The Indigenous stock woman upending the Ned Kelly myth

Linda Morris, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Dec 2022

For daring and strength of spirit, artist Thea Perkins thinks her great-grandmother deserves a place in Australia’s national imagination alongside the likes of the mythologised bushranger Ned Kelly.


“Nanna could hold her own in a fistfight with men as well as women but she was often a mediator, too. There’s an aged care home in Alice Springs named after her,” Perkins said.


“She brought a lot of people together and negotiated that collision of worlds and straddled both, dealing with that grave and present danger of the frontier, and the incursions of the state and the church.


“Without, like, a full on shoot out, her story is one of resistance.”


Perkins has created two giant murals featuring the First Nations’ matriarch and elder. They go on public display at Carriageworks from Wednesday for the Sydney Festival.


It is the three-time Archibald Prize finalist’s largest work to date, and contrasts with the artist’s more intimate portraits and landscapes.


Perkins has long used her paintings to question the way in which First Nations peoples are portrayed in contemporary Australia, and in this public commission she aims to challenge the notion of who qualifies as a heroic national figure.


“The idea for this work came about because I went to a friend’s house and her parents had all these prints of Ned Kelly on their wall ... It got me thinking about the foundational mythology of our nation.”


Perkins comes from a creative family: her mother is art curator Hetti Perkins, her grandfather was prominent Indigenous rights activist Charles Perkins, and her aunt is renowned filmmaker Rachel Perkins.


Her great-grandmother Hetty sits at the apex: mother to 11 including Charles, who organised the 1965 Freedom Ride to draw attention to the poor living conditions of Indigenous Australians.


Hetty died in 1979, before the artist was born, but she was a legendary figure in the Perkins family known for her integrity, fierceness and care for the young. She once set down a coin on her kitchen table as a morality test for her 11 children. It was never pocketed and gathered dust.


Born on traditional lands of the Arrernte people, Hetty learned the skills of a bush stockman from an early age and worked horses and branded cattle in the gold mining settlement of Arltunga, now a virtual ghost town lying 110 km east of Alice Springs (Mparntwe).


An artist resident at Carriageworks, Perkins travelled to Alice Springs twice for this work to research the life of her nanna, and source photographs of her from family albums.

“I have travelled there frequently over my life and mum and Aunty Rachel live there. I hope to honour my nanna’s legacy in a way that people respond to.”


Stockwoman can be viewed at Carriageworks’ public space from December 14 until February 12, as part of Sydney Festival.