‘I am a woman and I am shimmering.' These words opened a new world of light and divinity for Thea Perkins. Perkins is an Arrernte and Kalkadoon artist working within a painting practice that explores the lived experiences of Aboriginal people today. Her early work has emphasised portraiture that is both a celebration and an archive of our dynamic and adaptive cultural resilience in the 21st century.
The title Shimmer is inspired by a public Arrernte women’s ceremony shared by a very senior knowledge-holder, MK Turner OAM. The lyrics are 'altyerre ayenge alhelharrke-parrkaye' which translates to 'I am a woman and I am shimmering.' Perkins was working on the Arrernte Women’s Song Project project in 2020 to revitalise Aurukun Women’s song and story when she came across this assertion of matriarchal power.
‘Because there weren’t many female anthropologists back in the day, when our stories were first being collected, early colonial and academic records mostly hold men’s dreaming, even today people assume that women don’t have dreaming in those places,’ says Perkins. Her works respond to the contemporary records of women’s dreaming by searching for the shimmering all around her.
‘Once I began looking for ever-present light I started seeing it everywhere. Visiting water holes near Alice Springs I noticed the way water flows and is mirrored onto the rock face, or the illusion of paint and how light travels through it. I thought about my people, skin names, and how light reflects off my skin’. In Perkins exploration of shimmering she is also critiquing a mainstream or popularised understanding of dreaming or dreamtime as reductive stories of past. She wants to show the expansive realities that connects to dreaming and the transitional space of experiencing a pull to country. The transitional is where practices can bend to new forms – the sense of being pulled towards a place is something Perkins hopes people will connect to in these works.
Expanding the narrative of what life is like for a First Nations person today is central to Perkins work. She is interested in dissolving stereotypes by articulate her memories of a close and loving family, a sense of being grounded and feeling safe, contrary to sensationalised political and media commentary around Aboriginal families that fuels policies of out-of-home care and child removal. Working from photographic collections of her family, many of the portrait images in Shimmer have been photographed by Perkins and the matriarchs of the family.
Repurposing traditional European painting formats is one of many strategies Perkins utilises to communicate her story. In the work Shimmer 1 gold leaf sits on the surface. Perkins has learnt to gild with gold leafing in what she describes as a strange process given that it was used to symbolise the wealth and control of the Church. Historically, gilding illuminated sacred manuscripts or was used as a pigment to embody celestial spirits. In this way, Perkins is adapting the Western vernacular of icon painting to give us a new collective and public sacred image for our spiritual energy and devotion in contemporary life.
Perkins has also worked with new forms and landscape. Through delving into the concept of shimmering, new worlds have been created in abstracted saltwater and coast lines. The play of light camouflages the typographical features but still speaks to Country. Shimmer exists in multiple places like many Aboriginal people today who live in Sydney and experience a sense of internal diaspora from our ancestral homelands.
In Shimmer, Perkins has articulated the pull to belong, the love of many women and Aboriginal divinity.
Hannah Donnelly is a Wiradjuri writer, curator and producer working and living on Wangal and Burramattagal.