feel like an extra job on top of the job you already do, and does it ever feel unfair that you and your friends and colleagues are having to draw attention to this issue of under-representation of women in design and architecture?

Yes, it’s definitely an extra job. Does it feel unfair? For sure, sometimes. My friends and I talk about this a lot: as women, as people of colour, as people or marginalised backgrounds, as activists, our physical presence in spaces is political. That we survive, that we might dare to thrive is political. That we push and demand for better systems, or processes, or engagement, or support or recognition is all political. It’s difficult doing the lion’s share of the emotional labour to constantly explain the ‘why’ to people, but I have no choice. I can’t turn it off. So I figure, you may as well push through, if not for yourself then for the next few coming in behind you: they make it worth it.

Are things changing?

Things, generally, let’s say in our profession and societally, are changing. There’s a consciousness shift and a real demand for the acculturation of Aotearoa in a way that is inclusive of a Te Ao Māori perspective, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and finally (I believe) a true recognition of bicultural outcomes. We have a long way to go still, and when you look at our stats Māori often still bottom out worldwide figures on all the heartbreaking stuff — suicide, jail, domestic violence. For a small nation we do a few things beautifully well, and a few things tragically wrong. I am an honest believer in the power of identity, sense of connection to place and the strength of good design. So I hope we, and many others, get to continue to contribute to positive shifts. 

What else are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m lucky enough to be one of the artists going to the Sydney Biennale alongside John Miller. We are collaborating on a show – I’ve been a longtime admirer of John’s photography. It’s a huge opportunity and I’m looking forward to going over. To be amongst names like Lisa Reihana (three of us from Te Tai Tokerau, including John!), Luke Willis Thompson, FAFSWAG, and Emily Karaka to name a few is pretty phenomenal. I am humbled. I’ve also got a small collection of writing from a recent residency in Toronto that I’m looking to publish. Work-wise, I’m designing and documenting a bridge as a part of the CRL network at the moment, so let’s say life is pretty varied!