r e a, PolesApart series, 2009, triptych 3a. Courtesy the artist
r e a, 'PolesApart series', 2009, triptych 3a. Courtesy the artist
Stories & Ideas

Thu 15 Dec 2022

Dr Paola Balla - author pic
Dr Paola Balla

Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and academic

Artist, curator, writer and academic Dr Paola Balla discusses stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in film, visual art and music.

Letting the screen door slip, I step onto the farmhouse verandah, then onto the red dust and am drawn towards the soft sounds of my Nan, Mother, Aunties, Uncles, cousins and little brother laughing their guts out. Giggling then getting shushed up, ready for the next song or story. “Quiet now you fullas! Gorn, Rosie, your turn now!”

The firelight plays across my grandmother’s beautiful black face. “No, I can’t sing! Come on Bub, your turn! Bub can sing really good.” Nan points me out to our circle of unconditional family love.“Come on Bub!” I press my chin into my chest and start humming along as my Aunty strums the guitar and plays Uncle Roger Knox’s Koorie Rose – the oohs and ahhs and ooohh aye! My cheeks burn red in the dark of Yorta Yorta Woka. These childhood memories feed my thinking as a storyteller, artist and curator.

Keerray Woorrong Gunditjmara woman, artist and researcher Dr Vicki Couzens’ installation at ACMI, Yanmeeyarr (which means flickering in the firelight), references “how ochre markings on the body capture and reflect light during ceremony, creating a centuries-spanning connection between traditional First Peoples storytelling and the contemporary moving image.”[1]

Warwick Thornton speaks of campfire in his filmmaking: “Remove the cameras, superstars and visual effects. I’m asking: how do you keep an audience incredibly enthralled just with a voice, face and campfire?”he says.[2] “So that’s what I do today with filmmaking. It was done before thousands of years ago and it seemed to work, so I’m trying to translate that today.”[3]

Promotional art for Jedda the Uncivilized, 1955. Courtesy Alamy

Jedda the Uncivilized, 1955. Courtesy Alamy

This drawing on fire as a storytelling screen is part of Blackfulla contemporary arts with new media and technologies being used for image creation. This draws on transgenerational, cross-generational and multidisciplinary practices across time and space. Reclaiming representation takes on even more significance when we consider how we have been represented through the colonial lens and gaze, that tell stories about us without us. The colonial narrative lent itself well to film and of course Jedda (1955) is the first most obvious example of an Aboriginal story being presented as authentic and from Country itself. With the deepest respect to the late great Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, with her activism and protection of Country and culture, and her iconic disruption of ABC TV’s Q&A program where she unequivocally stated that she was “not the problem”;[4] rather, it is white Australia and its colonial lens that is.

Jedda’s legacy is felt in screen culture and visual art as a historical moment to remember and reference. And the subversive nature of finding the funny in films that whitefullas take seriously, or can’t or don’t know how to laugh at, that make Blackfullas howl with laughter. In thinking about Black women’s resistance and how we deal with men, in gendered, cultural and political ways, my Aunty Walda Blow, an activist and women’s and girls’ advocate, took great delight in teasing my grandmother Rosie by giving her a sideways glance and saying, “Marbuck there look!” Our sense of humour and intimacy with the absurd is part of not just our surviving the ‘horrorscape’ that is the colony – it is our thriving, our joy, our cherished moments of being in the here and now, and absolutely mindful.

Kamahi Djordon King made a photographic work called Attack of the 50 Foot Black Gin! (2010) printed to life size in which King played iconic black queen Constantina Bush. By using the term gin, King said it was about “owning and reclaiming the derogatory term”,[5] and for the photograph to demonstrate how “to be proud of who you are and don’t forget where you come from”,[6] referencing the flag corset and Melbourne tram gripped in her hand.

Kamahi Djordon King, Attack of the 50 Foot Black Gin!, 2010. Courtesy the artist

Kamahi Djordon King, Attack of the 50 Foot Black Gin!, 2010. Courtesy the artist

Aboriginal women’s representation of women’s bodies is still a battlefield. Aboriginal art critic and journalist Daniel Browning wrote about this in Visualising Sovereignty, for Artlink Indigenous 2021.[7] Browning called out a number of Aboriginal male artists who portray Aboriginal women’s bodies in photography and painting, questioning their supposed visual tributes to Black women’s sexuality and beauty.

The disruptive and poetic Black womanist performances Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts (Act I) and (Act II) (2014–15) by Unbound Collective, confront the violence of the state archives on Kaurna Country (Adelaide). Unbound Collective is Ali Gumillya Baker, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Simone Ulalka Tur, who created a living cinema of performance, moving images and text in the colonial precinct of the state gallery, library and museum in Adelaide. Handheld lanterns (like movie cameras) and sculptures of tall ships adorning their heads gave an impression of ships moving across oceans, with their hoop skirts swaying like slow moving landscapes.

Unbound Collective Sovereign Acts: II (2015), TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Courtesy the artists

Unbound Collective Sovereign Acts: II (2015), TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Courtesy the artists

In the photographic and video work of artist and scholar r e a, PolesApart (2009), we witness the artist running through the bush in a black colonial Victoriana gown, its high collar hiding their body, their face and head exposed to the enveloping horrorscape. They run as a sovereign warrior; encased in black taffeta, they relentlessly move.

The dress as an introduced, colonial object can also be read as a screen or skin – enforced on the bodies of Aboriginal women to domesticate and ‘civilised’ during colonial dispossession.

In early photography, we begin to see Aboriginal women more commonly covered in Victorian-era gowns and eventually white wedding gowns on mission church steps beside handsome, besuited Aboriginal men. They are sometimes posed, caught between two worlds, in colonial photographic studios by voyeuristic photographic vampires, creating ongoing false image legacies of ethnocentricity. Colonial photographers document us re-enacting ourselves and people in a living diorama, where Black women stare through the white male lens into us; where we are waiting in the future to see the real her.

Worimi artist, photographer and filmmaker Genevieve Grieves’ film series Mission Voices (2010) spoke back with a fierce, quiet determination that returned Aboriginal women and men, disrupting the white colonial gaze from these legacies; each one a celebration of resistance and self-knowledge.

My great-great-grandmother used her hands to do shadow play storytelling by lantern light for my grandmother and her siblings in their little mission house at Moonahcullah Mission on Wemba-Wemba Country, to stave off the “hunger pains that were too much to bear”[8] during the Great Depression. This no doubt fed my grandmother Rosie’s hunger for story and imagination. Alexis Wright teaches us through her phenomenal essay, ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story’, that Aboriginal imagination is underestimated and devalued by white Australia, but Wright celebrates Black love for imagination and storytelling.[9]

How many stories do we tell as Blackfullas, funny yarns where we push it and pull it to the very edge, to wring every laugh and every ounce of Black joy that we can get from it? This practice of storytelling is part of our culture of knowing, remembering and retelling. Visual artists, digital artists, filmmakers and storytellers enact these cultural ways of being, knowing and doing to subvert and elevate visual screen culture.

Self-representation must go deeper than visuals, as we fight inclusion and diversity programming which gets weaponised in public realms; however, as Blackfullas we know that there are no safe spaces for us in ‘public’, itself a colonial construct. Public spaces are used, controlled and denied to us, or we are erased from them. The public space was created to define the distinction between ‘private’ or white controlled spaces through policy, like the Aborigines Protection Act; our Countries were carved up literally and figuratively, and we were separated in spaces, such as cinemas where our Elders were seated in roped-off sections for Blacks.

New realms of digital parallel universes include TikTok videos, digital visual art, Instagram stories, Facebook rants and others yet to be known in the future. They are recorded or laid down in real time, leaving digital footprints that criss-cross sky and air Country with invisible marks. Perhaps they are traces of our Ancestors’ frequencies speaking to us?

The films of Bill Onus were spotlighted in Ablaze (2022), made by his artist and opera singer grandson Tiriki Onus (the son of the late, great Yorta Yorta painter Lin Onus), which shares with us the recently rediscovered precious community footage, once thought lost to fire. Along with documentarian Alec Morgan they created a most loving and fascinating tribute to the Koorie community, so thoughtfully edited.

Music brings us either around the fire literally or reminds us of campfire gatherings. The soundtrack to these gatherings being the work of Uncle Kutcha Edwards as both a continually evolving solo artist and frontman of the iconic local band Blackfire (1992–99), and of course, the legendary, late, great Uncle Archie Roach, the late, great Aunty Ruby Hunter, Tiddas (named by Aunty Ruby) and – as an individual artist – Lou Bennett, whose main contributions are music and story, but their visual culture lives with us. Images of country shirts, feathers, beads, Black t-shirts and the soaring love coming from their live performances and gatherings all invoke campfire magic.

One night at Footscray Community Arts in a protest camp against the Fringe Festival that Uncle Larry Walsh instigated, we decided collectively to camp on the lawn. We brought our own tents and called it Black Fringe. We screened Babakiueria and other movies on the side of a shipping container and had a fantastic night by campfire. The sounds of the shipping containers in their all-night dance kept most of us up, but it was a special night of yarning and thinking about our place as storytellers and Blackfullas trying to keep culture and ourselves alive.

Blackfulla moving images are validating and exciting and show us ourselves through our own eyes, documented forever through space and time for future generations around that campfire magic.

This essay appears in the exhibition catalogue, available to purchase in the ACMI Shop and online

Dr Paola Balla is a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and academic who focuses on sovereign Aboriginal women’s resistance, art and stories. Her work is published widely, including Frieze (UK), Oceania, Etchings Indigenous, Writers Victoria, SBS, NITV, Metro Magazine and Cordite Poetry. In 2018, she co-edited Blak Brow, a Blak women’s edition of The Lifted Brow and in 2021 co-edited Artlink Indigenous: Visualising Sovereignty with Dr Ali Gumillya Baker. Paola co-curated Sovereignty (2016) and Unfinished Business: perspectives on art and feminism (2017) at ACCA. Most recently her work was shown in Wilam Biik, TarraWarra Museum of Art (2021). She conducts community research and teaches at Moondani Balluk, Indigenous Academic Centre, Victoria University.


  1. Vicki Couzens Uses Light and Shadow to Tell Moving Image Stories’, Stories and Ideas, ACMI, 26 February 2021
  2. Warwick Thornton interviewed by Laura Morelli, ‘Red Desert to Red Carpet: How Warwick Thornton Became a Professional Storyteller’, NITV, 17 July 2017
  3. ibid
  4. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Q&A, ABC TV, 10 June 2014
  5. Kamahi Djordon King, telephone interview with Paola Balla, 31 October 2022
  6. ibid
  7. Daniel Browning, ‘Nothing if Not Uncritical: Revisiting Re-visions and Indigenous Art Criticism’, Artlink: Visualising Sovereignty, issue 41:3, December 2021
  8. Rose Tang, ‘Childhood Memories’, 1988, quoted in Paola Balla, ‘Tyirrem; The End of the World as We Knew It’, Sydney Review of Books, 10 February 2020
  9. Alexis Wright, ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story’, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, vol. 15 no. 2, 19 June 2018

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