Hetti Perkins has put her heart and soul into an exhibition, television series and book about indigenous art, writes Steve Meacham.
Like her famous father, the elegantly trouser-suited Hetti Perkins bites her nails and loves soccer. Unlike her famous father – the indigenous activist and soccer star Charlie Perkins, who died 10 years ago – Hetti knows something about art.
”Dad was one of those ‘I know what I like’ people,” laughs the daughter, taking tobacco out of her handbag and rolling a cigarette.
But it is thanks to her father – and her less-often acknowledged mother, Eileen, ”still a very strong woman” – that the young Hetti was introduced at an early age to men and women who, 40 years later, are among our most internationally admired artists.
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With her brother Adam and sister Rachel (now one of Australia’s most admired filmmakers), Hetti met ”a lot of elders who were young back then”. Which, along with being senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander art at the Art Gallery of NSW, gives her impeccable credentials to present the ABC’s new series on Aboriginal art, art + soul. It’s also the title of a more in-depth ”companion” reference book and a mind-blowingly rich exhibition at the gallery.
It was a project 10 years in the making, coinciding accidentally with her father’s death. The three-part documentary (directed by Warwick Thornton, best-known for his award-winning drama Samson & Delilah), book and exhibition couldn’t be more timely.
As Perkins points out, we’re about to move from an artistic equivalent of ”first contact”. It is only 40 years since the desert artists of Papunya Tula began painting on canvas, instead of the sand. Some of those pioneer artists, encouraged by a white teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, have died, but the children who watched them paint the historic Honey Ant mural on their school wall in 1971 survive.
This three-pronged project is, arguably, the first time an indigenous Australian – with the kind of academic and professional qualifications that give her credibility in a largely non-indigenous setting – has introduced so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander artists in their own ”studios” to the rest of us.
”It is a bit different,” Perkins acknowledges about the ABC series. ”We don’t talk about the record-breaking prices at auction. Mainstream documentaries are often about the money story. That’s not where we go, other than to show the money goes to swimming pools or a dialysis machine [for remote communities].”
Perkins had reservations about doing a TV series, but was reminded of something her father had told her as a child: ”When you get a chance to speak for your people, do it. It’s not about you. Just do a bloody good job.”
The first part of art + soul is broadcast on ABC1 on October 7 at 8.30pm. The book art+soul is published on Friday, Miegunyah Press, $89.99.