A 2.2-metre-high bronze statue of former Olympian Nova Peris has been unveiled at Melbourne’s Federation Square capping a landmark week for Indigenous Australian sportswomen.
The statue was installed on Wednesday as part of the Statues for Equality initiative, which found that of Melbourne’s 580 sculptures, only 1.5 per cent celebrate real-life women. The organisation was established to address gender and race imbalance in public art.
The former Olympian-turned-parliamentarian is depicted in full flight at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. “Even though it is a statue of me, it’s not about me, it’s about black excellence,” Peris said.
Created by artist-activists Gillie and Marc and Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung artist Jandamarra Cadd, the statue captures a powerful and determined Peris. Cadd also painted the portrait of a bare-footed Peris that sits in Parliament House. Peris was the first Indigenous woman to be elected to parliament and represented the ALP in the senate for the Northern Territory for three years.
The artists said there were multiple layers to the statue. The saltwater crocodile and the blackheaded python represent Peris’ totems on her mother and father’s sides. Three native hibiscus flowers, the flowers of the stolen generation, are symbolic of her mother and grandparents, who were forcibly removed from their parents. At Peris’ feet are her hockey stick and Olympic gold medal. Peris swapped hockey - for which she had won an Olympic gold medal with the Hockeyroos - for athletics and managed to remain at the top of her game.
“Most statutes are of people on a podium, or a square box, but I didn’t come out of a square box, my life has been one of resilience and strength, “Peris said. “That’s why I wanted it to have me running over Country. It’s rugged.”
At the unveiling, Peris’ children Destiny and Jack said they had not seen their mother in her sporting endeavors but they had witnessed her advocacy in Indigenous health, education and human rights. “There was not a dry eye ... when they spoke,” Peris said. “I want people to see that statue, young Australians particularly, to know you’ve got to have your dreams and aspirations and to know that with hard work and discipline, you can achieve anything in life.”
Awarded the Order of Australia in 1997, Peris is an official ambassador for the Australian Aboriginal Education Foundation, which provides scholarships for Indigenous students. Later in the year, the statue will move to her hometown of Darwin.