Thea Anamara Perkins: Stockwoman

“When we consider the early history of so-called Australia,” asks Thea Anamara Perkins, “which figures do we celebrate?”

Throughout the summer, Sydney’s Carriageworks is host to Arrernte and Kalkadoon artist Thea Anamara Perkins’s Stockwoman, 2022. The mural, with two component parts, wraps around the walls of the former industrial space, intermittently cut through with light from the high windows as the sun moves across them. In the sky of the painting itself rests a full moon, hanging amongst blues and purples, the work’s “time” (of day or night, but also its historical time) multiple and indeterminate. 

Stockwoman, curated by Aarna Hanley, marks a key development in Perkins’s practice. With the artist being best known for her smaller-scale paintings taken from the family photographs, this work – created with support from Richard Lucas – scales her work up both physically and conceptually. “I’ve done a lot of work on an intimate scale with my family archive,” says Perkins, “but this work was about looking at my family, and considering the wider implications of their stories, especially my great grandmothers’s life, and what that means in the context of this country.” This is to say that Stockwoman is not only a work of personal and familial “history painting” (and one which thinks critically about Western genres of painting like this, and like landscape painting); it is also an intervention into national art-historical narratives, and other imaginary stories which shape our cultural and material lives.

The work shows two views of Perkins’s great-grandmother, Hetty Perkins, as a young girl and as a more senior woman – the image of the older woman painted from a photograph, and the image in girlhood a work of imagination, as no photographic records exist form this time in Hetty’s life. Hetty is shown here in the landscape around Arltunga, a former gold-mining settlement 100 km east of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), where she worked with horses and cattle from the age of fourteen. Perkins says that the spark of her idea for this project emerged as she noticed prints of Drysdale and Nolan works in the homes of her friends, and began to consider “our mythologising practices, and who we uphold and celebrate” in the foundation tales of contemporary Australia. “There have been omissions,” Perkins says, “and now is a really great time to go back and revise these stories . . . The scale of the mural really fit that, because it does have a gravitas and a larger-than-life possibility.”

The choice of her great-grandmother as the object of veneration reflects Perkins’s remit to expand what we might consider “heroic” or worthy of historical remembrance. “Women don’t get the same kind of veneration in history,” Perkins says. “There was no big shoot-out in [Hetty’s] story, but it is very much one of resistance and survival – even if it is through things like care and keeping community together in really horrific times. It’s really important. I’m very privileged to have that strong matriarchal line in our family, but Nanna was one of many towers of strength.” 

Work towards the mural included several trips to Central Australia, including to Alice Springs and to Arltunga itself. The landscape here became reference material not only in a visual sense; it shaped Perkins’s approach to storytelling and to genre. “Arltunga,” says Perkins, “was where a lot of first contact happened, where local people found [settlers] starving to death on their way there and fed them. The town had a gold rush which involved using cyanide to get the ore out of the ground, and it was eventually abandoned because it was just too hard. The First Nations experience at this time was of the incursion of the state and the church, and of grave and present danger, and frontier conflict.” 

These themes of frontier conflict, and of a strained and sometimes-“mysterious” relationship between people and the land, spurred an investigation into the visual tropes of Australian gothic painting. The question of what exactly Stockwoman’s story might comprise is left somewhat “covered” in a landscape of open-ended symbols and signs. The purples of the sky become, elsewhere, the land’s shadows. The younger Hetty stands as along figure in the landscape, in front of a police station with lit windows – the activity inside hidden from view. 

Elsewhere, a crow rests in a tree – a popular bad omen or superstitious symbol. This crow, though, has another meaning for Perkins: it also represents her pop to her family. In this way, Perkins not only adopts the vernacular of the gothic tradition, but unpicks its associative logic, revealing older and other meanings which ripple beneath it.

Stockwoman will show at Carriageworks until 12 February 2023, and this is a fitting place for the work to dwell for a season. Says Perkins, “We are all very connected to Mparntwe, but I was born and raised here. It’s about acknowledging that it is her life and her stories, and all of my ancestral stories, that have meant that we have arrived in Sydney – so it does feel pertinent to show the story here.” 

14 December 2022 – 12 February 2023
Carriageworks, Sydney, with Sydney Festival

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