HETTI KEMARRE PERKINS, Arrernte and Kalkadoon peoples, the National Gallery’s Senior Curator-at-Large and curator of the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, talks with Artonview Editor Sophie Tedmanson.
Hetti Kemarre Perkins was born in 1965, the year of the Freedom Ride, when her activist father, Charles Perkins AO, famously led a 15-day bus journey across regional New South Wales to draw attention to racism and the living conditions of Aboriginal people. It was a defining moment in Australian activism and an auspicious start for Hetti, the National Gallery’s Senior Curator-at-Large, who has spent her life advocating for First Nations art and artists — and even raising some herself. During a 30-year, multifaceted international career, Hetti has worked on many projects including dOCUMENTA (13) and co-curated Australia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale, as well as written, presented and produced documentary series for ABC TV and SBS/NITV. She is respected for her commitment to the curation, collection development and scholarship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, as well as her mentorship and advancement of artists.
Sophie Tedmanson (ST) So you were born during the year of the Freedom Ride?
Hetti Perkins (HP) Yes. Mum was at home pregnant with me while Dad was travelling around on the bus. Two years later the Referendum happened, so when I was born I was not counted in the Census. Quite a lot of us have that common experience of having that change in our status as Australians in our lifetimes.
ST How did that shape you as a person?
HP My father was involved in the Referendum campaign, too, and from a very young age I was able to be a part of whatever was happening, whether
I realised it or not. I guess being in demonstrations, observing some of those intense conversations — even if I didn’t understand what they were talking about — was something that influenced my way of thinking about being in the world from a very young age.
It makes me feel that the work I do is very much part of a political process. I feel I’m more of a cultural activist than a curator, and that’s definitely something that I have inherited. It’s just my life experience that all we do, we do for our people.
That’s why an inclusive approach is really important to me, one that’s founded on listening, making sure that people who don’t have a voice can have one.
I’m really interested in artists who haven’t been in a National Gallery Triennial before, some who don’t have as established a practice as others, particularly those from the east coast of Australia — trying to shine a light on areas that haven’t been seen previously. That is a very important part of the role: to reflect the diversity of our communities, not only through their lives and practices, but in the ideas of their work, and the processes of cultural revival that are happening in our communities and the role of activism.
ST Was the theme of Ceremony something that you always wanted to curate this Triennial around, or was it a reaction to everything that has happened over the past few years such as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the impact of the bushfires and climate change?
HP Our communities have been tackling these issues for a long, long time. What has sustained us has been our culture. The theme came from a lot of different things: my personal experience of political activism, such as the Tent Embassy — which will have its 50th anniversary in 2022 — or being in ceremony and being painted up and dancing, and watching other ceremonies, and then seeing someone like Emily Kngwarreye’s work. Her style very much captures that idea of ceremony, particularly the stripes, the bold lines — there’s something beautiful in that repeated action, that ritualised or ceremonial act. I’m really interested in what the artist is doing when they’re participating in that, this idea of channelling and reiterating things. Of course, it’s something that’s very much part of being from a culture that doesn’t have a written language — it’s all about oral traditions and visual representations of things.
Another important understanding of the concept of ceremony is the ‘inside and outside’; we’re just looking at the outside, not inside knowledge. And so we have been careful to consult with people, and it has been wonderful to work with Ngambri-Ngunnawal Traditional Custodian Dr Matilda House and make sure she was fine with it. The ceremonial act is a continuing and vital part of our everyday experiences as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She really welcomed that to be something that the exhibition explored.
I spent a lot of my young life living in Kamberri/Canberra because Dad was a public servant here, but like one you’ve never seen before … in many ways, he really was a servant of the public, the public being his people. And believe me, he really was 24/7 a servant, a willing instrument of his people’s ambitions and aspirations. One of the things that was very significant to me, and really fed into this idea of Ceremony, is that the National Gallery is located on Ngambri-Ngunnawal lands, in the heart of the state of political power in this country — whitefella political power — a place where, of course, many decisions are made that affect and influence the lives of our people.
Ceremony, for me, feels like the nexus between Country, community and culture. That’s where those kinds of things all come together, and are expressed in this Ceremony.
ST When you were growing up Kamberri/Canberra, didn’t your mother run an art gallery in your garage?
HP My mum, Eileen, is non-Indigenous. Her background is German and she was the first in her generation to marry outside of the German community. She has always felt very privileged to be part of an Aboriginal family and she wanted us kids growing up in Kamberri/Canberra to have access to our culture. The National Gallery hadn’t opened yet, so there was no place for people to see Aboriginal art in Kamberri/Canberra, so she opened the Aboriginal Heritage Gallery in 1977. I remember her taking out the garage doors and putting in sliding doors and painting it.
It wasn’t flash by any means, but there were paintings from Papunya Tula Artists, Pukatja/Ernabella works, bark paintings, weavings and textiles. She also held fashion parades there with Aboriginal models, and I remember [then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s wife] Tamie Fraser coming through. It was a way for our own mob to celebrate and have a place to see and experience our culture.
Mum really loved being able to do that, particularly for us kids. I spent a lot of time in there because we had books and all sorts of things. I used to just sit down there and read and look at art and actually get to handle things, arrange things and put things on the walls. How lucky to be able to have that sort of experience growing up.
ST Because didn’t you want to be an artist as well?
HP I did, yes, from quite a young age. But I realised I wasn’t good enough. I mean, I can do a drawing, but when it comes to originality … who wants to be a photocopier when they grow up? That’s also another reason I so much admire and respect artists because, having sort of failed on that journey myself, I have an insight into what it takes. You’ve got to have that ability to see things differently, which is also why the more experimental arts and those kinds of practices are currently of particular interest to me.
ST What was the best advice your dad gave you?
HP I was once freaking out about doing a public talk and Dad said: “You’ve got to get up there. It’s not about you. If you get a chance to speak for your people, you just get up there and do it, and you do a good job.” I think that probably comes a bit back to how I feel about being a curator.
I think one of the most important things was watching Dad. Being with him was like school for me and my siblings — my brother Adam and sister Rachel. We were responsible, part of the community, part of society, part of this nation.
And that’s why I love what the climate change activists like Seed Mob and the school students’ movement are doing — making a contribution and participating in ways that we can and feel like we’re part of that story and that we have a place in that story.
Fortunate as we are to be Aboriginal and to live in Australia, of course, that comes with responsibilities and obligations. So I think that was something that we were really fortunate to experience. It was kind of a natural thing to do. It’s just what you do.
Dad said his mother once said to him: “If you’re not doing the right thing, you’re doing the wrong thing.” That was his guiding principle, and that’s something that he passed on to us. Also, seeing him with people, he had a real humility and respect no matter who they were — whether in Kamberri/Canberra or in the communities around central Australia, in Mparntwe/Alice Springs.
He loved having us around and I think we’re very lucky to have learnt just by watching him.
ST How often do you get to go back to Mparntwe/Alice Springs now?
HP I was there at the end of 2020 with my sister and my children. But I don’t get back as often as I’d like to, particularly now because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
One of the wonderful things is that the kids have found their own way back. Whether it’s through environmental activism, through filmmaking, through participating in those ceremony things or as an artist. I think my parental model is a bit like Dad’s — they come with me everywhere, they participate in these conversations and are around all sorts of different people, but they have found their own paths — Tyson is a filmmaker, Thea is an artist, Lille works in conservation and Maddy is an actor. I think they’re quite fortunate — being black, being Australian, but also being part of this beautiful creative community.
ST From a personal perspective, how does it feel that you’re now creating this Triennial at the National Gallery? It must be quite moving, coming full circle from your upbringing in Kamberri/Canberra and all the history you’ve had as a curator to this moment.
HP I was really excited to have been approached by Nick [Mitzevich, Director] to work here, because I really loved his role in [Indigenous art festival] Tarnanthi, and his engagement and progressive agenda. And that’s, in theory, even more of a difficult agenda to promote when the Gallery is so close to Parliament House.
But, like what I said about Dad being an instrument, I also feel like I am being a member of my community and that I’ve taken that responsibility to do the best I can, to get these other voices out in the world, because they’re very important messages for all of us that everyone needs to hear. I think there’s a level of courage that artists have, and I really admire that level of vulnerability; the artists are the ones who are really putting themselves on the line.
So it’s a real privilege for me. I see this as a very ambitious and unpredictable Triennial. Having grown up in Kamberri/Canberra, I felt it was a very artificial place, and your instinct is to move away and do your own thing and get out there in the world. But in working on this Triennial and working with Dr Aunty Matilda and Paul House and others, I’ve really started to gain a new appreciation for this Country.
ST What you are doing is also really important because one of the visions of the National Gallery is to put First Nations first, and the Gallery has the biggest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. How do you feel now being part of that?
HP One of the things that I hope this Triennial will do is really encourage the participation of our community, the local mob and people. It’s really important to engage the local mob and neighbouring communities, such as the Walgalu and Wiradjuri. I think institutions in Australia struggle with making our people feel that these are culturally safe spaces for them, and that they have agency within those spaces. That’s something I feel that is really important for the Triennial — to encourage that and to show here at the National Gallery that we’re not just the producers of incredible work, but also the audience.