Elisapeta Heta

Birthing a New Ocean

Elisapeta Hinemoa Heta (Ngātiwai, Waikato Tainui) is a senior architect, artist, and poet living in Tāmaki Makaurau. Heta is one of the founding members of Waka Māia, Jasmax's team of design professionals dedicated to engaging mana whenua and applying Te Aranga Māori Design Principles. Elisapeta has served for three years as the representative of Ngā Aho on the Council of Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects. She was co-chair of Architecture+Women between 2017-2018, secretary between 2016-2017, and has been a core team member since 2013.

Pouwātū: Active Presence, an exhibition by Heta and John Miller, was included in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN. Mounted at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, Pouwātū sought to reposition the audience into Te Ao Māori by balancing taha wairua (spiritual) and taha tinana (physical) understandings of space. Artspace Aotearoa invited Heta to respond to her experience of the Biennale; her whakaaro follows.

Birthing a New Ocean
A-i-o ki te Aorangi
Aroha ki te Aorangi
Koa, koa, koa ki te Aorangi
Pono ki te Aorangi
A-i-o ki te Aorangi[1]

To look towards Country (that has come to be known as Australia) from the whenua of Aotearoa: it appears like a shimmering ocean of earth and fire, bush and water, stone and salt. And dreams.

I mihi to the Gaddigal people of the Eora Nation, the Boorooberongal people of the Dharug Nation, the Bidiagal and Gamaygal peoples, and, particularly given that my contribution to the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, is currently being cared for on Dharawal lands, I mihi to the Dharawal Peoples[2]. Tēnā koutou.

This stream of whakaaro opens with the karakia by Dr Rangimarie Rose Pere. These words formed part of the karanga I performed at the welcoming ceremony / pohiri at Campbelltown Arts Centre on the 12th of March, 2020, as a part of vernissage for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN. The welcoming ceremony was performed by Uncle Ivan Wellington, a local elder who works with the Centre to provide cultural guidance. Uncle Ivan’s manaaki flowed in a way that I can only describe as reorienting to the spirit. He invited me to accompany his smoking ceremony with a karanga to affirm our guests’ reason for attendance, to cleanse people and land, and to open the show through a cross-cultural weaving of time and space. This collaboration revealed the shifting tide of possibility spilling out of the provocation that was NIRIN. Uncle Ivan, tēnā koe.

Through kinship ties, strengthened with every visit in both directions (us to you, our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and you to us), I feel the responsibility grow that we have to one another. Acknowledging the global kinship of our indigeneity, our tuakana teina relationship, our neighborhood`` relativity within the rim of the Oceanic collective we are connected to: I honour this time with you and the questions, thoughts and ideas I was able to indulge in while on your lands.

The Idea of the Centre.

“The urgent states of our contemporary lives are laden with unresolved past anxieties and hidden layers of the supernatural. NIRIN is about to expose this, demonstrating that artists and creatives have the power to resolve, heal, dismember, and imagine futures of transformation for re-setting the world. Sovereignty is at the centre of these actions and shines a light on environments in shadow. I hope that NIRIN gathers life forces of integrity to push through often impenetrable confusion”.

– curatorial statement, Brook Andrew, Artistic Director of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney NIRIN

And so, I will begin here in te korekore the void, positioning myself to ‘stir the memory’[3] of this time and repatriate its importance to the center of my own vision. To write, as I would speak to you, and to birth a truth. To make you a witness of this time and muse upon the ripples of its affect into a vision of the future.

It cannot go unstated that the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, presently sits within an ongoing global narrative that is the Coronavirus pandemic, several months of closed borders, hundreds of nations in lockdown, and the uprising and ongoing Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement.[4][5]

NIRIN was seeded from a powerfully simple place: the edge. Brook Andrew, Artistic Director for the 2020 program, proposed to use the concept ‘nirin’ meaning ‘edge’ in the Wiradjuri language - the language of his mother’s mother tongue. Vaulting from this provocation, he established a curatorial framework structured around seven themes also from Wiradjuri language: Dhaagun (Earth: Sovereignty and Working Together), Bagaray-bang (Healing), Yirawy-Duray (Yam-Connection: Food), Gurray (Transformation), Muriguwal Giiland (Different Stories), Ngawaal-Guyungan (Powerful-Ideas: The Power of Objects), Bila (River: Environment).

As a First Nations and artist-led endeavor, NIRIN positioned itself within an urgent discourse fluidly moving between concepts of climate change, radical activism, layers of social, political, sexual, racial, and historical/futurist context that subverted the usual expectations of a biennale. Andrews’ curatorial statement, above, platformed voices, praxis, and community hardly (if ever) seen at a global stage such as this, in force. Not only through the structure of the biennale, and the curatorial framework, but through his own personal relationships; Andrews built a community of artists who felt connected, and safe. Not a new wave, but a very old Ocean, being seen in new light. We, the artists, were not the diversification of the white-washed gallery. Our centripetal force as an entity had a kind of optimism born out of the acknowledgement of survival clawed back from the genocidal ideologies of settler-colonial realities. Instead of our works talking outwards to the gaze maintained within art institutions, we were able to find solace in the solidarity of each other’s shared realities, unique and viscerally understood.

I wondered how the “First-Nations and artist-led” statement would enact itself on a platform such as this? I observed the questions that would sit with me during my time at the Biennale: how would NIRIN be negotiated on unceded lands? How would it challenge the institution, re-acculturate it towards a place-space-time specific honouring of the lived experience and history of Indigenous peoples?

One of the first and most potent moments was on the celebratory evening, the weekend before vernissage, held at Roslyn and Tony Oxley’s house on Darling Point overlooking the waters of the Sydney Harbour. Out of the sight of the public.

The property, described to me as ‘a castle’, could be found at the end of a winding, cobbled private street and emerged from a jungle of exotic plants. The main house (yes, there was more than one) towered over us in a stone akin to what much of old Sydney’s architecture appeared to be built of. Whose hands dug-up, laboured over and lay those bricks?

Inside the house, gold gilded, filled with art and artefact, large Southeast Asian styled furniture held the resting bodies of Aunties of the Mimili Maku Arts Collective, from the community of Milimi in Alice Springs. I sat with these beautiful women, like I would my own Sāmoan aunties whose English tickled the backs of their throats in between their own language, nods, and giggles, and we exchanged introductions. The woman who accompanied them said their work was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Posters, she explained, captured the words of activist and artist Kunmanara Mumu Mike Williams, who had passed away. I liked that these Aunties could rest and be waited upon in a house such as this.

At the peak of this extravagant evening, the infrastructure of Sydney’s art scene (or was it the biennale scene, or an instance within an interwoven, globalised art world?) appeared under a crisp spotlight. The hard juxtaposition of the sprawling glory of the pride of artists, against the backdrop of philanthropic art supporters seemed a joyous enough contradiction.

Jota Mombaça stepped forward. We faced Jota, and beyond them, the ocean. Jota declared that they would need to turn and face the ocean (back turned to us) as the words were for the ocean to hear first. The words spoken stunned me to the spot.

Jota managed to do two things simultaneously: speak into being a glorious sermon of truth to the Indigenous, Black, Brown, Queer, Trans revolution and shatter any inclination toward white fragility, safety, or centeredness. Jota was incisive:

“I now address the whites. White men as well as all white people. Whose whiteness is not so much a colour as a way of understanding themselves and understanding life itself. A particularly privileged inscription in the history of power and a form of presence in the world. We will infiltrate your dreams and upset your balance. But it’s nothing personal.”[6]

This firm declaration designated where whiteness sat: at the edge, left uncharacteristically vulnerable and limited in their gaze, privilege and position. Jota continued to elevate the position of the artists through the affirmative expression of Indigenous, Black, Brown and Queer joy.

“And finally I address all of the wealthy, those whose class position ensures them privileged access to forms of comfort, foods, knowledge, possibilities and structures...”

Nothing about Jota’s work was final. It rippled through the energy of NIRIN. Our voices were being unrelentingly valued, held up in this place to say these things back at the systems historically designed to perform the opposite function: to silence us.

This was the moment I realized what was occurring at NIRIN. Did everyone else feel it?

One of the seven locations of NIRIN, Wareamah (Cockatoo island) continued this trajectory of revelation, and hard contrasts between land/place/site and the intervention. Haiveta, a sailing boat taking people out to Wareamah, was adorned with markings to reactivate the memory of women’s tattoo practice outlawed through colonization. Haiveta’s celestially marked body carried my Pasifika body across waters, tracing a new conception of what indigenization looks like: a re-warming of vessels that give us safe passage.

The island itself bears a level of intensity. Spiritually, it has a weight of a few hundred years of mistreatment. People tried to recount to me the traditional story of how the islands in the harbour were created, often trailing off to cite recent atrocities of Cockatoo Island. A jail, ‘reform’ school for young women, poisoned soil and polluted the land with industrial waste. In the true fashion of artistic and indigenous resilience, the works enacted onto this burdened landscape served to push back and reclaim.

Nicholas Galanin’s Shadow on the land: an excavation and bush burial appears like a careful archeological dig. Galanin fastidiously removed the earth in a precise reiteration of the shadow of the Captain Cook Statue in Hyde Park, central Sydney. Through this gesture, Galanin asks us to imagine a future where the settler-colonial relics of the past have been buried, and the land can begin to heal: “Imagine a future where the statues of veneration that mark our public landscape today have long been forgotten, buried beneath the earth".[7]

While the Biennale was in a COVID-fueled hiatus and the BLM movement spurred international toppling of statues dedicated to slave owners, colonisers, murderers and other White Men. The message of this work foreshadowed an ever-present conversation, as we continue to watch colonial heroics disintegrate into the sea.

The healing architecture of Tony Alberts built intervention. Timber, tree, plant, and the thick smell of eucalyptus: was this the beginning of a new territory being marked? Shelter being made? Or homes for those who are homeless? S.J Norman’s work Magna Mater articulated – with a lovingly hyper-sensitive attention to the role of care-giver - the ritualistic brushing of hair by twelve indigenous people who identified as men or on the masculine spectrum. The display: video works of this ritual, and the hairbrushes from these rituals filled with hair. This deeply grounded work centers what is likely an overtly ordinary artefact to non-Indigenous audiences. Diversely, it is an incredibly sacred one to many indigenous peoples. Waremah, heavy with histories of labour, becomes host to the self-determined work of Indigenous artists. A balance of trauma and futurist propositions. This is our daily negotiation.

My ancestors endured too much for me to be indecisive about my power.

“Shouldn’t the idea of the centre/margin be reversed?”[8] asked Rangihiroa Panoho in his 1992 essay ‘Māori at the Centre, on the Margins’. Panoho’s pivotal text proposes that “with so much having been taken and so little returned, there is now a need to reassess the Māori role in a partnership that has increasingly marginalised us. In the cultural sphere – the arts – it is now essential for Maori to resume control, re-establish boundaries for appropriation and move taha Maori (things Maori) back into the centre.”[9]

The lens through which I see my art practice is inextricably an Indigenous one. One where I cannot afford to be indecisive about a power that had, until recently, been seen as a weakness. It holds the responsibility of reclamation and honouring what has gone before me, and what kind of future I can make through the visceral, and sometimes public, healing of intergenerational traumas. NIRIN was a collective participation, particularly by the Indigenous artists, and Brook Andrew, in exactly that: reclamative healing. NIRIN sought to make witnesses of us all.

The show Pouwātū: Active Presence by John Miller and me, held space for protest, revolution, sovereignty and whanaungatanga. While John’s photographs capture moments of our past, the exhibition occasions hopeful, future thinking. Like the act of performing a karanga, and the tales John tells, Pouwātū collapses time. 1972 and 1996 sit against one another. You could be sitting around your dining room table, the whare kai, or in a gallery in Sydney far away from home, next to a Ratana Priest. The show did not aim to configure itself to the expectations of the white-walled gallery, it wanted to be a space where you could sit and flick through a photo album. Making these striking moments in Māori history - the land march, the meeting of leaders and language - a part of your story through facilitating an intimate encounter, whether you were Māori or not.

He kitenga kanohi, he hokinga whakaaro. To see a face is to stir a memory.

Uncle Ivan grounded me within the context of his living memory of Country; his own and the stories passed on to him. We sat together, drank tea, laid down our whakapapa, and his korero would flit between past, present and future with such fluidity that I felt suspended in a vivid dream-state. And this, for me, is the only place to start, and end, in the truth of Indigenous story, land, resilience and creative aspiration. It is Uncle Ivan, and all the elders who contributed to the birthing of NIRIN who we must thank for holding tight to dreams we get to live.

NIRIN grew out of the land and is given agency by it. The concepts that framed NIRIN had lived and breathed long before we made art examining their relevance to our lives. NIRIN was and is an artist and (from my bias position, most importantly) first-nations led.

Brook’s diligent, ambitious and completely indigenous way of connecting everyone and holding powerful space cannot go without acknowledgement. I would also like to acknowledge Brooks parents, particularly his mother (given her Wurundjuri whakapapa). The resilience of our recent indigenous ancestors to not only survive but where possible, find ways to enable connection to land and language is formative for the success of NIRIN, and for all efforts towards reclaiming indigenous sovereignty. Seeing Brooks' mother reminded me of the power and importance of our collective Indigenous whakapapa – our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins – who raise us, and who hold us up. And, painfully so, to the many who have been severed from their ability to do this for and with us.

The Moana.

The moana / ocean is conceptually a space of collectivity and commonality within my praxis and spiritually connected to my sense of self, collective identity, and one of the places from which I draw my power. To identify through the modality of the moana is to connect to everybody who also sees their reflection in it, to the stars that reflect it, the shores that frame it. The New Ocean is a metaphor, a reality and a living entity. The wave of connections made by artists connecting and recreating the narratives that center the multiplicities of our world view will shift the balance.

We birth a new moana, with or without the medium of a biennale, first-peoples are here to occupy this space.

“What is land?
It belongs to the old men and the old women.
Understand that this whole continent is sacred land, Belonging to the senior
men and women.
Listen. This whole continent is filled with the power of the Dreaming.
It is our land.
Do you understand me?”

Tēnei te mihi, tēnei te mihi, nga mihi aroha ki a koutou katoa.
Always was. Always will be. Aboriginal Land.


While many of these terms can be googled on sites like maoridictionary.com, I wanted to provide conceptual and contextual meaning to these terms as I am using them within this text. Particularly for the reference of non-Māori or international readers, it is important to note that the majority of these terms have systems and structures through which they are lived and experienced that are both physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Our kupu (words) are all gateways into entire stories, histories and layers of meaning – myth, metaphor and history are intertwined.

One of the many traditional names used to refer to the nation that was renamed by settler governments as ‘New Zealand’. The term refers to the acknowledgement of the many islands that make up Aotearoa as being a long collective of islands relative to the smaller archipelago scattered across the Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the big Ocean of Kiwa), later known as the Pacific Ocean.

A chant, incantation, or prayer – not always of the ‘organised religion’ kind. I would consider the offerings of the smoking ceremony as akin to a type of karakia that enacts a cleansing of those in attendance and establishes the intention for the gathering in honouring the land and ancestors, through fire and smoke.

The English language does not adequately describe the act of karanga if you have not heard it before. It is a call, a chant, a vibration, and can include wailing, crying, song and intonation. Karanga is a sacred art form performed by Māori women, only. It connects us back to our female atua (goddesses) and to all women in time. Karanga invokes the past, present and future and can be described as possessing the possibility to collapse the veil between the three.

to speak to, to speak to in acknowledgement of, to honour in appreciation and recognition.

pōhiri / powhiri
a type of welcoming or opening ceremony through which particular tikanga (protocols that are of different tribal or sub-tribal variants) are followed / enacted / observed in a manner of doing what is considered correct and respectful of the situation. The ceremony can and does adjust depending on a wider variety of factors, including location, manuhiri (visitors), occasion, the formality and political or spiritual requirements.The ceremony is not only for the ‘home people’ to perform in bringing in the visitors, but the visitors also have certain duties in response to communicate their intention of arrival, the reason for arrival and to negotiate any disagreements, tensions, or points of difference before coming together united.

language, way or style of speaking

te korekore
this term is the Northland (Te Taitokerau) word that describes the beginning state of the origins of all life / matter. Te Korekore is the void, or the moment before any energy begat itself (in the many states of Te Pō, the night). While te korekore is conceptually the black/darkness/void, it is considered the place of absolute potential and possibility.

tēnā koe / koutou
(formal) acknowledgement of one person (koe) or 3 or more people (koutou).

what is right, correct

tuakana teina
tuakana is elder sibling / cousin / person of the same sex, teina is the younger. The ‘tuakana teina’ relationship can talk about structures of hierarchy within relationships but not in a possessive / oppressive state, but rather within the structure of support, guidance, and nurturing. Both tuakana and teina have responsibilities to uphold and maintain the strength of the other from the relative advantages of their position. Within this text, I have referred to the ‘tuakana teina relationship’ between aboriginal peoples and Māori, whereby Aboriginal peoples are the tuakana, older collective, Māori the younger. There has been growing discourse about returning to/rediscovering the historical dialogues amongst our peoples as a way to support and empower each other.

thoughts or opinions

genealogy, to stack flat above/from papatūānuku, a concept that speaks to the layers and connections back to our environment and atua (deities)

means land but also means placenta/after-birth and relates to the interconnected concept of being of/from the land, with Papatūānuku being the personification of the earth. After-birth are re-buried in particular locations within your tribal areas to reconnect your physical/spiritual being to being born from a particular place.

host, be generous and giving. This term is understood within the wider system of ‘manaakitanga’ as in the acts of uplifting another persons’ mana (power, authority). To manaaki another person is the ultimate act of respect;the intention is always to hold others up in a way that uplifts them.

where Māori would refer to ‘whenua’ to mean land, or a place we feel intrinsically connected to, Aboriginal mob refer to ‘Country’. The contemporary notion of Australia, is, to Aboriginal peoples, a landmass made up of several hundred Countries. I use the term Country to acknowledge the difference in boundaries and relationship to land for Aboriginal peoples.``**


[1] Dr Rangimarie Rose Pere, Facebook post here 10 March, 2020.

[2] The site of our exhibition ‘Pouwātū: Active Presence’ is at Campbelltown Arts Centre, in Campbelltown, Sydney. NSW. See Campbelltown’s website for their acknowledgement of Country: here

[3] Quote from the whakataukī “He kitenga kanohi, he hokinga whakaaro. To see a face is to stir a memory.” used in the artist statement for the show Pouwātū: Active Presence. By John Miller and Elisapeta Heta at the Biennale of Sydney, 2020. NIRIN.

[4] While the Black Lives Matter movement began in the United States largely as a result of the the viral video that showed the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer sparked international outrage. The consequential discourse recontextualised itself to the place-based violence also faced by Black, Indigenous, Trans peoples globally. The reason to write ‘Bla(c)k Lives Matter’ is that within the Australian discourse this refueled the protest and online discourse about Blak deaths in custody and the racist abuse suffered by Blak peoples in Australia.

[5]To set a timeline: vernissage and a few openings of the Biennale were able to occur at the beginning of March 2020, but by aabaakwad (14 – 16 March), many speakers were unable to fly into the country/state of NSW and the speaking program was cut in half, many artists were flying home into quarantine, and much of the city of Sydney had gone quiet. NIRIN’s event locations closed in March as the country went into lockdown. NIRIN, initially due to conclude in June 2020, had its dates extended and has been able to keep open its doors through to the end of September / October 2020.

[6] Spoken word Untitled by Jota Mombaça, 8th March, 2020. Oxley Residence, Darling Point, Sydney.

[7] Galanin, Nicholas, Biennale of Sydney Website accessed August 21, 2020. here

[8] Panoho, Rangihiroa. "Maori: at the centre, on the margins." Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art (1992): 122-134.

[9] Ibid.


Published October 2020