Indigenous Athlete and Activist Nova Peris Immortalised in Bronze

An incredible 2.2m high bronze statue in honour of Muran woman Nova Peris has been installed in Melbourne's (Narrm) Federation Square. Peris is an incredibly strong female First Nations role model who has made a lasting impact not only as an Olympic gold medalist, but also an Indigenous rights activist and politician (The Age, 2021).

Peris was delighted and humbled by the statue created in her honour, image by Chris Hopkins. Courtesy of The Age, 2021.

The sculpture was installed as a part of the ‘Statues for Equality’ initiative, which found that of Melbourne’s 580 sculptures, only 1.5% celebrate real-life women. This important initiative aims to address gender imbalance in public art. The work was created by artist-activists Gillie and Marc, and Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warung artist Jandamarra Cadd. It was important to Peris that Jandamarra Cadd was involved in the creation of the sculpture as he also painted the portrait of Peris that is displayed in parliament (The Age, 2021).

There are multiple layers to the statue. It depicts Nova Peris mid-stride, running across country in her 2000 Olympics track uniform. At the base are her totems of the saltwater crocodile and blackheaded python, representing her mother and father’s sides. There are also three hibiscus flowers which honour her relatives from the stolen generation. At her feet is her hockey stick and Olympic gold medal showing her achievements within Hockey. The statue is an all encompassing celebration of Peris and the things that are important to her (The Age, 2021). It is also a source of inspiration for the younger generations. In an interview with The Age about the influence of the statue, Peris (2021) 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.”

Nova Peris with her Hockey gold medal. Courtesy of National Museum Australia, 2019.

Nova Peris is a proud Muran woman, whose people are from western Arnhem Land. She was raised in Darwin where she realised her love of sports early in life. In 1992, she moved to Perth to pursue this passion, training at the Australian Institute of Sport in Hockey. The following year she was selected for the 1993 Australian senior squad. Her incredibly hard work paid off when, in 1996, she attended the Atlanta Olympics with the Hockeyroos and became the first Indigenous person to win an Olympic gold medal. Following this, she was named Young Australian of the Year and also received the Order of Australia for her service to sport (National Museum Australia, 2019).

After the Olympics, Peris made a change, retiring from hockey and taking up track and field where she continued to remain at the top of her game. Peris says ever since she was young she had always dreamed of being a runner, which is why she wanted the statue to depict her running over country rather than playing hockey. In 1998, she competed in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur where she won gold medals in the 200m and the 4x100m relay. Peris continued to be heavily involved with sports, and for the Sydney Olympics she was a torch bearer. The torch began at Uluru where it was lit by the Governor-General, then held by Aboriginal elders before being passed on to Peris (National Museum Australia, 2019).

Nova Peris standing with her portrait at the unveiling at Parliament House, photo cred: Alex Ellinghausen. Courtesy of Canberra Times, 2019.

In 2013, Nova Peris made another career change, becoming the first Indigenous woman to be elected to parliament. For three years she represented the ALP in the senate for the Northern Territory. Here, she campaigned hard for Indigenous rights and reconciliation, and continues to do so today. She has worked as a treaty ambassador for the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commision and was also appointed the International Indigenous Human Rights Ambassador and National Ambassador for Reconciliation Australia in 2018 (National Museum Australia, 2019).

Nova Peris is a truly admirable Indigenous leader and it is wonderful to see her honoured through this statue. At the unveiling, Peris’s words perfectly encapsulate the true impact and meaning of the statue (NIT, 2021).

“It’s not just a statue. It represents Black excellency. It represents any kid out there who dares to dream big,” Peris told NIT (2021).

Here at Yarn, we are passionate about supporting and celebrating the achievements of Indigenous communities and individuals. Let's all continue to celebrate Indigenous excellence, and may it continue to be brought to the forefront of every part of Australian culture.