Heather Straka’s insightful explorations into perceptions of socio-political and cultural lives have created a significant body of compelling and controversial work. Straka demonstrates technical control of her medium and coupled with a finely modulated handling of her contentious subject matter, she deftly questions tradition, challenges the politically correct, and subverts expectations.
Her Maori Chiefs series of adjusted portraits by Victorian artists, adorned with religious, political and cross-cultural references, caused some outrage in New Zealand. Straka engages with such debate as a meaningful part of her practice. Her Asian Girl series slyly referenced western perceptions of art, authenticity and authorship as she commissioned 51 replicas of her own painting from Chinese artisans working in the Dafen Oil Painting Village in the Longgang District of Shenzhen, China. Straka’s recent Burqa series again confounds stereotypical readings of particular cultural practices. Western notions of women oppressed by the material layering concealing their being are undone by the sexuality and freedom of the tattooed body below the direct and sensual gaze.
Studying sculpture at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts in the early 90s, Straka honed an acute attention to detail that she later carried through to her painting practice, a shift made in France. Scarcity of sculptural materials and proximity to the great paintings of Europe informed the refocus of her practice. Straka returned to New Zealand and exhibited her first painting show in 1998, later graduating with an MFA from Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 2000.
Since the turn of the century Straka has been awarded several scholarships and residencies. In 2002 she was presented the Pierce Low Award for Excellence in Painting from the Royal Overseas League, London. Straka was awarded New Zealand’s esteemed Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 2008, and the William Hodges Fellowship in 2011. Her prolific exhibition history spans two decades and her work is held in all of New Zealand’s major public collections. [Text: Trish Clark Gallery]