You don’t need to know much about New Zealand art and artists to be aware of the Hetet whānau. Dame Rangimarie Hetet, for instance, a consummate weaver who died, at the age of 103, in Te Kuiti in 1995. Her daughter, Diggeress Te Kanawa, another notable weaver. Then Erenora Puketapu-Hetet with similar skills, and her husband Rangi Hetet, a carver. Next their daughter, Veranoa Hetet, who’s chatting here to Dale, and who is just one of the many in the family who are still building on the rich and remarkable Hetet legacy.
Kia ora, Veranoa. First of all, will you please tell us about your name?
I have a number of older female cousins, and none of them were named after my maternal grandmother, Vera. And my mother was named Eleanor. So my parents put the two together and came up with Veranoa. My parents were always creative.
My middle name is Angelique — and that one came because my father was a great reader. He had books piled high, from the floor to the ceiling, including all the classics, and he loved a character in one of those books.
And because the Hetet family is of French descent, he also wanted to put a bit of French in there. So, that’s why he chose “Angelique” for my middle name.
And although I’m married, I’ve kept my maiden name, Hetet.
Your mum and dad sound like really interesting people. Could you tell us about your growing up?
I was born in Lower Hutt, and my parents’ first home was in Wainuiomata, so I spent my early years there.
But then my dad’s brother and sister-in-law were killed in a car accident. So, we moved to Tūrangi to look after their children, and stayed until we could find homes for them all. The youngest of those children, who was only two when he lost his mum and dad, became my whāngai brother.
When things had stabilised in Tūrangi, we moved to Rotorua where my dad, Rangi Hetet, and my mum, Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, worked at the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, which is now Te Puia.
It wasn’t until 1982 that we as a family moved back to Mum’s home town of Waiwhetū, where we’ve remained ever since.
My mum had always been interested in weaving, and as a young girl, she’d make rourou and tāniko, and simple things like that.
But when it came time for her to leave school, about the only career options for young Māori women back then were to become a nurse or a teacher.
So, Mum went to the nursing school up in Rotorua. Dad was in Rotorua, too, at the same time — at the carving school where Hone Taiapa was the master carver.
One New Year’s Eve, these nurses heard about a party happening at Hone Taiapa’s place. So, they put their lipstick on. And that’s when Mum and Dad met.
Anyway, Mum decided she wasn’t cut out to be a nurse. She moved back to Waiwhetū, right when her father, Ihaia Puketapu, was planning this meeting house at Waiwhetū.
And he’d got to the point where he needed carvers. Of course, my mum piped up: “I know some,” she said. So, that’s how Hone Taiapa and his group of carvers, Konae Aronui, moved down to Waiwhetū, to carve the wharenui here.
Dad courted Mum during the building, carving and weaving of that wharenui. The house was opened on September 10, 1960 — and my parents were married there, only a month later.
That’s a lovely story. We know there was this tono from your dad’s grandmother, Rangimarie Hetet, that the generations to follow her should also follow in her footsteps, and develop a love for, and expertise in, our Māori traditional arts. The fact that your dad studied whakairo and has given so much to those art forms shouldn’t surprise us, then, should it?
Well, as a boy, Dad had wanted to be a doctor. That was his dream, and as a teenager at St Stephen’s, he was trying to align himself with that dream.
But one day, he came back to the dorm at Stephen’s after a rugby match, and he was summoned to the principal’s office, where he was told that he was being pulled out of school.
His Ngāti Tūwharetoa koroua had decided that he was to become a carver. He was put on a bus, sent back to Tūrangi to say goodbye to his Tūwharetoa whānau there, and then he was sent to Rotorua. He was only 17.
He’d wanted to heal people — and even though he hasn’t been able to bring healing to people’s bodies, he sees that the work he creates gives people a kind of spiritual healing.
And, when they married, Mum became a student of Dad’s grandmother — my great-grandmother Rangimarie Hetet. So that’s how Mum became a cloak weaver.
Your house must have smelt of harakeke growing up?
It did. Our home was a hive of creativity, and it didn’t stop with flax and wood. For example, Mum and Dad loved music — classical music especially — and there was always poetry being read or recited, books were everywhere.
I have memories of sitting in our lounge, with the TV on, and Mum doing tāniko or preparing feathers for a kākahu, or weaving a kete. She was always busy with her hands.
Dad, meanwhile, would be sitting in his chair, sketching. Or he’d have a carving in his hand, and he’d be rubbing this carving so the oils from his hands would work into the wood and give it a natural sheen.
Our parents encouraged us kids to be creative in whatever way that came to us. So, we wrote stories. We drew. We made things. And everything that we created was celebrated, no matter how big or small.
You mentioned brothers and sisters. Are they artistic?
Absolutely. I have a sister who’s a beautiful weaver, a brother who’s a graphic designer, and my other sister is a writer who plays classical guitar, has a beautiful voice and is a whizz at creating websites.
You were 13 when you created your first serious piece. Were you always going to follow in the family tradition?
I did try other things. Like, I worked in an office — and I was tragic at that. I worked in a supermarket and I wasn’t any good at that, either.
I worked in the museum scene, too, but I felt a bit lost there, because I was working with artwork which had already been created, and I wanted to be the creator. So, I came back to weaving.
Actually, I started having babies, so I had to give up work, and that’s when I picked up weaving again, seriously.
At that time my mother was teaching weaving, so I’d sit alongside her. My mother also taught me how to teach. That’s when I became a full-time weaver and, alongside my mother, a full-time teacher of weaving.
What tricks of the trade did your mum share with you that made you a teacher?
When Mum was teaching me to weave, she was also trialling techniques for imparting knowledge, and working out how different stages of learning should slot into a student’s journey of learning.
I was her trainee for what is now known as the Hetet matrix of learning — in which each lesson is made easier because of the one before. It’s like staircasing.
But when I say my mum taught me how to teach, she also taught me that different people have different ways in which they learn best. So, a teacher needs to know how to cater to all those different styles of learning.
What do you love most about weaving?
My saying is: “I weave, I breathe.” That’s it, in a nutshell.
Weaving is my way of connecting my past and present with my future — that is, with my children and my mokopuna.
Weaving is also a way that I can express an idea or a thought that I might have. But weavers are also bound by the techniques and materials that they use. So, when you’re wanting to express an idea in weaving, it takes a lot of creative nous to get it from your head and out through your hands.
That’s a challenge. And I enjoy that challenge.
A lot of what I weave now is not deemed traditional. But I often say that while it may not be “traditional” now, in 200 years’ time, it will be.
So, I enjoy using the materials and the techniques, knowing that they hold so much potential, and I enjoy knowing that I have the ability to push the boundaries.
I know you’ve just had a show at the Dowse Art Museum. Is there a piece there that might illustrate what you’re speaking of?
Dad taught me kōwhaiwhai — and tukutuku, which is a male form of weaving. So, I wove a cloak completely out of muka (flax fibre) and I wove it using tāniko and whatu techniques, which are ancient cloak-weaving techniques.
But in the way this cloak is designed, laid out, and completed, it’s the first of its kind. It’s called Tumatakahuki, which is the very first stitch in a tukutuku panel.
Tumatakahuki is very important to the tukutuku panel. Because that first stitch sets out exactly where all of the horizontal and vertical slats need to be in order for every stitch that follows to be in the right place.
And that was me saying that Dad taught me to get the foundations right, so that the wall stands straight. Because if you get it right at the beginning, everything else will follow.
All rāranga, in fact all of our works, they don’t just appear from thin air, do they? They all tell stories as well. So, what do you consider before you start on a piece?
I have to have the story of the piece before I begin. I know a lot of people will weave something and then put the story to it later.
But I prefer to do it the other way around. I think of an idea, or I’m inspired by something. Then, knowing its story, it’s easy to come up with the design, or with the pattern, and the colours and the size.
So again, it’s getting things right at the very beginning.
You put a lot of thought into what you’re trying to do before you grab the materials to do it.
I like to sit by the harakeke, just for a couple of minutes, and just think about what I’m going to make out of this flax before I cut it.
And that’s me giving gratitude for that flax, letting it know what it’s going to be turned into. That’s my form of karakia.
Kia ora. You’ve no doubt been inspired by the work of others. What works have triggered emotion in you in that way? What sorts of things have you been inspired by over the years?
I’m continually inspired by my great-grandmother’s work, by my Aunt Digger’s work, by my mum’s work, and by my dad’s work.
Other than that, I think the most inspiring artist that I’ve ever met, and had the pleasure of knowing for 30 years, is a Native American clay worker named Roxanne Swentzell.
Roxanne lives on Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. When she was little, she had a speech impediment. So, all of the things that a child will naturally tell its mother — I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m angry. Or I’m bored — she couldn’t say.
Roxanne belongs to a famous clay-working family, she just naturally started to create little figurines to show her emotion. And today, no one else I know can capture emotion in clay like she can.
Her pieces just bring tears to your eyes. You look at them and you think: “That’s me”, or “I know that feeling”.
You’re always adding techniques from other fields. What have you learned most recently?
The last class I did was in patchwork quilting. That was 10 years ago, maybe longer.
I also spent six months with a Danish goldsmith, so I’ve been trained in jewellery making, and I spent some time in a clay-working class.
I’ve just picked up little bits and pieces along the way. And they’ve all been to help me push the boundaries of weaving.
For me, those classes are like going on holiday. You have a really good time, you think: “Yeah. I could live here forever.” But then you come home, and you realise that home is the best place to be.
Well, for me, weaving is home. I go away and play, but I always come back home to harakeke.
What’s the collection, or even just a piece, that you’re most proud of?
That’s like asking me which of my five children is my favourite.
But I am proud of the cloak that is presented to the New Zealander of the Year. That cloak Pouhine has been on a number of shoulders, including Sir Stephen Tindall’s, Richie McCaw’s, and Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s.
Pouhine is like a unisex, one-size-fits-all cloak, and she looks good on all of these great Neww Zealanders.
Once a year, she’s placed on the New Zealander of the Year. That’s the one time each year I get to see her, and it brings back memories of designing her, and making her. I’m proud of that piece. I’m proud of her.
I notice you call her a “her”?
Yes, her name is Pouhine, which is the female version of poutama.
So, poutama is that stair pattern you see in tukutuku panels. Tukutuku is the male version of weaving, so that’s why it’s called poutama. The same step pattern in the female form of weaving, tāniko and whatu, is called pouhine.
So that’s why she’s a “she”.
Some people would say that the step pattern is a stairway to heaven. Others say that each step represents a generation. But I was looking at it in terms of levels of achievement, of striving to reach the top.
One of the hardest things that a weaver — a cloak-weaver — can weave, is a kaitaka. A kaitaka is a plain cloak with no feathers to adorn it, or to divert the viewer’s gaze.
The weaver is baring herself, in a sense. She is showing everyone the preparation of her materials, the straightness of her rows, her tension.
But then I pushed it further. I thought: “What’s harder than a kaitaka?” And my answer was a kaitaka huaki, which is two kaitaka, joined at the top.
I completed Pouhine in about seven months, so it was a marathon of making muka and weaving. I really pushed myself on that one.
How do you cope with the pressure of putting an exhibition together? Your recent show at the Dowse, for instance, what sorts of challenges were involved there?
I only had a very short time to create some new works for that exhibition, but I was also able to draw on some work that had never been shown before.
My family is incredibly supportive. My husband, Sam Hauwaho, is a carver, so he understands the pressure that comes with creating within a tight timeframe.
All of our children were born into this world, too. So, they just understand, they’re just so supportive of me, and I’m very blessed.
And I weave full-time. It’d be different if I had to work from 9 to 5, then come home, cook dinner, do the washing, before sneaking in a couple of hours of weaving.
But I can get up and weave from the morning until whenever I decide to finish at night. So, it’s not that hard for me. Because I’m so incredibly blessed.
Without knowing him, I salute Sam because he creates space for the both of you to do things which are not only important to you but which are important to us as a people. But can I ask you about teaching an age-old art form online? How have you found that?
Mum and Dad began The Hetet School of Māori Art some time ago. Up until about six years ago, all our teaching was face-to-face.
But then one day my sister, Lillian, pulled me into her studio and asked me: “How many people can you teach in your studio?”
I said: “Oh, probably about six to eight? It’s only a small space.”
She followed that up with another question: “How long can you teach those people for?”
“Well,” I said, “if we’re going from 9am till 3pm, five days a week, that’s probably it.”
“Okay,” she said. “So, what if, instead of teaching six people for 15–18 hours a week, you began teaching hundreds while you’re sleeping?”
At that point, she had me a little confused. But of course, she was telling me about online teaching.
So, we tried it. We tweaked things as we went. And now, six years later, we have thousands of students. They’re in New York, London, Paris and Copenhagen. And it’s wonderful.
What’s more, I find that my online students become far more confident than the students I’ve taught face to face. Because they have these videos which they can pause, they can rewind, and they can listen to over and over again.
For a lot of people in a classroom, especially older women, their brains are so full of a lifetime’s knowledge that it’s hard to take in any more.
Chances are, they’re in a classroom full of younger women who don’t yet have a brain full of knowledge. These younger ones are able to pick up and retain new knowledge easier, while the older woman starts feeling whakamā. Sometimes, she pulls out.
But when she’s learning with me one-on-one on video, she doesn’t feel whakamā. So, she completes that kete, that tāniko, or that korowai.
I’m thinking right now of a busy mum with six children. There was no way she could get to a wānanga, or a polytech, or a weekend class. So, she joined my course, and when all of her children were in bed at night, she would get out her weaving mahi and turn on her video. Now she’s selling her work in galleries and to private collectors.
That’s wonderful. She’s bringing in another income to her whānau, and doing something that she loves. You get me talking about my students, and I get excited, because there are so many success stories.
Of those thousands of women, in all these far-flung places, how many are Māori?
When we went into lockdown last March, my sister and I decided to offer a free course. Learning how to cut harakeke, learning how to make a kono, and so on. And all of these locked-down people across the world signed up. They’re men, they’re women, they’re young, they’re old, and they’re of mixed nationalities.
But for the other courses we have, like the kete whakairo, the tāniko, and all of the kākahu lessons, it’s mainly Māori enrolling.
A lot of these ones live in Australia. For them, it’s a link to home. So, most of my students in those lessons are Māori who live in Australia or New Zealand.
Thank you. I think you’ve been a real innovator. Not just in the way you present our taonga, but also in your willingness to push the boundaries and even embrace cyberspace to share your knowledge. But as you look ahead, what are some of your goals?
My husband is a full-time carver. One day, I’d like for us to buy some land and build a little wharenui with our five children contributing to the artwork for that wharenui.
On a work level? Well, we’re starting a new course, so I want to get that moving.
And I just want to keep on spreading the love and joy that is weaving.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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