Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, artist and educator Paola Balla counters the erasure of First Nations peoples — in particular, Aboriginal women — from public space by placing them at the centre of her recent exhibition Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius. Held at Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) from 6 – 20 December 2019, the exhibition continued Balla’s interest in examining how First Nations women "speak back and blak to an ongoing coloniality with attempts at healing and daily acts of resistance and repair".
Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius was the culmination of Balla’s PhD research, informed by a model of practice-led inquiry. The artist’s research explored the notion of what it means to be Wemba-Wemba in spite of white-settler generic terms that have entered the lexicon over time, such as ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Indigenous’. Balla had completed her thesis at the nearby Victoria University’s Nicholson Campus, which situates the exhibition in a localised context. Holding her thesis exhibition at FCAC was also something of a homecoming for Balla, and reflected her ongoing relationship with the organisation as a member of the Indigenous Advisory Group.
During the exhibition, FCAC’s Roslyn Smorgon Gallery was transformed into an active studio environment — a space of knowledge, or as Balla puts it, "the knowing". Dynamic elements such as a research table with photocopied covers of publications on First Nations and immigrant histories, contemporary First Nations literature and print culture and archival images of the artist’s mother (Aunty Margie Tang) as a young woman; and an adjacent research wall featuring an "ethics collage" outlining Balla’s methodology, were testament to an ethos of reciprocity. Art and activism are inextricably linked in Balla’s world, and she is also responding to the restorative work that First Nations women perform within community.
Photographs serve as traces of an event or person. They are the tangible manifestation of memory, whether based on the lived experience of the beholder, or a reminder of loved ones who have passed on. These images are entangled with a plethora of complex emotions, evoking joy, nostalgia, sadness or grief (and sometimes, all of these at once). Photographic collections constitute a powerful archive that can reveal hidden and alternative histories. Balla’s body of photographic-based works pay tribute to her matriarchal lineage — in Lovescapes (2017), the artist places herself and her daughter Rosie along a visual continuum featuring images of their family matriarchs. The large-scale archival image of Balla’s great-grandmother, Nanny Nancy Egan (nee Day) is the only one she has, and it is precious and rare evidence of a community leader and one of the last full speakers of Wemba-Wemba language.  Inversely, a water-damaged album of baby photos of Balla’s first daughter sat upon a shelf, touching on the sense of loss felt by the artist to have these sentimental moments washed away.
Elsewhere in FCAC, the Performance Space was home to a site-specific installation created over six months in collaboration with other Aboriginal women and family members, aptly titled place of unconditional love (2019). This was an "ontological place’ devoted to ‘the being’ of First Nations existence — the cyclical notion of time, which defies western modes of linear ‘progression".  Balla spoke of what personally motivated this work: "I really needed to create a place of healing that was tangible, but it also had to include the trauma stains and ‘trauma trails’ that Judy articulated all those years ago when I was desperately in need of support and healing." 
This trauma is transgenerational and impacts on individuals, families and communities. In order to move past the barbaric violence of colonisation, Balla cultivated a space of respite containing 200 ‘healing cloths’ which came together through a process of ‘eco-dyeing’ fabrics, clothing and rags.  The artist collected plants and eucalyptus from various locations on Yorta Yorta Country, Boon Wurrung Country and Wurundjeri Country, ensuring that only small amounts were gathered from each place to maintain an ecological balance. The cloths were then steamed and boiled while Balla shared refreshments at her kitchen table with friends and family who walked alongside her on Country. Before stepping into the healing space at FCAC, visitors were beckoned to enter by way of invitation. They were advised that the installation featured Super 8 film footage of Nanny Nancy Egan (nee Day) showing Dr. Louise Hercus, a linguist and co-author of the Wemba-Wemba language dictionary, around the former Moonahcullah Mission site. Balla’s great-grandmother wears her ‘special dress’ for this occasion; she stands proudly on Wemba-Wemba Country as a sovereign matriarch.
As I walked through the exhibition with Balla, I felt an incredible sense of gratitude for her willingness to share so much of her story with me: a stranger welcomed in to take notes and form opinions that are then disseminated to an art-loving audience. It is a relationship built on trust that formed out of the artist’s generosity, and my curiosity and deep respect.
The country known as Australia has existed as a vast conglomerate of Indigenous languages, social and nation groups for millennia. To date, the promise of a treaty, or treaties with First Nations peoples is yet to be realised. Successive governments drag their feet when it comes to the concept of self-determination — it has continually been relegated to the ‘too-hard’ basket of policy development. Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius has offered Balla, her family and community members the crucial opportunity to heal, to work through the devastation of colonial violence in a supportive and holistic manner. As the artist states, "attacking and 'taming' Country into passivity, servitude and domesticity is what has been done to us as Aboriginal women."  Generations of First Nations women demonstrate resilience through survival – they are still here, always have been and always will be. It is up to us as settlers to defy colonial history and listen with empathy.
 Paola Balla, Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius: The Ways that First Nations Women in Art and Community Speak blak to the Colony and Patriarchy, exhibition catalogue, Footscray Community Arts Centre, December 2019, 7.
 Balla, Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius, 2.
 Ibid, 19.
 Ibid, 3.
 Paola Balla, email message to author, January 22, 2020. The artist refers to a seminal text by Jiman and Bundjalung woman and academic Professor Judy Atkinson, Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia (North Melbourne: Spinifex Press Pty Ltd, 2002). Atkinson posits that if Country is sick and traumatised, then so are First Nations peoples. According to Atkinson (2002, 24), the "physical, structural and psycho-social violence of colonisation’ causes lasting trauma which, ‘if unhealed, may compound, becoming cumulative."
 Balla, Disrupting Artistic Terra Nullius, 3.
 Paola Balla, email message to author, January 22, 2020.
 The story of Mok Mok can be found in Aunty Margaret Liliarda Tucker’s autobiography, If Everyone Cared (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1977).
 Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2000), xxiii.
 Paola Balla, email message to author, January 22, 2020.
Chloé Hazelwood is an arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne). She lives and works on the sovereign lands of the Woiwurrung and Boon Wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin nation.
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