Ghost Weaving Unconditional Love into Our Futures—
Collective Movements of Sovereign Art

Paola Balla

Aunty Hilda painted my Nan’s basket years ago. It was in her kitchen for a while. Listening to curried sausages and dampers being made, filling with stories and secrets only meant for the women—not kids with big ears listening ’round. The basket travelled back from Yorta-Yorta Country where Nan originally wove it, to Wemba-Wemba Country where Aunty Barb was living on Country with it, to my yaryin Terri Lee’s place in Boon Wurrung Country where she was keeping it, back to my home on Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Country where I will hold it until it’s time to pass on to my daughter.

It now sits on my Bunnings shelving unit I put together when I was working from home during all of Naarm’s six lockdowns. The basket became a holding place—not only for the raffia and basket grass I started weaving at the end of my PhD while the pandemic raged on—but also a place of wonder, story, and remembering. I marvel at the strength of the basket, its beautiful green painted surface. I hold the sturdy handle that arcs over its deep belly and feel my Nan’s soft hands and that of my great Aunties and I hold hands with them in that moment, across time.

Mum makes lots of art. It’s not the kind of Blak art sought after on Instagram or Etsy, but it tells timeless stories of kids riding emus across bindi sprinkled red dusty Country, and little turtles made of fabric scraps from small town op-shops or old dresses that can’t spark joy anymore because grief drained it from them.

It’s art about Country that springs to life in the rains with Old Man Weed, radiating its intense lemon minty little flower buds—ready for collecting by me and my cousins in the ’80s, filling IGA Tucker-bags with it for my Nan. She will boil it in a big aluminium pot on her stove until it becomes an inky dark potion of healing bitterness and herbal power. It lined the river paths we took on our longed-for swims in precious, life affirming river waters—Kolety and Dungala.

It was my mother and grandmother who encouraged and taught me creativity through a range of practices including drawing, photography, painting, my grandmother’s paper flowers, curation, collecting bush flowers and plants like Old Man Weed and billy buttons, collecting gum sap, and over dying op-shop clothes. These are the things that taught me a creative life of repurposing and curating home and community spaces into spaces of unconditional love for our Aboriginality, for our Blackness that were and are spaces of respite from the colony and its whiteness and violence.

I continue my re-learning of our families’ Wemba-Wemba language for ways to name and describe my works and practice. As Indigenous Peoples we are beyond white descriptions of us as collaborators and collectives—for we re-create ways of making from before the apocalypse of invasion and violence of colonisation. We recreate and gather to heal, to be, to find each other and be well.

Our mother tongues—codes and Koorie English—are embedded with our ways and knowledges and give us ways to work together, with and for each other, including our Ancestors and descendants yet to come.

In making art together, we recreate Ghost Weaving—a practice I named in collaboration with the generous guidance and supervision of Ngugi/Wakka Wakka Professor Tracey Bunda at the start of my PhD. Ghost Weaving names my practice of art, weaving, and writing about my culture, family and Ancestors, centring matriarchal knowledges, memory and story.

Ghost Weaving takes in knowing ourselves through a continuum of culture through art and practice/s that comes from the past, lives in the present, and helps us move into the future as sovereign. To be sovereign is in fact, to act with love and resistance simultaneously.

When I was curating Sovereignty at ACCA in 2016, I thought deeply about how the exhibition would be known in future. I thought about the legacy of responsibility and how I quoted Uncle Herb Patten when he asked us all on 3KND: ‘What kind of Ancestor do you want to be?’

In our lives and art, we work towards leaving behind traces of how we will be known. As part of generations whose work also lives in digital realms, we have to think about what digital tracks we leave. As the health of our Countries struggle under colonial climate traumas and the ongoing pandemic and its consequences lingers, we have to ask ourselves again, ‘What kind of Ancestors do we want to be?’

In the future, how will we trace our responses through our bodies of work?

I love being part of my community and working collectively in resistance to white ways of categorisation and institutional stiffness; we move with and for our people as needed. Our complexity and flexibility to bend around white organisations and timelines often confounds non-Aboriginal people. Our definitions of success are not bound to individual achievements, but from collective wellbeing.

Intergenerational sharing of stories and creative practices within families is not just part of our survival and resistance, but something that connects us to our thousands of years of connected practices that materially hold the meaning in our lives and the foundational knowledges, including basket weaving, possum skin cloak making, emu feather skirt making, feather flowers, necklace making and toy making.

These joys in meaning and creativity were deliberately stolen and destroyed by the invaders, and were collected by the settlers as curios of us as a so-called dying race.

Yet we are still here, always remembering, revitalising and remaking our material cultural knowledges through practice led research to remind us of who we are, the threads of ourselves and knowledges stitched across our making; lomandra/basket grass, in a mussel shell for scraping possum skins, in the beauty and generosity of a reed necklace.

Aboriginal women generate and pass on knowledge in cultural ways centred in unconditional love, kindness, generosity and firm boundaries. Respect and strength are woven into our culture.

Our family and clan groups are the original ‘collectives’ and give meaning and strength in collectivising, collaborating and sharing knowledge with the next generation. Matriarchy keeps family and culture strong; the continuation of sovereign acts and cultural and artistic practices give us ways to not only survive colonisation, but attempt to thrive as well as we can.

We continue to witness the highly significant and ongoing impact of the seminal Possum Skin Cloak Story that came from Lee Darroch, Treahna Hamm, Vicki Couzens and Debra Couzens (1962–2021), as well as Maree Clarke and others. We see the continuation of this work in another generation with Koorroyarr—Kelsey and Tarryn Love—nieces of Vicki and Debra Couzens. Kelsey and Tarryn’s work shows us how this work continues, and reflects the influence that the Possum Skin Cloak Story has had on not only the lives of these artists, but on the Koorie community and First Nations culture for Victorian mobs.

The ongoing and growing presence of possum skin culture practices continue to grow in community. These matrilineal practices are manifest of generations of women before, just as I weave stories of matriarchy through my own works—because they are a manifestation of my cultural and community life that gives my life meaning and purpose.

Other important artists central to this collective movement—who, although not participating in this exhibition, contribute to this movement through their work—include Aunty Esther Kirby, whose emu egg carving she learnt from her father. She now shares these learnings with others, including her work with Banmirra Arts and also taught possum skin cloak making all over the state—including with children in out of home care through the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency art programs.

In 2016, artist Clinton Naina curated Carved Out of Life: The Next Generation which showed the emu egg carvings of artists Esther Kirby, Jenny Singh, Adrian Morgan and sons, Lucy Williams-Connolly and Talgium Edwards—commemorating this artform and reminding people to remember and honour this practice.

The Nicholls Family, Emma Karpany, Lettie Nicholls, Glenda Nicholls and Marilyne Nicholls, have also impacted with their pine needle baskets and emu feather flowers how string culture and the art of emu feather flower making re-entered our cultural lives and imaginations from memories and stories through exhibitions.

In reflecting on these significant histories of collective Aboriginal and familial ways of ‘being, knowing and doing’, through and with art and cultural practice I reflect on how Ghost Weaving is a sovereign process—a threading of past, present and future with matriarchal stories and knowledges.

Woven baskets can be seen as a visual metaphor for love and resistance—holding history, culture, story—to the violence of invasion and colonisation. Basket weaving is a practice of love and resistance that provides literal and metaphorical spaces to hold out against colonisation and to live in Indigenous sovereignty.

I Ghost Weave sovereign and matriarchal stories into my own artworks to create memory works and memory places to hold emotional embodied memories of matriarchs long gone—but who should never be forgotten—and I see Ghost Weaving throughout these collective movements.

Elders still with us need to be recorded for their connections to their grandmothers and grandfathers, great-great aunties and uncles who kept practices and languages protected and secret. In my Wemba-Wemba family, in particular as Day family descendants from Moonahcullah Mission, we honour our Elders long gone.

This includes my great grandmother Nancy Egan and her brother Uncle Stanley Day in the work they did with Dr Louise Hercus of our Wemba-Wemba language and resulting dictionaries and digital materials accessed by many other Aboriginal Peoples in Victoria.

Where is language held? Is it the connecting threads in a weave as it happens, slipping through the thumb and index finger, pulling, creating tension, in a laugh, sigh, a tear wiped away? Pull, tension, thread, drop a thread, start again. Is it in the Instagram accounts of weavers, is it on the woven mats my matriarchs sat on to weave at Moonahcullah?

Is it in my Nan’s basket she made in the 1980s in the Kyabram Koorie community craft classes? I was too shame to join in as a young girl, so just watched and listened instead.

We have to move sideways all the time, dodging blows, navigating our survival. It’s painful but there is healing in the reclamation. ‘We must not romanticise ourselves’, my Nan Rosie told me. We don’t have to answer all of their questions. ‘Gubs want to know the ins and outs of a cat’s arse’, she said. Knowing and speaking of our culture and survival is not about telling or exposing. It is about being honest and ethical. I think of Badtjala artist and scholar, Fiona Foley asking in her 2021 book Biting the Clouds, how do we speak of trauma without replicating it?

Unflattening; a continual process of reconstructing and getting back up over and over, from the flattening nature of colonisation, and the exhaustion of coping with the pandemic is found in collective art and cultural movements and will assist in the unflattening and healing found in gathering together again.

For me, moving into Bush dyeing was a new practice that I needed to learn within my PhD project to alleviate the pressure of theorising cultural and art practice, a healing practice that was as much about the process as it was the outcomes.

As South-Eastern Blackfullas, our art, identity and culture are always compared to other Mobs, where they were not decimated by genocide like we were. We look different to Mob who they can categorise as authentic and ‘really Aboriginal’. There is no more pain or benefit or use in describing in great detail what it’s like to be a fair skinned Blackfulla—that is irrelevant when you belong to your community.

No Mob care or love our babies less when they come out lighter than other kids, or parents or relatives. It reminds us of our diversity and our beauty that transcends white definitions. There is no such thing as a white Blackfulla. You are either Black or White—you are either a Blackfulla or not. Claim and be claimed. The complications come from the violence of the settlers and the settler states they established to expand their empire.

Artists such as Vicki Couzens, Maree Clarke, Glenda Nicholls, and Elders and Aunties across Countries speak generationally not only because of their dedication to community and family practices, but because of their disruptions to how Aboriginal women’s art, community work and activism has been previously represented. As Blackfullas, we need physical and emotional places, spaces and resources to support our work where we can safely cultivate healing processes and practices to give us respite from the colony.

Expressing unconditional love and the need for spaces of unconditional love for community is embodied within the projects named here as responses to the need for healing and respite, from the exhausting work of resisting, naming and responding to ongoing traumas.

These artists create places of unconditional love for ourselves, as proud Aboriginal people, which is important when colonisation causes trauma and internalised shame and fear. These artists and their works remind us of who we are, to find meaning in not only our suffering but our life purpose to be free, well and joyful.

Matriarchal sovereignty is embodied in collectivising through the making of new art which draws on matrilineality and community and collective collaborative ways to create works, woven across the ‘everywhen’—a concept expressed in my work Born in Sovereignty, Live in Sovereignty, 2014; a way to find places of sovereignty and to re-instate Indigenous sovereignty as a birth right.

Through these collective movements we witness the intellectual inner lives, both emotional and spiritual, of Aboriginal women’s art, familial and community processes continued. These movements speak Blak to the ‘white cube’ and the Western art canon and express resistance to ongoing colonialism; they thrive and celebrate South- Eastern Aboriginal culture and community. Their work expresses the unconditional love and power of sovereign Aboriginal warrior women in art and community.

Nan’s basket now holds my and my daughter Rosie’s weaving, our learning and re-learning of it. In reversing the matriarchal practice of handing down, I teach it back up, to my Mum. This makes me sad and happy. Cycles moving within the continuum also move up and down, not just across time. There is a continuum of collective movement that is required to be flexible in the face of invasion and violence.

‘Through these collective movements we witness the intellectual inner lives, both emotional and spiritual, of Aboriginal women’s art, familial and community processes continued.’