Art of living
05 September 2010
FLAMES snap and crackle under Hetti Perkins's direction here in her living room. The Art Gallery of NSW Aboriginal art curator stokes the fire then, despite the insistent rain, thoughtfully moves to hold her lit cigarette outside the open window while seating herself on the sofa and curling her legs underneath her, ready to reminisce about art and life.
Such a lively and lived-in affair, this extended 1880s Paddington “chaotic and ramshackle” house. Her two dogs play fight in the hallway. Hetti’s dad, the firebrand activist Charles Perkins, who died 10 years ago, loved animals too, but prized being surrounded by family when he made it home from campaigns.
If Hetti or her sister Rachel or their brother Adam were with a school friend, Charlie would call the friend’s house and ask them to come home. Once Charlie’s children realised their dad wasn’t trying to be controlling, it was “quite nice” to be gently summonsed to the Perkins home and hearth, recalls Hetti.
“It was a bit like this house I live in now with mum and my four children,” she says, sipping the coffee she loves just a little too much, “a lot of coming and going and extended family staying.”
Busying herself now in the kitchen is her mother Eileen, who ran an Aboriginal art gallery in Canberra, the city where Sydney-born Hetti was compelled to unhappily spend part of her childhood. Hetti’s eldest daughter, Thea, 18, a painter and poet, washes her hair in another room. Second daughter Lille, 15, is a singer and aspires to be a professional golfer, while Hetti’s youngest, Madeleine, 13, already has some TV and film acting to her credit.
Hetti’s first-born, son Tyson, 20, shreds his Fender in his indie rock band and is keen on cinematography. “Even though he identifies as Aboriginal,” says his mother, “Tyson doesn’t think he needs to wear a red, black and yellow headband 24/7. He just takes it that’s what he is.”
Tyson is studying media and communications at Sydney University, where 45 years ago his famous grandfather Charles, a relentless critic of government indigenous policy, became one of the first indigenous Australians to earn a degree, even though Charlie’s innate quick-tempered passion had already given him entrée to a lifetime wearing his cultural colours on his sleeve in the white man’s world.
Charlie’s uni degree, a bachelor of arts, hangs framed on the wall above Hetti’s head; its date, 1965, was the year she was born. She’d wanted to be an artist growing up. She too got her bachelor of arts from Sydney University because Charles and Eileen – who is non-indigenous German-Australian – insisted she get her “three Rs” down pat before pursuing her drawing more seriously.
Today, she gets all her pleasure looking at art, and communicating its stories. “Dad used to say to us when we were young, ‘If you get the chance to stand up for your people, then you take it’,” she says. “He’d say, ‘It’s not about you; [but] just get up there and do your thing.’”
Hetti Perkins has curated works with the Art Gallery of NSW for 20 years now. She’d promised herself that, when she turned 45, she’d so something different with her life. She’s just passed that milestone. “I can’t see that [change] happening,” she laughs. “I’m too busy.”
Actually, Australia is about to see Hetti Perkins do something quite different. Following in the footsteps of her baby sister, successful filmmaker Rachel Perkins – who directed the most successful movie released in Australia in 2010, the Aboriginal musical
Bran Nue Day
, which has taken $7.6 million at the box office – Hetti has hosted on camera and written a three-part TV documentary series,
art + soul,
directed by Warwick Thornton of
Samson & Delilah
fame, which will air on ABC1 from October 7.
It’s a tour profound and personal; cultural and, inevitably, political, as the eldest of Charlie Perkins’ offspring introduces viewers to indigenous artists, many of whom are her friends, from all over the continent. Art and politics, she argues, are inseparable. “How can it be just art?” she says. “How can you as an Aboriginal person in this country think it’s not political?
“I accept that other artists or other people may not see it that way. That’s fine; each to their own…[but] it’s about our shared context, our shared history and the unity we share as a people.”
Before indigenous painters began using acrylics in last few decades, many outsiders reductively saw bark paintings using ochres as ethnographic folk or craft art, she explains; even today, indigenous art doesn’t neatly fit into the western art world, being both traditional and contemporary at once.
While there are limitations on discussing the spiritual meanings behind Aboriginal art – detailed knowledge of ceremonies, for instance, is sacred – the series attempts to convey “intangibles like the power of the story”, says Perkins, how the “shine or the shimmer” of an art work suggests its “ancestral power”.
In episode one, viewers meet Destiny Deacon, collector of black dolls who uses her Melbourne home as a stage to construct her photographs. Having relocated south from the Torres Strait, Deacon spent some time homeless. She teaches Perkins, who professes to being a terrible cook, how to make mission stew: browned chopped beef, coated in flour, then fried, with vegies thrown in; standard fare for a people typically with meagre income.
Perkins drives from Alice Springs in the same episode to Walungurru, home to the new headquarters of the Pupunya Tula artists, where the modern phenomenon of the art world’s serious interest in indigenous Australian art began in the 1970s; Perkins says Aboriginal art was in fact only seized upon by outsiders as “unique and distinctive” circa 1988, the bicentennial year. Artists had “persisted in the face of indifference”.
Mostly, the series demonstrates, rather than lectures. Papunya artist Bobby West Tjupurrula takes Perkins to a remote place in the Western Desert to see an ancient and elegant stone arrangement, so that the series can contain a record for his grandchildren.
“We didn’t make this,” says Tjupurrula, pointing to his sacred place. “Old people made this.”
PERKINS loved Sydney, the city where she was born in 1965, living at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs that her father, Charles Nelson Perkins – who had been born three decades earlier in Alice Springs to an Eastern Arrernte woman and a Kalkadoon man – had helped set up in George Street, opposite Paddy’s Market. She loved the traffic and chaos, the surfeit of aunties who carried her around.
Charlie had married her mother, Eileen Munchenburg, in 1961. “Mum being non-indigenous always felt we kids were Aboriginal,” says Perkins. “She never said, ‘You’re half-Aboriginal and half German-Australian’; we were always just Aboriginal.” In the months leading up to her birth, Charlie took part in the famous ’65 Freedom Ride bus tour, targeting blatant acts of discrimination in NSW country towns: the RSL with no beer for blacks, ex-servicemen or not; the swimming pool Aborigines could not enter.
His public service career took the family to Canberra. “It’s such an odd place,” says Hetti Perkins. “It doesn’t feel like its got roots in the ground. At 5pm you could hear the doors down the street closing for the night, with people not re-emerging until morning to go to work or to get the lawn mower out at the crack of dawn if it was a Saturday.”
But Charlie also took the children to the Aboriginal protest tent embassy outside Parliament House; the three Perkins children were fixtures at protests. Still, Canberra felt sterile. “I couldn’t wait to get back to Sydney. It feels more embedded in the landscape.”
Her wish would have to wait. In 1972, Charlie was suspended for a year without pay from his research career in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs under the Whitlam Government for alleged improper conduct; he’d called the West Australian Government “racist and rednecked” on television.
Charlie Perkins recalled in a 1998 interview: “I got in my car and drove to Alice Springs with my three children, where I cleaned toilets, mowed lawns, picked up rubbish, got a few bob here and there.” By 1975 he had written his autobiography,
A Bastard Like Me
, and helped start the land rights movement in Alice Springs. “I think it was meant to be,” he said.
Hetti recalls being surrounded in Alice by lots of black fella family and friends, but was shocked at the “visceral” poverty. The three children – Hetti the diplomatic one; Adam the quite one in the middle who would eventually become a self-employed share trader; and Rachel, the upfront one who would make films – hung off their father when he visited town camps and outback humpies; he wasn’t the type of dad to tell them to stay in the car.
“I learnt from him this sense of humility, you know? It didn’t matter where you came from. There were people virtually living in rubbish dumps. He had such a deep and profound respect and humility for our people. He really listened.” As a boy, he’d lost his native language. Charlie had only been able to speak to his grandmother through a chicken wire fence; she would grab at his hands, only to be herded away by the white mission manager. “I think those kinds of things just burned with him.”
Charlie was appointed the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs permanent secretary in 1981, where he continued to be a firebrand. In his last few years, Charlie and Eileen lived in a Newtown house with Hetti, her then husband Lee Madden – who was subsequently killed in a 2003 car accident long after the couple’s relationship had ended – and her four children: Tyson and Thea, whose father Hetti never married but who still sees them, and Lille and Madeleine, her children with Lee.
When Charlie died in 2000 of renal failure, aged 64, having spent occasions over the years hooked up to dialysis for his crook kidneys, youngest daughter Rachel recalled his public face could be “aggressive, angry”, yet at home he was “incredibly gentle, incredibly loving and loyal to us and hilariously funny”.
Hetti concurs. She thinks that dual personality explains why her youngest, Madeleine, is “such a firecracker” with her vocabulary: when she was a toddler, Charlie would nurse her on his knee, alternating between furiously yelling expletives down the phone, then hanging up and smoochily imploring baby Madeleine to give him a kiss.
Hetti continues the tradition of a big extended family – Lee’s two daughters from his subsequent relationship, Miah, 8, and Ruby, 6, sometimes stay over in the Paddington house. She never felt the need to distance her identity from her father; never minded being Charlie Perkins’s daughter.
Family, it seems, is fulfilling: she has no need for a partner, she says, though sometimes she wonders what coupledom might be like. One night so long ago, she sat up watching late night TV, when a matchmaking ad caught her attention, urging the lovelorn to take an online personality test.
“I went on, did all the questionnaire – I had an essay due and was procrastinating – and then it prompted me with the question, ‘Where would you like to find a friend or partner?’
“So I said, ‘Oh, whole world’. It came back and said, ‘Sorry, there are no matches’.” She laughs heartily. “I almost fell off my chair!
“No, we’re all very happy and I frankly don’t think anyone could keep up the pace. There’s a lot going on.”