Contemporary art Australia

Australian curator resigns over stalled indigenous gallery

Hetti Perkins plans to realise her vision of a national indigenous cultural centre in Sydney

Hetti Perkins resigned in “frustration” from the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Sydney. One of Australia’s most influential indigenous art curators, Hetti Perkins, has resigned in “frustration” from the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and will now strive to fulfil her vision for a national indigenous cultural centre in Sydney.

Perkins’ resignation letter, addressed to AGNSW director Edmund Capon, who retires at the end of 2011, expressed dismay that her exhibition proposals “are not progressed beyond successive presentations”, and that the AGNSW’s Yiribana gallery for indigenous art had stagnated.

“A key reason for my decision to leave the gallery is that for many years I have strongly advocated for the refurbishment of the Yiribana Gallery to bring it up to the standard of other spaces… and to address the important issues of inadequate climate control and visibility within the building,” Perkins wrote to Capon.

“The gallery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art has remained unchanged for almost 20 years… Now our hopes for renovation have been quashed in favour of an institutional push for the ‘master plan’ to which I have been denied access,” she continued

Perkins, the daughter of the late Aboriginal activist and politician Charles Perkins, curated the AGNSW’s landmark indigenous art exhibition for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, “Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius”. Her ABC television series, “art + soul”, was aired last year and was partly inspired by something her father said to her when she was a child: “When you get a chance to speak for your people, do it”.

Perkins told The Art Newspaper that a national centre, which worked with indigenous artists from all over Australia, would provide Aboriginal art with a “core voice”.

“We need our own place, somewhere where [leading Maningrida bark painter] John Mawurndjul, for instance, could [get] off the plane, walk in there and just feel at home,” she said. “Which doesn’t mean it’s full of palm trees and whatever, but something that has a vibe, has a direction, there’s a spirit within it, that would feel like the people own it, that it’s theirs, that it’s kind of home.”

The centre would display the full spectrum of indigenous arts including performance art, new media work and sound installations as well as more traditional paintings and crafts. It would also be a central educational resource. “For far too long our work has been seen as a commodity or draw card, and I think we need to invest more in it—not take it so much for granted,” Perkins said.

Edmund Capon said Perkins was a “stand-out curator” of indigenous art and would still be undertaking work for the AGNSW on contract.

He said Yiribana, the gallery’s indigenous section, had been the first of its kind in a State art gallery when it opened in 1994. The small size of the AGNSW prohibited extending the indigenous display areas.

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