The Arrente and Kalkadoon artist has won this year’s La Prairie Art Award. Here, we talk to her about culture, Country and who she’d like to share a meal with.
Mar 14, 2023 12:00am
Perkins submitted four intimate paintings depicting First Nations people and Country, drawing inspiration from her family archive of photographs. On the works, she says: “They seek to express the love and strength in First Nations families and situate these instances of joy and belonging, or ‘glimmers’ into our collective imagination.”
Here, we have a quick word with the La Prairie Art Award 2023 winner about culture, Country and who she’d like to share a meal with.
What is it like returning to Mparntwe (Alice Springs) after long stints in Sydney?
Landing in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) from Sydney is a grounding experience. It feels like coming home. Even as a young child, I recognised the beauty and power of the desert: the deep vibrant colours, the intricate geometry of the landscape, and the arid heat. It’s a sensory overload. As a kid, meals in Alice Springs were about coming together and sharing space as a family. My aunt Rachel [Perkins, the filmmaker] is a beautiful cook and would make us spanakopita, spaghetti Bolognese and salads. I remember going hunting for honey ants, goannas and kangaroos, making damper over the fire, and learning about the medicinal herbs and plants out in the bush. Indigenous people have 60,000 years of knowledge and a finely tuned understanding of how much can be taken from the land. There’s this mentality that we live for other people. And when it comes to food, the philosophy is one of sharing.
How do you reconnect with Country when staying in Mparntwe?
As an adult, I’ve returned to Alice Springs with my Aunty Rachel to work on the Arrernte Women’s Project, recording traditional songs for posterity. Because of myriad social pressures and issues that still face Aboriginal people, our oral histories are under threat if they don’t get treated with the value and respect they deserve. Our songs and dreamings are a testament to the resilience and strength of Aboriginal people. They’re national treasures. As someone who grew up all over Sydney on Gadigal Country, I feel extremely fortunate to be able to connect and learn on Arrernte land. For the last few years, I’ve worked alongside other artists – including Betty Conway, Doris Thomas and Sally M Mulda – at the Tangentyere Artists Aboriginal Art Centre, and it’s inspiring to see how they use painting as a form of expression.
How did your interest in art begin?
I’ve drawn all my life. Because my mum [Hetti] is a curator, I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by art, going to shows and talking to artists. Art has always been a way of processing the difficult things that are a part of being a First Nations person. In more recent years, I’ve picked up painting and fallen in love with the expressive possibilities.
Where do you feel most connected to your culture?
I feel most connected to culture when I’m in Alice Springs. I long to be there when I’m not. During lockdown in Sydney, I painted my series Eight Views of The Telegraph Station and it’s definitely infused with that longing. The Telegraph Station in Alice Springs is an emotional place for me and it’s somewhere I’m compelled to revisit when I’m painting. It sits on the banks of the Todd River, which only flows after heavy rain. It’s where my pop [Charles Perkins] was born and where he rests. It’s also the site of “the Bungalow” children’s home where Aboriginal kids were placed after being removed from their families. It’s a loaded site that’s special to me on many levels.
How have you managed to integrate your First Nations culture with your life in Sydney?
It’s important to know that a lot of First Nations people live contemporary urban lives and that’s also an expression of culture. Our culture can bend to include new experiences; it doesn’t break, it only gets stronger. My studio is in Carriageworks at the Clothing Store and my go-to café is One Another just down the road in Newtown. It’s wonderful to be in such a vibrant corner of Sydney and food is integral to that vibrancy.
If you could paint anyone from the food world, who would it be?
I would paint Kylie Kwong. Her support for First Nations food producers and her commitment to community and sustainability really resonates with me. Kylie’s wife Nell has been an artist in residence at my studio, so I’ve met them both over the years. Kylie is warm and generous and it’s really lovely to be around that energy.
If you could share a meal with anyone in the art world, who would it be?
Probably Julie Gough, purely because I’m a huge fan of her work. I would cook an Armenian lentil soup to warm us up. Or I’d ask Aunty Rachel to cater; she’s the cook in the family.