For artist Thea Perkins finally making a portrait of her grandfather, Charles, has been a significant moment in her burgeoning career.
Charles is a towering figure in Australian history, a civil rights activist who led the Freedom Ride in 1965 to raise awareness of Indigenous issues. The first Aboriginal man to graduate from university, he went on to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders throughout his life.
“It took me a long time to take the image on because there’s a lot to it,” says Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman. “It’s about my own personal connection to him and my understanding of him but it’s also about his legacy. And reconciling that with his public figure. I wanted to take this on because of what was happening politically, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement.”
She hopes the movement inspires a wider conversation but also conversations with more nuance. While hoping that momentum continues, she is not surprised to see change coming from citizens rather than politicians.
“All the big movements have always been people-powered and a communal effort,” she says. “But it is also reflecting on that time in politics when people did follow through on their convictions and follow through on the things they cared about, which doesn’t seem to be the case these days.”
Perkins says the image has been a big part of her family life for a long time – it appears on the cover of her grandfather’s 1975 autobiography, entitled A Bastard Like Me. She tried to capture many elements of him in the portrait. “There’s this bolshiness and cheekiness and boldness and also this undercurrent of sadness, which we do all share.”
A Bastard Like Me is a finalist in this year’s Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the country’s longest-running Indigenous art awards and one of its most prestigious. It showcases some of the best work by Indigenous artists, both established and emerging, traditional and contemporary. Usually awarded at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin in August, the event will be staged online this year due to the pandemic.
Unveiling the work to show her mother, curator Hetti Perkins, and broader family was a big moment. “They all got a bit emotional. He was a very big family man and we have a lot of love for him, it’s very beautiful to show it to everyone.”