Walking in deadly blak women's footprints

Fiona Foley, Black Velvet
Fiona Foley, Black Velvet, 1996,cotton fabric with cotton appliqué. Installation view, Unfinished Business: Perspectivess on Art and Feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2017-18. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Working in white institutional spaces requires a way of working in which I have to speak back[1] and speak blak[2]—which is the focus of my creative project PhD; the work of Aboriginal women artists and activists who disrupt colonial and patriarchal narratives in public spaces. To disrupt an art-bound terra nullius that erases the contribution of Aboriginal sovereign women warriors[3] and matriarchs from documented history.

Decolonial, matriarchal and Aboriginal feminist standpoint theory and methodologies inform my work and I acknowledge the role of Aboriginal sovereign women warriors in community, academia, the arts and education and privilege their work in my research. It’s the lens for my research and recent work, including, co-curating Sovereignty[4] with Max Delany and as a co-curator for the curatorium on Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism,[5] at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne; the new work I made for Next Matriarch,[6] at ACE Open, Adelaide, 2017; as a presenter at COIL Festival, Performance Space, New York; and facilitator for the First Nations Dialogues,[7] New York in January 2017.

I try to bring as many other mob as possible with me into spaces I work and practice matriarchy and decolonial methods,[8] including reserving the first row for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, always of course, acknowledging Country and Traditional Owners, Elders, acknowledging my Peoples and Ancestors and my standpoint as a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman and my family and community belonging. Always acknowledging “sovereignty never ceded,” acknowledging the women warriors who have supported me and acknowledging and including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men in the room. This is the lived work of “relationality.”[9] 

Installation view, Sovereignty, 2017-18, Australian Centre for Contemporary art, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis
WAR (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance), installation view, Sovereignty, 2017, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis

These practices of cultural resistance and acts of disruption to white-dominated public discourse include privileging our Peoples to speak first during Q&As or, cancelling them to maintain an Aboriginal focus and manage tone policing, racist or flattening questions and long-winded comments (usually from white people) by holding a space for Aboriginal and black/blak women to be heard and not silenced. Our work in the arts can have broader outside social justice functions that specifically affect Aboriginal women, like the continuing violence, incarceration and impacts of child removal on Aboriginal women. Through art we can address the silencing we are subjected to and give space and platform to the work of Aboriginal women activists and community workers addressing these crises.

Part of my responsibilities include what Wemba-Wemba women have always done; tell our stories and through that, hopefully, be of service in maintaining culture, wellbeing and community ways of being. “Sovereign warrior women become empowered challenging the ‘colonised creation of the object black woman’ by ‘speaking of ourselves, our emotions and our histories [as] the essence of our social, political and spiritual being.’”[10] 

Installation view, Unfinished Business: Perspectives on feminism and art
Sandra Hill, Home-maker #9: The Hairdresser, 2014, and Home-o-genus, 2013; Ali Gumillya Baker, Racist Texts, 2014. Installation view, Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2017-18. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Blak women’s herstories are not only an expression of Aboriginal matriarchal practice and Aboriginal feminist standpoint theory[11] but are performative and documented ways of surviving colonial trauma because the “The colonial archive largely consists of accounts by white men. It is not only delimited to their worldview, but it is also marked by a particular disregard for the identities of individual Aboriginal women, more overt than the disregard for Aboriginal men. It is also replete with fantasies, projections and caprices.”[12] 

The settler’s sexual subjugation and degrading colonial imagery of Aboriginal women continues to haunt the attempted destruction of matriarchal authority. This ongoing stain on our agency emerged again in media and social media attacks on Aboriginal women in early 2018, in particular MP Lidia Thorpe and activist Tarneen Onus-Williams after her Invasion Day 2018 speech, that including threats of rape and murder. But, as Arrernte Elder Rosalie Kunnoth Monks stated unequivocally four years prior to this, “We are not the problem.”[13] We are still not the problem.

Creative practice supports opportunities to refute our oppression in public, to share the resistance, strength, pride and beauty of Aboriginal women through self-determined art and story. My research and work are interwoven as threads as “interstitial space—the space of translation that is both complex and culturally shared,”[14] in which I am held by my matriarchy and tested by white academic processes I have to manage, resist and subvert.

Megan Cope, installation view, ACCA
Megan Cope, Resistance, 2013, enamel on cardboard, core flute and timber. Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis

I was also determined that Sovereignty contain a women’s and matriarchal space, a space of deep listening[15] to generations-old cultural practices that are protected from settlers, re-generative works and a space to contemplate healing from trauma to state that Aboriginal women’s sacrifices will be honoured. I specifically chose a blood red paint for the installation at ACCA to evoke the sense of immediacy and urgency about the fact that we are the most violently brutalised people in this country. It was also to represent (without romanticising) the power and sacredness of Aboriginal women’s knowledges and bodies.

The responsibility of representation after a twelve-year absence of blak work at ACCA sat seriously with me, and Sovereignty was successful in this; Arweet Carolyn Briggs welcomed the crowd of around one thousand onto Yalukit Willam Boon Wurrung Country and we set new cultural parameters for the space now opened up, and I cheekily said that I was trying to make ACCA a little BLACCA. The pressure was immense and I wanted this show to be exceptionally good, even great. Eugenia Flynn’s review was especially validating, speaking of “the intimate knowledge of South-East Australian Indigenous communities, which can only come by curating from within the community.”[16] 

One of the most rewarding outcomes was including a painting I commissioned from Wathurong Elder Marlene Gilson, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner for another exhibition I curated for the City Gallery, Executed in Franklin Street. This painting is now in the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition Colony, and eleven of Aunty Marlene’s paintings were selected for the 2018 Biennale of Sydney, the only Victorian Aboriginal artist included. I have been openly critical of the NGV not appointing a Senior Indigenous Curator of Aboriginal Art. The role could be held by any number of expert, experienced and highly qualified Aboriginal people, particularly Victorian Aboriginal First Peoples, to develop new exhibitions and programs with Aboriginal ways of being, knowing and doing.[17] 

Marlene Gilson, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen. City of Melbourne. Courtesy the artist
Marlene Gilson, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, 2015, synthetic polymer paint on linen. City of Melbourne. Courtesy the artist

It is my recommendation that the NGV employ a team of Aboriginal curators and arts workers to open up the institution to the Koorie community to facilitate engagement with the collections, create community curatorial practices and decolonise the space, which is pale and stale and must make place for Aboriginal curators as sovereign agents.

Isolating Aboriginal and Indigenous curators into assistant, guest or associate roles, and into hierarchical systems that maintain institutionalised and individualised colonial behaviours is not compatible with community ways of being and doing. Instead of Indigenising and decolonising, institutions continue with dominant white voices that separate Aboriginal people from art, art without community, art without Country and collections without community engagement.

This maintains the status quo of us standing on the outside looking in, or “visiting” the inside looking out, isolated and exhausted by the labour and burdens of our successes that are then in turn credited to the institutions. Museums and galleries often collect the awards that Aboriginal people, especially women, work for when it comes to public recognition of their achievements. Sovereignty was widely embraced and positively reviewed and introduced ACCA to community members that had never felt welcome there before. We presented outstanding free public programs including Matriarchs Speak,[18] and Lukautim Solwara.[19] 

Post Sovereignty I was invited to present on decolonial praxis and community curatorial models at Performance Space New York (formerly PS122) for the COIL Festival 2018 by former MoMA PS1 curator, Jenny Schelnzka. I had been recommended by choreographer and artist Emily Johnson, a Yu’Pik choreographer of Catalyst Dance based in Manahatta, New York City, on Lenapehoking[20] lands, who has been advocating for First Nations artists representation and inclusion in New York. I was also invited to be a co-facilitator for the First Nations Dialogues to workshop Indigenous praxis at JanArtsNYC 2017 “one of the largest and most significant theatre sector gatherings in the world.”[21] 

It was exciting but tempered by the reality that local Native American and First Nations artists have been overlooked and fighting for generations for space, acknowledgement and respect. As First Peoples, artists and curators in Australia have forged paths into arts for decades and laid the ground work we all benefit from. The erasure of First Peoples in Manahatta is startling and distressing, the gains we benefit from seem grander in comparison and while we have huge continuing struggles, its humbling to see communities still waiting for acknowledgment.

At the launch of the final COIL festival, the very first Acknowledgment of Lenape Country was given at Performance Space. It was strange to see New Yorkers unfamiliar with the practice. People were confused, intrigued and also dismissive and racist in their remarks. The work has just begun within cultural institutions, as there are huge gaps in settler knowledge of First Nations protocols, ways of being, networks and historic and current bodies of work and presenters showed up to the First Nations Dialogues in great numbers to start addressing this. It’s so promising to see that Performance Space New York has begun a new relationship with the local community and Lenape People and had their newly renovated building opened and blessed by Lenape Peoples ceremony.

I was blessed to be gifted a copy of No Reservation: New York Contemporary Native American Art Movement[22] by Elder and arts advocate, Diane Freher of Amerindia, who along with matriarch of Indigenous theatre Muriel Miguel, founder of feminist, queer Native Spiderwoman Theatre NY, attended and made significant and critical contributions to all of our First Nations Dialogues sessions. Aunty Muriel is eighty-one years of age, vibrant and future focused. Along with Aunty Diane, they centred and grounded the space around them as matriarchs and we were all safe and educated in their presence. I decided to share my presentation time at Performance Space with the Aunties, giving over the second hour so they could speak on a platform that I had been privileged into and invited all First Nations delegates in the room to share the stage with them. Invitations onto other People’s Country and other People’s communities can be problematic if we go as guests and are listened to, but the locals aren’t. You can’t impose your own experiences and processes if it interferes in local community self‑determination and their wait for acknowledgment.

The political and personal are always merging for me as a blak woman and maintaining my visual arts practice is crucial for my wellbeing. The new work I created for Next Matriarch, part of the TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art festival on Kaurna Country, Adelaide, was drawn from matriarchal stories. I included images of my daughter, myself, my mother, grandmother, great grandmother and great-great grandmother because Aboriginal women’s work and sacrifices are written out of history and herstories should be privileged to rectify this injustice.

Paola Balla, Lovescapes: Wemba-Wemba Country, 2017, wallpaper, photographic images. Installation view, ACE Open. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sam Roberts
Paola Balla, Lovescapes: Wemba-Wemba Country, 2017, wallpaper, photographic images. Installation view, ACE Open. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Sam Roberts

It was such an honour to be part of Next Matriarch, and the deep and connected practices of Ali Gumillya Baker, Hannah Brontë, Miriam Charlie, Amrita Hepi, Nicole Monks and Kaylene Whiskey with curators Liz Nowell and Yorta Yorta woman Kimberley Moulton, in a bold celebration of Aboriginal womanhood sung loudly and proudly as insights into the experiences and visions of community as unique, intersectional, womanly, queer, blak and beautiful. This exhibition illustrated that “as knowing subjects, middle class white feminists and Indigenous women speak from different cultural standpoints, histories and material conditions. These differences separate our politics and our analyses. Indigenous women do not want to be white women; we want to be Indigenous women who exercise and maintain our cultural integrity in our struggle for self‑determination as Indigenous people.”[23] 

There are countless stories of Aboriginal women (and global Indigenous women) curators and producers being paid less, acknowledged less and respected less by the institutions despite Aboriginal women holding key roles between white art institutions and their communities with the majority of Aboriginal curators in Australia being women. It requires incredible strength to survive and I draw on decolonial methodologies[24] of creating and networking as acts of resistance and disruption that help us thrive in these white spaces: “Indigenous women seek to transform cultural and educational institutions so that our ways of knowing will be taught and respected whereas white middle‑class feminists seek to gender institutions from within the epistemological framework of the dominant white culture.”[25] 

Maree Clark, River Reed Necklace and other works
Maree Clark, River Reed Necklace with Cockatoo Feathers, 2014; Seed Necklace, 2015; River Reed Necklace with Galah Feathers, 2016; Born of the Land, 2014. Installation view, Sovereignty, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Works that re-inscribe mourning practices like Maree Clarke’s kopi cap project and Born of the Land installation or the Stony Rises work of Vicki Couzens in Sovereignty memorialise those murdered, and deliberately erased from the colonial landscape. This forgetting can be addressed by the same exercises that WAR (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance)[26] are enacting by disrupting Melbourne city streets. In Unfinished Business, “acts of forgetting” are addressed by the works of Aboriginal women artists Shevan Wright, Ali Gumillya Baker, Hannah Brontë, Natalie Harkin, Sandra Hill, Fiona Foley and the film works of Megan Cope, Essie Coffe, and Tracey Moffatt who provided crucial, disruptive points to the dominant white feminist narrative and reminded audiences that the intersectionality of gender, race and class are forever present for black women.

By ensuring the representation of Aboriginal women artists, Aboriginal women curators represent not only themselves and career aspirations, but their family, community and collective ways. These self-determined modes of practice speak back to the outdated practices of anthropological and historicised practices about or on behalf of Aboriginal Peoples; so beautifully named in the powerful Lisa Bellear poem, "Artist Unknown."[27] 

The late great Lisa Bellear, multidisciplinary artist, blak woman, feminist and documentary photographer, who was courageous in criticising white feminism failings, and insightful about the workings of the artworld offered this remedy for stifled creativity, which I read as self-care: “get up out of the house and go for a walk, visit an art gallery, go out dancing, see a movie. Most of all try not to become so down that you feel overwhelmed. Also talking does help as well as eating a balanced yet entertaining diet, which may (shock horror) include red meat. Moving on … and staying positive, I tell you, sometimes it is difficult to find the energy. I personally have to face racism, sexism and curlyism: non-Aboriginal and non-curly haired people who insist on touching my hair etc. Which is cool (depending on my level of patience) but there is more to me than curly hair.”[28] 

While we may strive to be successful curators, artists or creatives, we do not strive to be white, act white or become white. We have a responsibility to speak back and blak to the institutions that we work in or with through being critically and deeply engaged in our Aboriginal identities, cultures, families, genealogies and communities to remain accountable to our community values and collective purposes. We are always walking in the footprints of deadly blak women and their deadly legacies of making art come alive.


  1. ^ Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, Toronto: Between the Lines, p. 53.
  2. ^ In the 1990s Destiny Deacon used the term blak to name urban Indigenous People and artists lived experiences and identity.
  3. ^ Tracey Bunda, “The sovereign Aboriginal woman,” in Aileen Moreton-Robinson (ed) Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2007
  4. ^ Sovereignty, curated by Paola Balla and Max Delany for the Australian Centre for Contemporary (ACCA), Melbourne. Exhibition dates: 17 December 2016 – 26 March 2017.
  5. ^ Unfinished Business: Perspectives on Art and Feminism (ACCA), 15 December 2017 – 25 March 2018.
  6. ^ Next Matriarch, ACE Open,
  7. ^ First Nations Dialogues were held in New York City, January 2018: http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/performing-arts/richard-watts/first-nations-performing-arts-profiled-on-global-stage-255078.
  8. ^ Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition, 2012, Dunedin: Otago University Press.
  9. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talking up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism, St Lucia: Queensland University Press, 2000, p. 16.
  10. ^ Bunda, op. cit.
  11. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, “Towards an Australian Indigenous women’s standpoint theory,” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 28, issue 78, 2013, pp. 15–19
  12. ^ Liz Conor, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal women, Crawley WA: UWA Publishing, p. 27.
  13. ^ Rosalie Kunnoth Monks on ABC TV Q&A, 9 June 2014: http://www.news.com.au/national/rosalie-kunothmonks-inspires-with-her-qampa-speech-i-am-not-the-problem/news-story/44ab2aae7bba23472d2aefb0b2458934.
  14. ^ Ali Baker, “Between the folds (of paper): stories, knowledge, voices,” in Gus Worby and Lester-Irabinna Rigney, Sharing Spaces, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Responses to Story, Country and Rights, Perth: API Network, 2006, pp. 32–33
  15. ^ Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, Dadirri, Deep Listening, 2002: http://nextwave.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Dadirri-Inner-Deep-Listening-M-R-Ungunmerr-Bauman-Refl.pdf
  16. ^ Eugenia Flynn, Review Sovereignty: http://www.artandaustralia.com/online/discursions/review-sovereignty.
  17. ^ Karin Martin and Booran Mirraboopa, “Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indigenist research,” Journal of Australian Studies, 27:76, 2003, 209–11
  18. ^ Matriarchs Speak, Sovereignty public program event, 4 March 2017, facilitated by Lidia Thorpe, MP, with speakers, Marge Thorpe, Arika Waalu, Meriki Onus.
  19. ^ Lukautim Solwara (look out for the ocean), performance led by Rosanna Raymond as part of Asia TOPA 2017, 17 February 2017.
  20. ^ Manahatta (Manhattan, New York City) is on the lands and waters of Lenapehoking and is a significant meeting place for Native American and First Nations Peoples.
  21. ^ First Nations Dialogues: http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/performing-arts/richard-watts/first-nations-performing-arts-profiled-on-global-stage-255078.
  22. ^ Jennifer Tromski (ed), No Reservation: New York Contemporary Native American Art Movement, Amerinda Inc., 2017
  23. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 2000, p. 16.
  24. ^ Smith, 2012, pp. 156–58.
  25. ^ Smith, 2012, pp. 156–58.
  26. ^ Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) was founded by Aboriginal women activists, Meriki Onus, Arika Onus, Dtarneen Onus and others.
  27. ^ Lisa Bellear, “Artist unknown” in Dreaming in Urban Areas, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1996, pp. 41–42.
  28. ^ Lisa Bellear, “Feminism, Curlyism and Creativity,” in Virginia Fraser, Kim Kruger, Destiny Deacon (eds), Close to you: The Lisa Bellear Picture Show, Melbourne: Koorie Heritage Trust, 2016, p. 54.

Paola Balla is a curator, artist, PhD candidate and inaugural Lisa Bellear Indigenous Research Scholar at Victoria University, of Wemba‑Wemba and Gunditjmara, Italian and Chinese heritage. Her PhD research is focused on Aboriginal women’s art and practices of resistance in speaking back to colonial and patriarchal narratives in public spaces and institutions.

Card: Maree Clark
Born of the land, 2014. Installation view, Sovereignty, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2016-17. Photo: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Vivien Anderson Gallery , Melbourne

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