Hetti Perkins helps viewers understand the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal art

‘I THINK I initially imagined the series being able to satisfy my simple curiosity about what the dots mean,” Hibiscus Films producer Bridget Ikin (An Angel at My Table, My Year Without Sex) says. She is talking about the new three-part series that explores what many call the largest art movement this country has produced. It is, of course, Aboriginal art.

Art + Soul is written and presented by the charming and erudite Hetti Perkins, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of NSW. An Eastern Arrernte and Kalkadoon desert woman, she’s the daughter of political activist Charles Perkins and sister of film-maker Rachel Perkins (First Australians and Bran Nue Day). The director and cinematographer is Warwick Thornton, whose debut feature Samson & Delilah (made after several award-winning short films) won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in May last year.

As her sister did with SBS’s documentary series First Australians, Hetti Perkins makes engrossing television. It’s heartbreaking at times, always illuminating and often inspiring, as stories of courage, resilience and tragedy illuminate the indigenous experience. Some of the stories — like many of the artists Perkins visits — are funny, mischievous, sly and beguiling.

The series is especially fascinating for those of us who know so little of Aboriginal life and the art that so vividly represents it, and are just as perplexed as Perkins’s producer about what those dots mean. Many may also be perplexed by the way paintings have become the darlings of the international art trade despite having been made in great isolation and filled with allusions to motifs we can never recognise or fully understand.