Arrernte Kalkadoon artist Thea Perkins says her Nana has a lot in common with Ned Kelly. Myths surrounding these two figures will collide in her mural Stockwomen.
You painted your grandfather, Indigenous rights activist Charles Perkins, in a work called A Bastard Like Me. Why is it now time to paint your great grandmother Hetty - for whom your art curator mother, Hetti, was named in your largest work yet?
I was at a friend's house and their parents had all of these prints of Ned Kelly by Sidney Nolan and I got thinking about who we mythologise and which figures we uphold. This work is about looking at women and exploring the strong matriarchal line. Nana Hetty is a big source of strength in our family and a very important figure for us.
How does the Ned Kelly myth inform Stockwoman?
A lot of the qualities in the Ned Kelly narrative such as ideas of "cool" or "brave" or "daring" apply to my great grandmother's life. There were so many forces impacting Nana's life - the church, the state - but she had all these children. She was strong, she brought community together, she could brand cattle, build fences and hold her own in a fist fight. It's about changing the mythologising process and applying it to our heroes. I was trying to break down and understand figures [like Ned Kelly] and understand how they arrive at this mythical status, and through their representation in painting and stories.
You went to the gold mining settlement of Arltunga outside Alice Springs, where Nana Hetty worked riding horses and branding cattle, to document and research country. What did you find?
Part of the research of going there was being able to re-create that feeling in the landscapes. These colonial outposts or settlements are ghost towns: they were mining gold there. It's this gothic idea of madness that would drive people to the centre of
Australia, many of them pushing carts and starving to death, to strike it rich. But it was eventually too difficult to extract any gold from Arltunga. I wanted to unpick all of the tropes that inform Sidney Nolan's works - unease and menace - that were also present in those places. There would have been a very grave and present danger.
Stepping away from art, do you see the "Australian gothic" elsewhere in society?
Even what's happened in the news with the Kumaniayi Walker case and what happened to that boy - Aboriginal teenager Cassius Turvey - I think it's an ongoing thing. It is also the evidence of frontier murder and brutality, the Australian wars, the massacres and atrocities inflicted upon my ancestors.
Can a portrait be painted from a photograph or should the subject sit for the artist?
I love painting from a photograph because l use it to get a really good initial drawing and all of the measurements done and from there it's about going in to memory. It is interesting in this case because I never met Nana Hetty [who died in 1979] so the process of painting her and working from the photograph is a product of the stories I
have heard about her from everyone else. I like working from photographs because it can be quite a difficult process achieving likeness. It can take 20 iterations before I feel I have captured the correct expression.
Is now a good time to be an artist in Australia?
Soon there will be no living memory of the frontier in our communities - it is recent history of the utmost importance to tell. I am compelled to share my family's story as a part of the wider history of this country. I think art has a powerful place in these rapidly changing times. It is a potent communicator that can shift people's way of viewing the world. It's time to re-evaluate old paradigms to adapt to the challenges of today, and progress meaningfully.
Stockwoman will show at Carriageworks, Sydney,
from December 14 to February 12.