A new bronze statue was unveiled in Naarm/Melbourne’s Federation Square on Thursday honouring Nova Peris, the first Aboriginal Australian to win a gold medal in the Olympics.
Peris was just 25-years-old when she competed as a member of the Australian Olympic Hockey team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. After the team won the gold, Peris switched to athletics and later won the 200m and 4x100m gold medals at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. When the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000, Peris reached the semi-finals of the 400m and was part of Australia’s 4x400m relay team, which placed fifth overall.
The statue depicts Peris mid-run, sporting her 2000 Olympics track uniform. It’s set on a base covered in totems important to Peris: a black-headed python representing her Kimberley roots, and three bush hibiscuses to honour her relatives from the Stolen Generations.
“It’s not just a statue. It represents Black excellency. It represents any kid out there who dares to dream big,” Peris said at the unveiling.
“You’ve got to have your dreams, you’ve got to have your aspirations in life and anything can happen if you believe in yourself and you’re willing to put in the hard yard.”
“So many people told me that I can’t do it. I’m living proof that you can do it.”
This year, 16 Indigenous Australian athletes will head to Tokyo for the Olympics — the most in Australian Olympics team history. Though Australians have competed in the Olympics since 1896, Indigenous athletes were not selected for the Olympics until 1964.
“It’s been phenomenal just to think that Ash Barty won on the weekend, Patty Mills was selected as our flag bearer for the weekend, the Olympic Games start next week, and I’ve got a younger cousin going to the Olympics,” Peris said.
“We’re encouraging people to take photos and hashtag and tag me in it.”
The statue was designed by Australian sculptors Gillie and Marc, as part of their Statues for Equality movement; an initiative to diversify public art in order to further gender and racial equality.
“Nova Peris is a proud Indigenous woman who has broken through many glass ceilings in both politics and sports,” Gillie said in a prerecorded video shown at the unveiling.
“I am proud to be a female artist and to use my talent to support other women.”
After achieving sporting greatness, Peris became Australia’s first Indigenous woman elected to Federal Parliament in 2013. As a Senator representing the Northern Territory for Labor, Peris worked on Reconciliation and advocated for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Gillie and Marc worked with Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung descendant and artist Jandamarra Cadd to create the statue’s unique base. After a stint in Federation Square, the statue will move to Darwin where Peris grew up in a housing commission called the Kurringal Flats.
“This is for all the mob,” said Peris.
“This is for all the Aboriginal children out there who are so super talented. I want them to see Black excellence because there’s not enough of us out there and there’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see.
“There’s a lot of statues out there of the colonisers and we can’t relate to those. This we can relate to.”