I met with Paola Balla, artist, curator and academic, at her favourite café in Footscray on the lands of the Kulin Nations. A year has passed since Melbourne broke records as the most locked-down city in the world.
Soaking up the first rays of spring sunshine we spoke about softness, Aboriginal women’s literature, and her biggest commission to date; a Melbourne Art Tram wrapped with the words Blak Love for the Rising Festival 2022, curated by Jarra Karalinar Steel.
‘Blak love is an unconditional love,’ she explains. ‘It’s normalised for us to be talked about as hard, violent people but we are full of love, everything we do, everything we fight for is with love. It was really satisfying to put that message out there.’
Paola finished her PhD during lockdown with a creative practice-led thesis. ‘I looked at violence against women and considered, what can I physically create that brings a sense of respite.’
The result was an exploration of new practices, such as botanical dyeing, that she now shares through Aboriginal women’s healing programs in a women’s prison. ‘I find it soft and comforting.’
In her recent work Murrup (Ghost) Weaving in Rosie Kuka Lar (Grandmother Camp) 2021 along with a 1978 oil painting by her grandmother Rosie Tang, Paola built a camp house made from cloth imbued with bush dyes in the landscape of her grandmother’s painting of Country. ‘I made it in my home, in the kitchen,’ she says. ‘During lockdown everything was done at home. And so, my house was filled with the smells of my childhood, gum leaves, teatree, eucalyptus, and bottlebrush.’
Paola is a Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, born in Footscray and raised in Echuca, she calls both places home.
‘I really love it here in Footscray. I have always felt connected. Mum came to Melbourne when she was 17 to attend a secretary school for Aboriginal girls. And not too long after she met my dad, a Calabrese man in a pinstriped suit. It was 1971, and he had a nightclub on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. They came to Footscray and turned an old fruit and veggie shop into a pizza and pasta place, it’s still here now.’
Paola’s school years were spent in Echuca, on Yorta Yorta Country. She returned to the city to attend the University of Melbourne.
‘I felt really proud to be there. Destiny Deacon was my teacher for Aboriginal film and literature studies. There were powerful Blak woman there. Style Icons, like Aunty Walda Blow, who had travelled the world and who made me think, I can do that one day. It was a special time in Melbourne in the 1990s, so many events and political movements.
I became a single mum in my twenties and went back to Echuca. I was able to go home and be educated. There was an incredible Aboriginal study program where I gained a Bachelor of Education. Our Aunties and Uncles fought hard for that program; they didn’t want their kids to have to leave to go to Uni. Mum cooked at the local Aboriginal co-op and Nan worked at the Keeping Place as a self-taught painter. We did Koorie fashion shows. It was a beautiful time.
I wanted to teach at home in Echuca but even with our degrees, Aboriginal graduates couldn’t get an interview at the local schools, so I came back to Melbourne, back to Footscray. We started a little collective in the West, put on a few exhibitions and that’s how it happened, 21 years ago now.’
Paola has had education roles at the Botanic Gardens, Equal Opportunity Commission and Melbourne Museum as a Senior Curator in Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre; and co-founding the Indigenous Arts and Cultural Program at Footscray Community Arts and Wominjeka Festival.
‘Today I do a messy drawing style that I used to do, but never showed anyone. I feel free. I create installations that are challenging for people who don’t know our history but that are, at the same time, comforting to our people. You can do two things at once.
When I created the tents, I didn’t need to show the things me, Mum and Nan have been through. I didn’t need to show or expose that, but I wanted to bring the stains of that trauma into that space. I did it in a way that is soft, it smells like the river and like wildflowers. The light is soft, when you are sitting inside you don’t know what time of the day it is. It’s sad but not explicit. Aboriginal visitors walk right in, sit down, touch the silks, and have told me it was a place they could have a gentle moment.
The difficult truths, I wrote in the catalogue. They were there for if people want to know. It was torturous writing, but I found a way to communicate all that is unsaid. My work is very influenced by Aboriginal women’s literature. For readers who want to know more about the lived experiences of Aboriginal women, I recommend these three books :
1. Biting the Clouds by Fiona Foley
2. If everyone cared: Autobiography of Margaret Tucker
3. Talkin‘ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism by Moreton-Robinson