Heather Straka studied sculpture at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, and it was there that she acquired an attention to detail. After living in France as an assistant to Julia Morrison, she moved into painting, something she was surrounded by in Europe.
Straka is primarily a portraitist who works with identity. Her most well-known series, Selling Happyness, focuses on the repeated image of the Shanghai poster girl, an image frequently used in advertising, selling a culture and varying products. This image was used in her first major solo exhibition, The Asian, held at Dunedin Art Gallery in 2011. Straka commissioned 51 replicas of her own original image by Chinese artisans working at the Dafen Oil Painting Village in the Longgang District, Shenzhen, China. Straka chose not to distinguish her original from the others in the series, and by hanging it with the recreations questioned the western art world’s emphasis on authorship and authenticity. Her controversial earlier series, Māori Chiefs, also referenced this topic by reworking recognisable Victorian portraits of chiefs, placing them in a cross-cultural context. In these works, Straka’s draws on the legacy of European painting explicitly, her Christian iconography, attention to detail and heavy chiaroscuro mimicking renaissance portraiture. In all her work, Straka’s style places ‘the other’ in a past that they have been wiped out of, namely that of historical portraiture. Her most recent series, Burqa, confronts the western ideas about the veil’s oppression of women by revealing the body and its Christian tattoos underneath.
Straka’s work hangs in all major galleries in New Zealand and in 2011, she was awarded the William Hodges Scholarship, three years after receiving the Frances Hodgkins Scholarship.