Thea Perkins wins $20,000 First Nations emerging artist award

Kerrie O'Brien, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2020

Family and identity are recurring themes in works by Thea Perkins, the winner of the Australia Council's Dreaming Award for emerging artists, part of the First Nations awards announced on Wednesday. That's not surprising when your grandfather is Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, your mother curator Hetti Perkins and your aunt acclaimed film director Rachel Perkins.


"Charlie is just my beloved pop, but they did do all these amazing things in their lives, leading by example," Perkins says. "As an Aboriginal person you naturally feel that desire to speak up and stand up to the constant stream of bad news … but then also seeing that they had agency was important too. That you can stand up and make the change, you can have a tangible impact. The human scale of it, too, these things start small but they are people power movements."


Perkins says the award, worth $20,000, will go toward workshops with town camp artists in Alice Springs, making prints inspired by 1970s and 80s posters. "The idea is empowering people to speak for themselves," she says.


Previously called the National Indigenous Arts Awards, the First Nations Awards are some of the most prestigious in the country. The awards presentation was held online last night, hosted by Wesley Enoch and Australia Council deputy chair Lee-Ann Tjunipa Buckskin. A highlight was a didgeridoo sweep, in which six yidaki or didgeridoo players from across the country performed together.


Alison Milyika Carroll and Djon Mundine were awarded lifetime achievement awards, worth $50,000 eachA senior Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara woman, Carroll is an acclaimed painter who also works with batik and ceramics, and a  significant community leader.


A Bandjalung man, Mundine created the Aboriginal Memorial Poles for Sydney's bicentennial in 1988 (now at the NGA) and was a founding member of the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA) in 1987. He has held senior curatorial positions at major Australian art museums and worked with regional communities and galleries.

He says the lifetime achievement award is particularly meaningful because it's peer-nominated. "There are other awards that are more like the Logies, so if you get all your rellies to vote for you, [you win] like Tom Gleeson…"


The $50,000 prize money will help him develop new projects. "It will assist me to keep the dingo from the baby, as they say," he says. "This is just the beginning of a really important part of my life, I'm at a really curious stage of life.


"Because of your reputation, people ask you to do things, things I haven't done before. I'm very optimistic about doing that – to work with other people, to teach or guide other people. They teach me things, too."


Maree Clarke won the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Fellowship for a mid-career artist, Lydia Hall received the Community Arts and Cultural Development Fellowship and SJ Norman received the Emerging and Experimental Arts Fellowship.