The importance of Art, Identity & Culture: we interview NAIDOC artist Lani Balzan

Lani Balzan is a proud Aboriginal woman from the Wiradjuri people of the three-river tribe, currently residing in Illawarra, NSW. An award winning Aboriginal artist, Lani's accolades include winning the 2016 NAIDOC poster competition and designing the St George Illawarra Dragons Indigenous Jerseys.

2019 marks the third consecutive year working with Lani on our NAIDOC range. Finding time between her studies, her art and being an all-round supermum, we sit down and discuss her painting 'Gari Yala' and what this year's NAIDOC theme 'Voice Treaty Truth' means to her.

Lani, we know you love to keep busy. From designing jerseys to painting murals, running workshops.. what other projects have you been working on?

Over many years I have been working with Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people sharing and connecting to culture through numerous volunteer and paid commissions including at schools, workshops, N.S.W Health, N.S.W Police, St Vincent hospital, SES N.S.W, UOW, AIME, learning labs, NAIDOC, Wollongong City council, Bundarra, Art therapy, retirement homes, aged care, local Elders, Wollongong SES, Wollongong Hospital, Family and Community Services, Wollongong Art Gallery, local community centres and many more. 

That's an immense body of work! It's clear you are very passionate about what you do

Painting is more than a passion, it is part of my identity, it’s a means of showcasing and sharing our beautiful and amazing culture. As an Aboriginal Artist I believe it is important to help advocate for Indigenous Youth, providing them with the guidance of connection and culture, helping them form a basis of what steps to take to successfully achieve their goals.

I also take part in Sorry Day and work with the community during Reconciliation Week, holding and organising events for NAIDOC every year.  During these events I have worked with many companies such as Cater Care, St George Illawarra Dragons and IBM to design artwork for their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

On top of this, you've managed to squeeze in some study?

Currently I am studying a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Wollongong as I have a passion for making a difference in people lives, and will use these qualifications to help the unfortunate Indigenous Youth of Australia.

When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

I have always painted but never considered myself an artist. It wasn’t until I had my children that it became clear to me the importance of my art and sharing my culture.

So becoming a mum inspired you to pursue art full time?

My children are my biggest inspiration for my artwork and what I have achieved. The inspiration of the stories is my identity and the importance of sharing our culture. All my artworks have a story and each one has a unique and significant meaning behind it.

Tell us about your earliest memory of painting

My earliest memory of painting is when I was about 4 years old. I remember going to my grandmothers and she would always have paints and crafts for me to play with.

I have always painted but it was always just something that was a part of me. I remember being put into a talented art class in year 6 and my art teacher Mrs Edwards telling me that when I become famous one day that I need to dedicate my first artwork to her because she had to put up with my mess.

Let’s jump over to your NAIDOC painting 'Gari Yala (Speak the Truth)'. Can you tell us a bit about your painting, and the story behind it?

This painting represents a timeline of country; our motherland and the layers that represent it before colonisation, the change when colonisation happened, the present and the future.

The outside represents the beginning before colonisation where our culture remained untouched and our country remained sacred. Moving inwards to the next layer, this represents when colonisation happened and the alteration to the land and our people from this. The next layer represents the present, the fight we face for 
change, the importance of a Treaty, and voices coming together. The middle represents the future; it is the change we so deeply desire, the acknowledgement that we deserve and truth of our people and our culture.

The importance of Treaty, of ‘Voices coming together’ is something we here often. Do you as an Indigenous person feel your voice is heard in modern Australia?

Our people have been on this land for more than 65,000 years. There needs to be an understanding of country and of our people who are the oldest continuing culture on this planet. This is the only way to move forward for our future of this country.

Remembering that we are a multi-cultural Aboriginal country in 2019, we come from all different walks of life and all different decent lines as do I. Aboriginal people of this land have not always had an untold or untrue history voiced. Our voices have not always been completely heard and this is continuing to happen. Without our voices, things cannot change for the future.

How do you think suppression of the truth has impacted Indigenous people? What do you think a Treaty would accomplish?

 As a unified country we need to own our past and truth so we can move forward together. Having the truth told is an integral part of the healing process and paving the way towards reform. The true story of colonisation must be heard and acknowledged.

The future is to have our voices heard to have sovereignty, a Treaty to our land. To come together and to understand the importance of our culture. Our culture is not something just for Aboriginal people to be proud of, but for all Australians to embrace the culture and our land we all live on. 

Thank you Lani for your time, for sharing your art and culture to all. Your extensive body of work and community involvement is a testament to how important culture is for you. We look forward to collaborating again in the near future.

To see more of Lani's amazing artwork, be sure to check out her Instagram and website

Discover her NAIDOC range here