Creative People

The Meaning Of Motherhood, With Actress Madeleine Madden + Curator Hetti Perkins

Ahead of Mother’s Day tomorrow, we’re sharing candid, heartfelt and through-provoking conversations between two phenomenal mother-daughter duos.

Today, it’s Sydney-based actress and Seed Mob volunteer Madeleine Madden and her mother Hetti Perkins, a revered art curator and Aboriginal rights activist.


Hetti Perkins and her daughter Madeleine Madden. Photo – Alisha Gore.

Actress Maddy is on the cusp of her Hollywood breakthrough, staring in the forthcoming film, Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Photo – Alisha Gore.

Hetti Perkins is an Eastern Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman. Photo – Alisha Gore.

Maddy is Hetti’s youngest daughter. She has two older sisters Lillie and Thea as well as a brother Tyson. Photo – Alisha Gore.

I know you as Mum, a big group of people know you as Aunty. But who do other people know you as?

Hetti Perkins: I’m also kind of known as Mum to people I actually didn’t give birth to, which is lovely. That for me is something very special because it’s not so much a biological relationship but more of an emotional relationship. And aside from my very close extended family, I think I am best known for working in Aboriginal art and in an activist role. I feel that I’ve always tried to represent the voice of artists on a national stage if the opportunity was presented.

I remember when I was nervous about getting up to do a talk one time and my Dad, Charlie Perkins, said to me, ‘It’s not about you. If you get the chance to speak for your people… get up  and you do it, and you do a good job!’ In some ways that is quite intimidating, but it’s also liberating because it isn’t about you, it’s about the work you can do for your people. That is the way I was raised.

The Art And Soul documentary series on ABC TV , the show I co-curated for the Venice Biennale in 1997 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, which was also exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000… I’d like for people to see that those projects are part of a bigger strategy for the promotion of our peoples’ interest, collectively.

Madeleine Madden: I love that advice that Pop gave you and that you have passed on to us.

It kind of takes the fear out of it, it empowers you. And, you know, it’s what makes it all worth it – not some personal ambition or dream, it’s like the dream of the community.

In the public eye, Pop is seen as a fighter and really passionate and outspoken. But some people might know him best for his for his soccer career as well as his civil rights activism [achieving justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including leading the Freedom Rides through NSW and becoming the first Aboriginal person to lead a federal department].

What was it like being in the spotlight when you were young, and how did that influence you?

Hetti: Myself and my younger brother and sister were very fortunate in some ways. We had a very strong mother, Eileen, who is still with us and will probably outlive us all! She supported Dad 100%, enabling him to do what he had to do and what he wanted to do.

When we were in Alice Springs  and I was in primary school, the kids knew who my dad was and what he did, and they weren’t very complimentary about it – they would call him a shit-stirrer and things like that. That’s pretty confronting when you’re in the third grade. When we went to Canberra to live for a long time, the racism took a different form: it wasn’t sort of as personal and about Dad, but it was more schoolyard taunts about being a blackfella.

It’s interesting because if, say, I wore glasses I’d have been called ‘four-eyes’ or if I was a bit chubby it’d have been ‘fatty’ or whatever. But racism is different, it’s such an insidious thing. They try to make you feel that you are genetically a lower form of life.

Being black is something intrinsic to you and certainly, it was to me. Even though my mother is not Aboriginal, we grew up and still do feel 100% blackfella. I loved being a part of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and being with Dad, going to all the demonstrations, having people over and hearing them talk. What I remember most about it, is that some of the toughest activists were so gentle and kind to me, and extremely funny.

Growing up, there was a sense of unity, of collective action, and if there was in-fighting, people sorted their stuff out behind the scenes. I guess that has sort of changed, now, there are a lot more platforms for people to have their opinions, informed or otherwise, and share them widely. Back in the day, if you pardon my cliche, people earned the right to have an opinion and make a statement, because they had done the hard yards. They got off their arses, they were going to the demonstrations and meetings, doing things rather than sitting at home in front of a keyboard, spraying out about whatever was going on.

Maddy: Nowadays you feel like you are standing on the shoulders of giants, because back then people literally put their lives on the line, and risked their personal safety so that others could have opportunities.

A lot of people have wanted to know about the man Pop was, but I also think of Nanny Perks standing with him. It would have been very difficult for her marrying an Aboriginal man in the 1960s, as a white woman in this country.

Hetti: I remember talking to Mum about that. I said, you know, ‘A black, poor, young fella with uncertain prospects.. and you married him anyway’. She was, still is, deeply in love with Dad, and I think theirs is a great love story! They are two very well oiled parts of a synchronised unit.

Often Dad was under pressure, I see that now he could be volatile and angry, but he was always loving. We felt that we were the things that mattered most in his life. He simultaneously had a fire in his belly, a burning sense of injustice, and he just couldn’t swallow it. I think almost dying at quite a young age, with his kidneys and the transplant and especially the experiences he had as a child, he felt that he was given this chance and he wasn’t going to waste it, he was going to devote every energy to it. But as I said, he had Mum. And it wasn’t like ‘There’s Dad and he goes to work and we don’t really know what he does, just that he’s never here’. We actually knew that he was sacrificing time to do the work that he needed to do for our mob. We were ok with that because we also felt that we were part of that fight.

When you were young we all lived together with your Pop and Nanny, and you were exposed to a life where the politics and the personal were the same thing. At 13, you were the first teenager in Australia to deliver an address to the nation, which really sort of set you on a trajectory. From playing a cat in the preschool play or Dora the Explorer’s bestie in the forthcoming Paramount blockbuster, for me observing, your acting and activism has always seemed like a natural path.

Photo – Alisha Gore.

Photo – Alisha Gore.

Photo – Alisha Gore.

Do you feel like acting and activism was a natural path for you?

Maddy: I think so, I mean it would be weird if I wasn’t political in the house that I grew up in. We were always encouraged to have an opinion and stand up for what we believed in, we always had a seat at the table and were involved in the dialogue the adults were having. I think it was a blessing to have experienced that and the voice that this instilled in us, from such a young age.

I have heard actors of colour that have said, ‘I’m not really a political person’. And I’m generally shocked about that because I am like, ‘How can you not be?’ I get that some people are all don’t-talk-about-religion-and-politics-at-the-table, but we can’t just keep our heads buried in the sand. If you have a platform you need to use it. Obviously many people face difficulties in their lives, and we should normalise talking about that. And that also means talking about politics. It shouldn’t just be left up to the 1% to make decisions for us. I am going to keep speaking up for as long as I can.

Hetti: You’ve had a very strong sense of injustice from a very young age and that need to correct any injustice you may see around you.

It’s interesting in my work too, with artists, a few have said, ‘I’m not an Aboriginal artist, I’m an artist’. And I’ve always found that quite confusing. Over the years I have unpacked the idea, and I think to say something like that infers that there is something lesser in being an Aboriginal artist. But to be connected to your own identity and express it doesn’t reduce your opportunities. For example, It doesn’t mean you can’t play the role of a non-Aboriginal person.

Maddy: I think there is still this fear, from the past when people got typecast or stereotyped, of being called a ‘black artist’. People are worried they are getting boxed in… but, well, break the box. I can understand how you just want to be treated like an equal like anyone else, but unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. I think you need to just be a front runner and do the damn thing you want to!

Hetti: As you were growing up, I was working at the Art Gallery Of NSW (my children literally had free rein on the gallery, thanks to some very friendly childcare policies during my 13 years!).

Do you think being brought up in a home where work and life merged together has influenced the choices you’ve made?

Maddy: I think the way you intertwined the two has definitely trickled down into our lives. Yet you have always prioritised family first over work and I know that my siblings and I definitely do the same. The Gallery really was a second home. It was such an incredible place for children to exist in – among people that were just so passionate about art, life, love and natural beauty!

I tap into all of that with my acting a lot – all that we were immersed in.

Hetti: Artists would come into our home and stay with us – people like Mike Rakowitz,  Christian Thompson, and Tony Albert. There have been a lot of amazing creatives in your lives and it’s always been remarkable to me how you have all just gone with the flow. You know, ‘Move over, make some space on the lounge’… Or ‘Now they want a turn at Guitar Hero!’

Maddy: Yeah! And I think artists take a real leap of faith, really go out on a limb and risk it all. A lot of those people overcame really hard challenges and made art out of them. We have always just been surrounded by brave, wonderful, kind people and that is the best childhood that anyone could ask for. I think that’s why you are such a great mother because you mother people of all walks of life… and now we have ‘siblings’ from everywhere!

Hetti: Yes we are very fortunate. You had a wonderful childhood, and I’m glad you did because I think that it is such a formative time and it is often too short. These days, I don’t think kids get enough time to go outside and climb a tree, walk the dog, or just sit down and do nothing. There is a lot of focus on homework and goals and tasks. But having the time to hang around and be in each other’s company in an unstructured way is something that’s really important.

Photo – Alisha Gore.

What’s the best piece of parenting advice you’ve been given?

Hetti: Even when I was a child myself, I was one of those kids that loved looking after the littlies! I feel like I did get some good advice – everything from always keep the baby’s feet warm to don’t use nappy wipes… practical things – but I guess, in some ways, I always felt innately maternal.

When I was growing up I felt very strongly about what kind of life I wanted for my children. I really wanted my kids to grow up in Sydney (where I moved to for university), to experience the multiculturalism, the plurality – the best of Australian society… The excitement and creativity of a city like that with all its beautiful natural attributes, a very strong Aboriginal community, and a fabulous LGBTQI community.

But I’ve also very strongly felt that parents actually need to earn the love and respect of their children. It’s not something you should take for granted. I don’t believe in any sort of physical punishment or anything like that; I think it’s much better to try to get kids on the same page and to achieve a balance. You know, happiness is really the most important thing.

Maddy: Yeah exactly, I think you lead by example and that’s the best way: showing by doing and putting in the hard work… like the extremely hard work of raising four kids by yourself! Kids make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes, but I think the important thing is to hold yourself accountable. Do you take responsibility for that behaviour? Do you grow from it and learn from it, and go ‘Ok I’m not doing that again’? I think that’s a really nice aspect of how you have raised us to behave.

HettiI think some kids, when they really muck up or go off-the-rails, are hurting themselves but also punishing people as a way of hitting back. It’s an interesting one.

Your father, Lee, passed away when you were six, which seems at odds with saying you had a great childhood. But you’ve always had loving family around you.

What do you think you’ve learned from your childhood?

Maddy: I think it was definitely a very tough year for us because Pop passed away and then Dad soon after. But I think from those moments, that were obviously very hard, we now know how to deal with grief well. When you have Earth-shattering, soul-destroying, ‘How do I get back from this?‘ moments, you remember you’ve always got each other. I am so blessed to have that reassurance that our family can all band together and keep going.

It’s also a reminder of how you stepped up, which was huge: you were the mum, the dad, the best friend and everything. I think it’s a massive testament to you as a person, and to our Grandparents on both sides.

I remember how Nanny Lil (Dad’s mum) said, ‘You just have to keep going, lots of upsetting things have happened in our lives and in our collective past’, (referring to growing up as a black woman, and the really tough things she faced). She added, ‘Grow from it, get strong from it. Life goes on and so should we’. Now I feel that anything life kind of throws at us, we will be able to get through it.

Hetti : I think it’s important to have that security because it gives you confidence. I also think of your grandmother Lily and how she relates to her grandchildren. She has taught me a lot. She’s one of those people that really laughs with you, and that’s a beautiful thing too. You say I stepped up, but I did so because I was supported to step up, and we all knew we had to keep going.

In many ways, the world is quite different from the one that I grew up in. To me, you are someone who is very social-media savvy, articulate, and seem to enjoy the opportunities that being online gives you, especially to engage with others.

What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of the social media world?

Maddy: I love that quote by RuPaul, who has been a massive idol and inspiration for us. She says ‘Unless them bitches payin’ your bills, pay them bitches no mind.’ and I think that is the best approach to have with the haters. The negativity is always going to be there and sometimes social media makes people think it’s ok to behave in certain ways when it’s not. Online bullying is awful, a kind of a silent killer.

But I love the opportunities social media gives me, and by that I mean the art, the cute videos and funny memes – that’s what I get out of it! I took a break from social media (Instagram and Facebook) for three months and it was really good for my mental health. I felt less anxious, I was on my phone less, I was only caring about people who I actually care about. Then I got back on it and I just did a big cull on what I was seeing. Social media can be fantastic for raising awareness for good causes, getting people power going, and building momentum for movements. I’m really grateful for that too.

Hetti : Yes, when it’s used for good, not evil, it’s brilliant. There is a risk, but you know what, in every generation, there is always something that people are rolling their eyes about or freaking about. It used to be about watching too much TV!

Maddy: We have all grown up to be very connected to the outdoors and involved in the community.  I volunteer with Seed Mob, an indigenous climate action group, and we’re all genuinely concerned because we can see the impacts now. A lot of women around the world are going on birth strikes because they don’t want to raise children in a world that’s essentially dying, as world ‘leaders’ stand idle.

Hetti : I can understand that. I think it is responsible parenting to think about what our children will inherit, whether in their local community, or the wider world. Do I want to bring a child up in an apocalyptic world? This threat to our beautiful creatures, plants, rivers.. the list goes on. And it’s because of one thing and that’s us: humans. The decisions that are being made from the Adani Coal Mine to the fracking in the Northern Territory to Oil prospecting in the Great Australian Bight make me feel extremely anxious and also furious. It’s all about the short-term and votes – no taking responsibility, making quick decisions to get the quick bucks and support, pulling the wool over the eyes of the community, and branding anyone who is a dissenting voice as Lefty-latte sippers!

Maddy: or calling them green-collared criminals! Even saying that to kids, who go on the school strikes, when their parents have said, ‘No you go out there, we support you to fight for your future’. And that’s a privilege you have given to us; always supporting us to go out there stand up for what is right, for our future, and people who can’t stand up for themselves.

What does Mother’s Day mean to you?

Hetti: There is a very conventional sense of what ‘Mother’s Day’ is. Obviously, we celebrate it – because we’ll take any kind of excuse to give presents and get together. Doesn’t matter what the cause is, we’re there!

Maddy: [laughs] Yeah, I love Mother’s Day, it should be Mother’s Day all day, every day, 365! It’s a moment where we can all just really celebrate the people in our lives, whether they are our biological mothers or people who have inspired us or anyone who has given us love or guided us. It’s a wonderful day to say thank you and make those people feel lovely and special… and have cake! We all love having a celebration at our house.

It’s nice how you always raised us to be affectionate and loving in that way, because it feels like that door is never closed, you know. I think It’s really important to show children that you love them, have an active interest in what they are doing, and that they have done a good job. This comes back to that leading by example; I think that is the best thing a parent can do!

Hetti: Beautiful… Well, that seems like a good spot to conclude this wonderful discussion – maybe one day we’ll look back on this one as another of our highlights!

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