HETTI Perkins doesn’t like to play favourites, but in the second episode of the new television series Art + Soul, she stands by Fruit Bats, a sculpture by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus, to explain its unique appeal. The work comprises 100 fibreglass Arnhem Land-inspired fruit bats, striped with rarrk (cross-hatching), which are suspended from a Hills Hoist clothes line. The floor below them is littered with small flower-like discs: bat droppings. It is the idea of Aboriginal culture being in our backyards that delights her. ”It takes issue with this Great Australian Dream of buying a quarter-acre block in suburbia; who has the right to own a slice of this country? But it’s also about Aboriginal culture swarming all around us.”
Perkins, the head curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is talking about a literal backyard, not a metaphorical one. It’s not dot paintings, a distant Dreamtime and being out there in the never-never that she wants non-indigenous city folk to think about when they think of Aboriginal people. Indigenous culture isn’t a museum artefact: ancient, backward, irrelevant, and incapable of change. Nor is it impossibly remote and hard to grasp. It’s the opposite: complex, fluid, nearby and just as pertinent to indigenous Australians today as it was their ancestors. ”’The Dreaming’ has become this convenient cliche around Aboriginal art that sort of suggests it’s this very nice, tidy, old thing. It’s a romanticised view of what art and culture can be.”
It is precisely these ”romantic views” that Perkins teases apart in Art + Soul, a three-part series, directed by Samson & Delilah’s Warwick Thornton, that will screen on ABC1 next week. A densely researched, beautifully filmed and meticulously edited survey of some of Australia’s most talented, charismatic and accomplished indigenous artists, the series allows Perkins to put faces, life stories, geographies and histories beside the canvases that capture them. When she’s not rolling out her swag in some of our country’s most remote reaches, she’s traipsing through cities and suburbs. If there are dots to be drawn, Perkins marks and joins them herself; Aboriginal art provides, for her, a window not only onto the culture and country it represents. It’s also a powerful means of preserving individual and collective senses of identity. What makes indigenous art so compelling is that it has important things to say.
The eldest daughter of Aboriginal rights activist Charles Perkins, Hetti was raised in an environment in which indigenous rights were discussed over morning cornflakes. The family moved – to Sydney, Canberra, Alice Springs – to follow political battle lines. Her parents met on a blind date in Adelaide in the 1950s, where ”dad had been taken to a boys’ home after living in Alice [Springs]”. An accomplished soccer player, trialling with Liverpool and Manchester in Britain before returning to Australia and devoting himself to politics, Charles married Eileen Munchenberg in 1961. ”She came from a German background; her family had been here for over 150 years but up until my mother’s generation they’d just married other Germans. Mum was the first to marry out. Her parents didn’t mind at all she was marrying a blackfella. She’d wanted to marry someone of the ‘wrong’ religion before my father [the family was Lutheran] … That was a big no-no, but a blackfella was fine.”
While Perkins says her parents experienced ”what any mixed marriage couple at that time would have experienced”, she doesn’t have enduring memories of a childhood marred by racist taunts. ”I wasn’t really aware of it growing up. I obviously knew that I had a black father and a white mother but I just felt black. It never occurred to me to think otherwise; that I should be half-black, half-white.”
In Art + Soul, Perkins visits the home of Brenda Croft, whose work often incorporates old family photographs in its exploration of race, history and identity. Croft dusts off an old book titled Australian Aboriginals, turning to a photo that depicts a line of 10 women. They are assembled according to skin colour to illustrate the ”percentage” of their Aboriginality; a ”full-blooded” Aboriginal stands by the right frame, a fair-skinned European by the left. The relationship between skin colour and notions of authenticity forms the focus of many indigenous artists’ work. So too, though not quite as colourfully, the writing of Herald Sun journalist Andrew Bolt, who is currently being sued by nine ”fair-skinned” indigenous Australians for articles and blogs (one carried the headline ”It’s so hip to be black”) that implied they had fashionably chosen to identify themselves as Aboriginal because it brought ”political and career clout”.
Perkins says she has never ”done the fractions” to work out how Aboriginal she is. ” I’ve never really been good at the maths, and it’s not an equation I’d do.”
Perkins; her sister, Rachel, the director of Bran Nue Dae; and brother Adam spent much of their childhood in Canberra, ”because of course that’s where the politics is,” aside from a brief stint in Alice Springs during the mid-70s. If it was hard work growing up with a father so enmeshed in politics, Perkins wouldn’t know; it was simply her reality. ”You went to the demonstrations, overheard or were the participant in many conversations around the dinner table. Dad was on the phone pretty much all the time, people were always coming around to talk. It was that 24/7 kind of life.” Nights were spent yelling at the television or debating newspaper articles. ”I’m always reminded of Destiny Deacon’s work when I think about it. If they were tough or difficult circumstances, they were always tempered with this humour. We felt in charge of keeping dad on level ground so we’d pay him out every chance we had.”
Archival footage of Charles Perkins’s political speeches plays a central role in Art + Soul, mapping artists and their work on the political and social terrain they travelled. We’re reminded of the great Hermannsburg painter Albert Namatjira, whose talent came at a price; in 1957 he was granted exemption from the Northern Territory legislation that prevented Aborigines from voting, owning land and building a house. Soon after, however, he was incarcerated for leaving a bottle of wine within reach of a fellow Hermannsburg painter. There are the photos of Mervyn Bishop, whose 1963 photo of chart-topping singer Jimmy Little, celebrated opera singer Harold Blair and activist Bert Groves depicted three men who, despite their accomplishments, weren’t at the time officially recognised as Australian citizens.
Grasping the magnitude of what their father was fighting for must have been a hard task for the Perkins youngsters, particularly at the 1972 tent embassy outside Parliament House in Canberra. ”I can remember thinking, why did we need a tent, why did there need to be an Aboriginal embassy outside Parliament House? Because at that age (seven years old), you do think Parliament House is like the Queen’s palace kind of thing, a fount of all authority and wisdom. But the people there were kind and generous; they had the courage of their convictions and real compassion. It was an extraordinary time.”
Travelling between Canberra and Alice Springs as a child, Perkins was always aware of the ”parallel universes” she was moving between. ”We’d visit my grandmother in Alice and go out to communities where people spoke little if any English and live in really difficult conditions. And then we’d be back in Canberra, going to school where there’d be no other black kids, visiting people who lived in lovely big comfortable homes and thinking God, what planet am I on now? It was quite difficult for me to reconcile all these experiences.”
In many ways she feels these parallel universes still exist. ”You only have to look at health statistics in this country; they’re a pretty clear indication that Aboriginal people live in a parallel healthcare system universe to non-indigenous people.”
Which only serves to make indigenous art more important, she says. Particularly in remote communities, where art often provides the sole source of income and is used to fund the purchase of dialysis machines and build swimming pools. ”People want to live on their country and maintain the traditions of the ancestors but within a 21st-century context. Art provides them with the only culturally appropriate way of living in modern Australian society. It creates employment and training opportunities that can head off a lot of the problems [alcoholism etc] that result in our people ending up on dialysis machines. The alternative of being a fringe dweller in some regional centre is anathema to them.”
As far as indigenous rights have come since her father’s day, Perkins still sees a tough road ahead. Often when she visits communities, she’s introduced as the ”daughter of that important government man”, which provides her with pause to reflect on ”all the fathers and mothers who fought very hard for our present generation to be able to enjoy the privileges that we do: jobs, houses, the expectation that we should be able to aspire to an adequate standard of living in Australia”.
She’s still struck, however, largely in urban centres, by how few ”whitefellas” count an Aboriginal among their friends. ”Someone once said to me, ‘My friends don’t know any blackfellas, and they don’t want to know any blackfellas’, and it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. There’s such a long way to go in that regard; that would make a really big contribution to people’s understanding.”
As for the Art + Soul series, one of the main impetuses for its creation was Perkins’s desire to preserve a pivotal moment in our nation’s history – the passing of a generation of artists who can remember what life was like before white settlement.
”Culture has been something that’s sustained us over all those years and will continue to do so. [If you look at the] work that’s coming out of communities and urban centres, artists are holding onto their culture in really innovative, imaginative ways. It’s greatly heartening for me to see.”
Much of what makes Art + Soul such a delight to watch is the rapport between Perkins and the artists she visits, many of whom she has known for decades. In the home of Melbourne-based artist Destiny Deacon, the two exchange clever quips in Deacon’s studio before preparing mission stew – ”a posh version”- jokes Deacon as she directs Perkins to dust cuts of meat in flour.
In Western Arnhem Land she follows John Mawurndjul on a bark-gathering expedition; his work, she explains, is not only of his country, it is his country. There’s no distinction. In sacred sites, elders carry out rites before Perkins and her film crew are permitted to enter: the ancestors must be warned of her presence in song; her skin washed with creek water so she is recognised as a friend rather than a malevolent interloper.
In the Northern Territory, she is led to rock art sites that date back 40,000 years; to described them as spectacular is to sell them well short. Perkins says she feels humbled every time she meets an artist; she never takes for granted the trust and respect they show by allowing her to visit. ”No matter how many times you’ve been to a place, every time you go there you learn something new or have some sort of experience that makes it feel like you’re going there for the first time.”
Art + Soul screens on ABC1 this Thursday at 8.30pm.
Art + Soul: A Journey into the World of Aboriginal Art by Hetti Perkins is published through Miegunyah Press. Art + Soul exhibition showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 13, 2011.