'I don't think I'm an artist. I'm just a person like my aunties, like Jean, like my mother, like my granny ... I'm a maker of things more than an artist. What is an artist?'
Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, 2001
Erenora Puketapu-Hetet was born in 1941 and grew up in Waiwhetu, Lower Hutt. One of her earliest memories is of sitting with her aunties, weaving little baskets in which food cooked in a hangi would be sold to raise funds for a new marae.
Puketapu-Hetet sees herself as lucky - whenever she wanted to learn something, a teacher was there for her. Over the years, she has become skilled in many art forms, but her favourite is cloak-making.
She began weaving with traditional materials - fibre and feathers. After a while she started experimenting with steel. She says, 'I keep going back to the traditional weaving when my hands get sore from working with metal, and then when they're healed again, go out and work in metal again.'
She also uses paua. 'I just delight in working with it. It's so beautiful - the colours are just so beautiful.'
Growing up by the sea, she and her family ate seafood as part of their staple diet. She remembers, some forty-five years ago, seeing her father take a paua fish out of its shell. Using a grindstone, then a rasp, then spirits of salt, he took the dull grey back off the shell to reveal the iridescent colours underneath.
She says, 'Maori people used the shell to embellish the carvings, to bring the carvings to life . for our people, it has always been something of beauty.'
Puketapu-Hetet created the Sealord Cloak in response to the Sealord deal of 2000. This agreement saw Te Ohu Kai Moana (the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission) become a partner in the Sealord fishing company. She says that, at first, the deal seemed attractive and glittery, but people soon began to realise it was full of holes. In the cloak, the paua shell represents the deal's flashy exterior, while the underlying open grid of steel symbolises the holes. Puketapu-Hetet says, 'It's a woman's message ... my way of saying that I do have a strong interest in what is happening beyond the world of weaving. I have a strong interest in what is happening to our people - at that time and at this time.'
She has now made a series of Sealord Cloaks. Over time the cloaks have changed, reflecting improvements to the Sealord deal. The holes in her more recent cloaks are not so visible, and the gaps in the grid are beginning to close.
Puketapu-Hetet's cloaks are enduring. The fibre will eventually rot but the metal and shell will remain. She says, 'As I've got older, I've thought about legacies and ... I want each of my thirteen or fourteen mokopuna to have a cloak. But I also want to leave the legacy of the technique. Working in metal provides a way of doing that . It is capturing the techniques of the Maori weaver in metal, or in materials that will survive time.'
All quotes from an interview with Erenora Puketapu-Hetet by Stephanie Gibson, filmed by Michael Hall, on 14 August 2001 at Waiwhetu.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).