Dr. Paola Balla

Paola is an award-winning visual artist, highly commended curator and sought-after community cultural development practitioner, speaker, facilitator and writer.

About Dr. Paola Balla

Paola is an award winning visual artist, highly commended curator and sought-after community cultural development practitioner, speaker, facilitator and writer. She is a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman who lectures with Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Centre, Victoria University. She teaches Politics of Aboriginal Art, into the Masters of Teaching program and Indigenous Specialisations.

Specialising in contemporary Indigenous art and Aboriginal women’s art and practices of resistance and revitalisation, Paola is a Lisa Bellear Post Graduate Research Scholar. She has over twenty years’ experience teaching Indigenous studies and contemporary Indigenous art practices, including in primary and secondary setting; 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. Her current art and research focuses on black women’s art and activism, and its role in disrupting patriarchal and colonial dominant narratives and spaces.



On Informit

Baker, A. G., & Balla, P. (2021). Editorial. Artlink, 41(3), 10–15. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.236036812335195

Balla, P. (2016). Get me out of here. The Lifted Brow, (29), 25–28. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.901709508048142

Balla, P. (2018). Walking in deadly blak women’s footprints. Artlink, 38(2),
22–29. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.626191023109790

Balla, P. (2019b). Mother tongue: She who must be obeyed loved and
Aboriginal women’s stories. Metro, (202), 74–79. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.780783098983280

Balla, P., Briggs, B., & McSpedden, S. (2021). Lin Onus: The Land
Within: A curatorial conversation crossing Yorta Yorta country. Artlink, 41(3),
30–37. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.236074078277712

Cafagna, J., Djordan King, K., Balla, P., Doolan, B., Sandrini, D., &
Sip, H. (2010). Indigenous artists call for tour funding: A major exhibition of
Australian Indigenous artwork will soon tour some of Italy’s art galleries.
Stateline VIC. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/tvnews.tev20104204880

Cole-Adams, J., Gauld, J., Balla, P., & Jakobi, M. (2013). Indigenous
service : investigating the wartime experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people from the First World War to the present : a resource for primary
schools. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/aeipt.200064

Grant, K., Hakim, Y., Balla, P., & Gerrett-Magee, R. (2009). Black
Apparel: Victorian based fashion label Black Apparel is becoming increasingly
popular among urban Indigenous youth. Living Black. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/tvnews.tex20094201496

Kalina, R., & Balla, P. (2018). The walk and talk. The Lifted Brow,
(40), 6–11. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.035743743689814

Birch, T. (2021). Ghost-weaving and truth-telling: Paola Balla goes to work. Art and Australia, 57(1), 146–153. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/informit.302998024847032

Video Transcript

Can you tell us about your background?

So I’m Dr Paola Balla. I’m still getting used to introducing myself with Doctor, but I do that because it makes my family and community proud, and it is an achievement that I feel was a collective one. So I’m Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara and I grew up on Yorta Yorta Country at Echuca predominantly with my mum, grandmother, aunties, great uncles and great aunties and massive extended family where they really instilled in me a love of education and a desire and passion to get educated and as my grandmother Rosie would say, ‘Get educated, go as far as you can and beat them at their own game’, so my grandmother taught me a political liberationist approach I suppose to education. She was only 12 years of age as a young aboriginal girl when she was forced out of school so it was very important to her that her grandchildren get educated and to go as far as they could despite the challenges. So it’s by my community that I’m that I’m here and through that, through my community I was one of the first graduates of the Njernda Studies program which was an Indigenous Bachelor of Education Program delivered in Echuca with the Echuca Aboriginal community and it was in collaboration with Victoria University so that’s when my relationship with VU started. So that was in 1998. I graduated in 2001 as a teacher, could not get a job in my hometown in a local primary school – my cousin and I – which was very heartbreaking… meant I had to move back to Melbourne and I was a young single mum at the time with a with a five-year-old… a seven-year-old, sorry and um so I started working at Moondani Balluk in 2001. So it’s been yeah 22 years now there have been times I’ve gone off and sort of done other work in education art and cultural work around the western suburbs and in Melbourne itself but yeah that’s my association with Moondani Balluk from the Njernda Studies program right through to now where I’m I have my PhD and I teach into our indigenous electives here at Moondani Balluk which means ‘Embrace people’ in Woiwurrung language as well.

Can you elaborate about your relationship with Moondani Balluk?

I began working at Moondani Balluk here at Victoria University, I was a sessional educator at the time we worked with local schools who were doing you know I guess Indigenous outreach programs with us and we were going out to local western suburb schools as well because we’re located here in  the western suburbs on Kulin Country and  I was doing artwork as well as working as an educator so these two, you know two ways of expressing myself and two ways of contributing to community have always been really strong for me and I put in for the logo design for Moondani Balluk and that was successful and all these years later it’s still our logo. So when the centre was refurbished just prior to the end of 2022 um we got to work with this fantastic architecture firm, Grizzly Ibis who really listened to Indigenous ways of working particularly our director Karen Jackson – she’s a phenomenal director and Yorta Yorta woman and um we sort of re-refreshed the logo design essentially and essentially that the main component of it that I focused on, which was about Kulin Country and the way country lies beneath us all the time, no matter how much we change the landscape through building on it changing it colonizing it, no matter how violent colonization is to it, it’s still country so it was about maintaining that design and so that now features on the outside of the building in a really large way. So it will eventually be a living building Indigenous plants will grow out of that artwork so they’re essentially large planters that feature over East and West doorways so as you walk into the building that’s how you’re welcomed into the space.

Would you like to share with us the focus of your PhD research?

So I finished my PhD at the end of 2020 it was a difficult time because it was predominantly during one of Melbourne’s six lockdowns which were very long and difficult. It meant that I couldn’t have access to campus, to my Supervisors, colleagues and community that had been involved in my project, so it was very isolating and challenging but I was very happy to finish and actually got to have a graduation ceremony in 2022, which was really exciting and for me it means a lot because the project was both personal and political. I was looking at the ways that Aboriginal women in what we know as a colony um in this country resist colonisation and violence and patriarchy and colonialism itself particularly through activism and through visual art or performance Art, poetry, literature. So I wanted to platform the ways and understand how Blak women resist through these forms and also just through community work. And I don’t mean ‘just’ in saying that, but it’s not as recognized. So all of the forms of contributions Aboriginal women make to community and to the cultural landscape of sort of considering in how I then created a new body of work in response to that and essentially it was looking at um you know the core of that and the traumas that require that resistance but also healing methodologies to respond to that trauma. So it was a creative thesis as well so it was predominantly through creating an exhibition – a very large exhibition um and an exegesis where I wrote about that practice so it was art as research in itself. So I was also attempting to decolonize how art as research or practice-led research is conducted because it’s incredibly white and Western in its approach – almost all of the literature about practice-led research is very white very Anglo there’s very little contemplation of Indigenous ways of working and so for me in order to respond to the artists whose work I had researched I needed to create a body of work in response to that, so that people would experience that in a an immersive way as opposed to just reading it. So I wanted to have those two you know methods there um and what I predominantly found is that as Aboriginal women we have very little recognition of our work formally.  That men’s work again and yes, even though the discrimination is there in the erasure of Aboriginal men’s stories exists as well, the sort of you know typical hero of the resistance is an Aboriginal male figure historically and even in a contemporary Way, so I was really inspired by Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance who are around, you know in all different countries, all the different mobs but predominantly in Melbourne, is led by young Aboriginal women here so I was really inspired by their work. But I found that there just wasn’t enough response to the need for respite and the need for soft spaces in order to rest after the doing of this work so I wanted to create temporal healing spaces or respite spaces yarning and listening spaces that are predominantly for Aboriginal people and particularly Aboriginal women and kids, that are comforting to our people, but very challenging to non-Aboriginal people. So it was a sort of a fine balance that had to strike in creating these um you know sort of sculptural installations that people could actually be inside of, yeah.

How do you articulate the crossover between your art and academic work?

I think because it’s always been natural for me to work between writing and making art. My entire life both from my childhood right through to the high school art classes I took, I was just as passionate about visual art as I was about you know English literature that I took and I always found it very hard to decide between whether I wanted to be a writer or an artist. And so then I got to a point where I thought I’m not going to choose I’m going to do both. And it could be also that I’m a little neurodiverse so I get bored quite easily and I need to do different things um in different ways at the same time but they need to sit well together. So my creative practice is really sort of out of the way I think my brain works. I can’t be sure but the way it manifests is that when I’m thinking about visual work I write about it and when I’m thinking about writing I’ll see images and I try to bring that together. And so for me the work between my writing and visual practice and curatorial… it just feels quite natural and I feel that if I’m if I’m focusing on one I feel a little out of balance. So I need to bring them together. Um in a research sense, I never felt that I had to justify art as research. I’m sure there’s  critics of it and people who might not understand but I don’t focus on that. I try not to give um any focus on anything that’s very positive or negative about my work, I just focus on how my community are experiencing it. I’ll get reality checks from my mother and my family. My mother read my thesis and said to me yep, I really like it – I like this part and that part, those words I didn’t understand… I’m not interested in, don’t even bother trying to explain it to me, so I had to make sure that I was trying to reach a space where my voice was authentic as a Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara person. I also had to meet the requirements of the institution in a sense to write academically but Professor Tracey Bunda who’s one of my associate supervisors, guided me to find my own voice and said, you must write authentically as a blackfella and as a scholar and don’t feel that you have to change anything, you know in order to do that. And so when I make my visual works as well it’s the same process I’m trying to make them accessible and not too explicit in what they’re about so I don’t want someone to have to read a label on one of my installations in order to understand it and feel it. I want them to be able to go in in a way that is completely embodied and a physical experience and an emotional one and that it’s also a fully accessible space. So for me it all just sits together but I am very interested in  decentring whiteness in art practice and art as research because they are very dominated by whiteness in that way. So I think making sure that Aboriginal and Indigenous ways of you know, Being, knowing and doing as Dr Karen Martins wrote About are very present you know. So for me it’s just an ongoing challenge to keep pushing myself to see how I can come to some sort of resolution, realize that one part of it might have worked another might not have and to push myself again.

Do you want to talk about your experience as an Aboriginal woman in academia?

Yeah I I write from my standpoint as Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara woman in my work, in my you know academic work and my creative writing,  speaking and the visual works that I create and also any art writing that I do so for catalogues or for publications about Indigenous art. And it’s important to me that I do that because that’s that is my standpoint, you know – that’s my lived experience but it’s also my cultural knowing that I have been entrusted with um and it’s something that I have to keep developing as I grow and develop as as a cultural person as as a Koorie woman you know, and also as a scholar. So for me they all sit together so I feel that my community and my family and my matriarchy are the, that’s the ethics and the accountability to what I do. So I’m not too fussed about what the institution or the university it’s sees me as or believes me to be because they see me through a western white lens where you know my Aboriginality might be questioned where my scholarship might be questioned. But I don’t worry about it and I don’t focus on It. I feel more nervous and more concerned about what my family and community think about what I’m doing and my Aboriginal colleagues instead of the Institution. So that’s how I focus on you know my Blakness in in the space. So the things that are challenging in this space are when you encounter racist students or colleagues um when you’re you know, student evaluations come in and the students are resistant to what you’re teaching them and it’s got nothing to actually do with your pedagogy. It’s about their inability to process their own racism and I won’t say white fragility because it’s actually resistance. They don’t want to – in some cases just blatantly explicitly – do not want to learn about Aboriginal History, culture or ongoing experiences or Injustices. They feel that it is a you know like an inconvenience to them and they’re in the worst cases. Then you have students that want to know and they feel angry that they’ve not been taught this at a primary school or secondary school level – it’s very new to them. The majority of our students are encountering Indigenous knowledges for the first time in their lives as first year University students so they can be aged anywhere from 18 to you know in their 60s, and it doesn’t matter what someone’s life experience has been or their educational achievements, they are all at the same level when it comes to knowledge about our people. I always say that maybe a grade three- four- level Primary School their knowledge is so basic generally. Is general knowledge improving in this country? Probably, through social media activism of Aboriginal people, not necessarily because white people are all of a sudden Listening; it’s because our people never give up. You know it’s because they’re persistent. I don’t believe universities or any space can ever be a culturally safe space there’s no such thing, particularly digital spaces – there is no such thing as a safe space so I think it’s a contradictory position I find myself in that I… yes, I am working towards decolonization and I and I work towards culturally safe spaces. Whether that’s possible or not is another thing. You know, is decolonization even possible so what I’m interested in is actually making spaces Blak-er, making spaces more active for us and just basically making space within the institutions, within public space, whatever public space means – because that’s also a construct, you know all space is Aboriginal land in this country and they divide it up into private and public space that they then use laws and racism and violence to either keep our people in or out of. So the university is no different in that way um but we try to create the most sense of engagement and safety in spaces like this. And when we try to do that here at Moondani Balluk but there’s  no guarantee you know because you can’t stop white people, you can’t stop settlers and others walking in the door who might say these things um and so it’s a constant process of trying to protect ourselves and revitalize ourselves. But I think that’s what the work does you know, the work of Professor Foley’s archive, the work that we all do together here as Aboriginal colleagues in um making sure that we share each other’s stories each other’s work community achievements and be very very involved locally at a Grassroots level with the community that we’re a part of I think that’s the best way to try to achieve a sense of cultural strength as opposed to cultural safety.

What research project are you currently involved in?

The most current and ongoing project that I’m involved in is something called Blak Women’s Healing project and that’s focused on Aboriginal women in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Local community women who might work in you know community service sector, they might be raising children and grandchildren, they might be working in community Aboriginal education. And we’ve had a series of women’s workshops Aboriginal women’s workshops that have been going on since the lockdown so the first of course we’re all interrupted by the pandemic and we had to conduct them via Zoom, which was um you know the next best thing – it wasn’t ideal However, the outcomes from that were really exciting and essentially what we’re doing is creating space and facilitating conversational space and art making and creative space and mindfulness space for Aboriginal women to be able to talk about themselves and their stories in an effort to give them space to strengthen their identity to give them some respite and and give them time to reflect on what it is that they are doing in their lives. Because that can be a precious gift when you were in you know the busy work of raising children and surviving, particularly if you’re surviving violence and trauma both inherited and both a lived current Experience, we want to give Aboriginal women the space to be able to reflect on their lives as important and as is significant and meaningful and so we do workshops with them. So there’s a number of different modes that we enact in the workshops and one is conversational. It’s finding out about their story, who their people are, how much do they know about themselves and their people, have they experienced stolen generation… I’ve experienced you know dispersal removal in another way and sadly in the western suburbs that can be this can be quite common for community to be slightly dislocated from their home country or home communities and so we talk about that. We also have women who are very very strong in their in their standpoint and so there’s a real mixture in the group. And then we do a mindfulness meditation practice with another researcher Rowena Price, and then I do bush dyeing art practices with with the women which is what I refined in my PhD work. So to bush-dye fabrics is a whole process of walking and collecting materials on Country, dyeing the fabrics and then creating something out of them and so it’s about responding to Country and to yourself and where your place is in that country yeah. So the next phase is that we’ll go into the Dame Phyllis Frost Detention Centre which is the maximum Detention Centre Jail for for women, and tragically we have an incredibly high number of Aboriginal women in there, so the next phase will be working with the sisters inside. We don’t currently have plans to exhibit the work –  the works that the women make for their own personal collection. If they choose to do that that’s completely up to them. They are encouraged to share that practice with their families and with others so I say to them I don’t own this practice; it’s a practice that I’ve learned from observing other people, one that’s you know been entrusted to me, so I pass it on as a learning tool. It’s also a practice in which you can connect with country in a really simple, gentle way, in a mindful way so it slows you right down and it’s very healing when you’re dealing with traumas and very inflamed nervous systems, which is really common for our people when we’re constantly dealing with racism and violence. So these practices are essentially what we call healing or well-being practices. We may exhibit them in Future. We’ve included with permission, some of the images of them in some of the publications and we’ve now I think we’ve created around three papers now on on the work and we are just beginning to sort of present about these at conferences because other people in communities are interested in this work. Like how do we find space again for that reflection on identity and self and well-being – how do we strengthen and nurture, how do we help or support women to move out of violent or abusive relationships, how do they work towards breaking cycles and identifying racism and discrimination and abuse when it’s happening. So it it’s very personal and political work that we’re doing it’s also very um… it’s a privilege to see and witness these stories with the women who trust us with that. So we’re very selective about what we share as outcomes what we want to share as outcome is about how we can support these practices in other spaces. So why shouldn’t universities be funding this work you know why shouldn’t universities be saying yeah we’re going to fund space for a 12-week program you know for Aboriginal women to be able to sit together have a nice meal, have that nurturing time together for their children to be welcome if they need to bring them. So it’s very simple and complex at the same time yeah, so that the collaborators on the project are Karen Jackson, LJ Singh Rowena Price and Professor Christopher Sonn and Professor Amy Quail. So as a team we work together – um two of the researchers are non-indigenous so it’s only the three Aboriginal, four Aboriginal women ourselves who were in the actual groups with the women to facilitate those workshops at the beginning. The other researchers will visit and… but their time is limited so they’re essentially told and invited to leave when  we feel it’s the right time and when the women feel that they have ownership of the group they just say: we don’t want the others here now. So it’s very much about centring the Aboriginal women as the leaders and as being you know in charge of a self-determined research process.

What do you see as the most significant current Australian Indigenous research in terms of future impact?

The thing I’m most excited about in regards to other Indigenous research is predominantly what Aboriginal women researchers are doing in creative practice, in particular the Unbound Collective who are based on Kaurna Country and they’re a phenomenal foursome of Aboriginal women who did their PhDs together and they do creative-lead practice and creative practice together where they’re researching the archives, the state archives and in particular a number of the women have retrieved and you know repatriated their grandmothers and great-grandmother’s stories back into their families and into their actual visual practice, which is really beautiful and poetic performative. And I think that that work is very important because it disrupts this notion of History being man’s business, of History being patriarchal and white of it also being quite one-dimensional you know this is very lived work. You experience it – it’s performed so you’re emotionally moved and challenged by the work as well as you know intellectually. I find that really exciting and the work of Professor Tony Birch who did a fellowship here with us,  the Dr Bruce McGuinness Fellowship here, for five years around climate change, climate trauma and climate justice. Anytime he speaks and writes I absolutely love it just because of the you know the passion and the unconditional love that he has for Country and the way he speaks about it as having its own sovereign rights. So those things really, really excite me and I think ultimately if people listen, if non- Aboriginal people listen, could actually change the way this country evolves. I think it could make it a healthier place mentally and spiritually and but yeah whether that’s to happen or not, let’s see.