Hetti Perkins. Roma Bar, Darwin August 2010
Hetti Perkins. Roma Bar, Darwin August 2010

This is the second part of a chat I had with Hetti Perkins over breakfast at The Roma Bar during the Darwin Festival.

Here Hetti talks about her recent work on a new 3 part series called art + soul to be broadcast on ABC1 in October – with an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a companion book of the same name to be published by the Miegunyah Press. She talks about the state of the Aboriginal arts “industry” and her thoughts on what her father – the revered Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins – might have to say about the current state of Aboriginal affairs in this country.

The Northern Myth: What are you up to now? You’ve been working on a project that will be screened on ABC1 in October…

Hetti Perkins: It is called art + soul, a 3 part documentary series. There is also a book that Miegunyah Press are publishing that will be available from October 1st and the Art Gallery of New South Wales will hold a major exhibition of work by the artists in the series from early October – when we have a great open weekend with talks, performances, music and so on – right through to February 2011.

These projects are really interesting to me because they are quite personal and allow me to show my own thoughts and points of view, which is very different to my usual work. In the context of a large arts institution like the Art Gallery of NSW we are trained to write and think in the third person.

Words like “I” and “Me” aren’t usually in our toolbox. We usually have to write using the passive voice – that objective voice of authority (laughs). And I’ve been very lucky to work on this project with a great team at the Art Gallery in Jonathan Jones, Cara Pinchbeck, Ashlie Hunter and Amanda Peacock. As well as director Warwick Thornton, producers Bridget Ikin and Jo-anne McGowan and a brilliant film and edit team. And of course, the artists!

TNM: Tell us a little more about the art + soul documentary series.

HP: Well, it is three episodes and each one has a different theme. The first episode is called “home and away”, the second “dreams and nightmares” and the third “bitter and sweet”. We try to link the artists by the common ideas and threads that come out of their work rather than by region or chronological order or language group or cultural blocs – which are often used to analyse Aboriginal art.

The first episode is all about asking “What does home mean?” for Aboriginal people today. We try explore what “home” – or “ngurra” as it is called for so many people in the western deserts – means to them. It is the place that people camp at, it is the place you were conceived, the place you were born, your mother’s country, your father’s country and where you are living at that moment in time. It is all these things.

And for an artist like Destiny Deacon, a contemporary artist living in Melbourne but who is originally from the Torres Strait and far north Queensland but lives in Brunswick in inner-city Melbourne. We ask her what home means for her.

TNM: There has been a bit of chatter about lately about how the Aboriginal arts industry is dead or just about dying and on its knees…

HP: I don’t agree with that – whoever would say that is poorly informed, just lazy or doesn’t know what they are talking about. In recent years a whole chain of new arts centres have sprung up. For an example just look at the new art centres in the Pitjantjatjara lands to the south of Uluru…

TNM: But is that a good thing?

HP: Yes, it is fantastic, When we look at the map of arts centres in Australia there is a particular density at some points but there are whole areas where there is no representation at all.

There are a lot of artists that are working independently with mainstream galleries and have developed their own careers but they also still work closely with other artists in cooperative groups.

One of my first jobs was at the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative. At the time Boomalli was the only urban arts centre in Sydney and since then many other collectives have grown up – like ProppaNOW in Brisbane. To me it is very interesting that the core principles – particularly of collective agency –  of the arts centre model that grew up in the bush are being applied and are as valid in urban areas as t hey are in remote or rural areas. For me this quashes the false argument that the arts centre system somehow represents a welfare-based model.

TNM: Where does your interest in art come from?

HP: Well for me it is a pretty personal exploration of a world that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of for a long time. I did want to be an artist when I was young but I realised pretty quickly that I was just so unbelievably crap that I just thought I can’t do this…to myself or anyone else (laughs).

My fascination with what makes people original and interesting and compelled to pursue their vision began when I was quite young. My mother had a gallery in Canberra in the mid-seventies while I was growing up. We lived in Canberra for dad’s work.

I spent a lot of time in the gallery looking at some of the beautiful work that came into the gallery. There was a lot of the early Papunya works, a lot of bark paintings out of Arnhem Land. All of these incredible artists that were relatively unknown at the time were being sold in Mum’s gallery. It wasn’t a profitable enterprise for her by any stretch of the imagination but she wanted us as kids and other Aboriginal people living in Canberra and working in the public service to have a place where they could see the work of our people…

TNM: This was when Aboriginal art was very much on the fringes…

HP: Well there was the Church Missionary Society that was selling art and crafts work at that time at Bathurst Street in Sydney and there was a small government-funded gallery in Harrington Street in the Rocks. But there wasn’t much else.

Mum having the gallery was fantastic because it was a way for people coming to Canberra – ambassadors and various dignitaries from overseas – they would all come to the gallery. I think I realised then what an important role art could play and in representing our people.

And when I was travelling with Dad we would go to places like Papunya and Yuendumu and we lived in Alice Springs and I realised that art was a very important way of furthering the political aspirations of our people.

TNM: Moving forward….do you have any thoughts on the state of contemporary community life in Australia? What do you think you father might have to say about what has been happening in recent times?

HP: Well, I often wonder what he would think. He was a very free-thinker in terms of doing things that were quite unexpected. I was at Mutitjulu when the Intervention first started. I just happened to be there on the day that all the Army boys turned up.

I was there with a group of international artists that were about to participate in the 2008 Biennale and I can tell you it was pretty weird to be in that community at that time with these people. They were asking me “What the fuck is the Army doing here?” Literally! The family of one of these artists was from Iraq! They couldn’t believe that the Army was in town…

TNM: Where when the Army turns up something has gone seriously wrong…

HP: Exactly! It was very embarrassing for me to try and explain to them what was going on. For me it was a shame job.

I think that Dad would have seen the “Little Children are Sacred” report…he would have been appalled that it had been manipulated by the government of the day for their own political means.

And to roll out this Intervention that has so seriously impacted upon the lives of many really good decent people and cast the rest of us…by association as being in this corrupt and unhealthy society…many of our people just see that as an unforgiveable lie.

TNM: What do you think your father would have done?

HP: He would have been straight in the face of the politicians from day one. I’m sure he would have taken direct action like that but I’m also sure that he would have been on the phone 24/7.

I think he would have argued that the resources were being misused and that the government weren’t listening to the people…that it was just a politically expedient way of shamelessly exploiting children to further the political ends of what we know was a very racist government.

And this myth, this absolute lie that our current government has adopted and perpetuated that all of our men are drunken sexual perverts and that our women are helpless victims…that disgusts me.

Shame on them all. When I was out bush recently visiting art centres some of the artists were telling me that they have effectively been shut out of their own schools…a lot of the women are asking why there are no bilingual programs anymore.

That is very upsetting for the old aunties and grandmothers that want to work with the schools to make sure…as they have done in the past…that their kids get a broad education that treats their culture the same as mainstream culture. Instead they are shut out.

Other things that disgust me are that we have these terrible health outcomes. Rheumatic heart disease is rampant, our people have appalling dental health, and the figures on diabetes and end-stage renal disease are catastrophic.

Our people have health statistics that make us the worst in the world in the case of rheumatic heart disease, and in the case of end-stage renal disease the worst in in any developed nation in the world. These are easily preventable diseases.

And what do we have now? Bureaucrats in new Toyotas…It is bloody criminal.

My dad spent so much time out bush and we barely saw him when we were growing up. He was always out on a community. And you know now when I go to the most remote little community place all kinds of people come up to me and say “Oh Kumanjayi sorry for your dad”. Just yesterday at the Art Fair here in Darwin someone said to me…and my Dad died ten years ago… an older woman came up to me “Oh I’m sorry for your father that Kumanjayi”.

For me it is really moving and I do feel a responsibility…it is an immense honour and incredibly humbling when people talk to me about my father as they do.