This is a guest post by Darwin arts curator and criminal barrister Koulla Roussos.
Sunday morning. I’m driving to the prison and when I reach the car park I suddenly realise I am wearing contraband Rossi black steel capped boots. I have driven all this way before in steel capped boots and have been refused entry, reminded on every occasion “rules are rules”.
I have just driven 30km. I can’t turn back and return home. If I don’t make this shift I won’t get a chance to see two clients for another two weeks. I make a deal with myself. I will argue my case before the shift supervisor. I will try to invoke his discretion to make an exception just this one time again.
I have been refused entry a few times before for the same reason. There are somethings I do during the day out of habit- like putting on my shoes. Like forgetting to put a spare pair of non-steel capped boots in the car for just such occasions.
I have argued my way around this inflexible rule. Once I was allowed in with only my orange polka dot socks. It depends on which officer is on duty. I have been warned before that I’d run out of chances. I’ve been told before that walking around in socks is not allowed. It’s contrary to OHS.
I have driven this far. I will plead my case. I will give it a go.
In the video above I am walking to the prison in my contraband shoes. I feel strong in these shoes. I wear these to court, to outings, on dates, at dinner, at clubs or at parties. I am an unconventional woman with only a few pair of shoes: runners, flip flops and boots. Oops, I lie. I have one pair of sensible dress shoes I wear to church once a year at Easter.
My interstate guest is waiting for me back at my home, and when it’s all over I will return, pick her up and despite my work load will offer hospitality and drive her to the markets for a quick lunch and then to the Aboriginal art fair.
I took this video of my feet purposefully striding while a thought from the night before swelled in my mind. The thought of that moment when at the arts festival gardens surrounded by arty types I was being introduced by my guest, a mature woman, a curator of an important collection, to a younger man, an arts centre worker from a remote Western Australian aboriginal community.
He was handsome, scruffy hair, rough and unshaven, in an op shop hipster rayon shirt, and track pants. Handsome. He looked Southern European. I believed in myself for a split second, but I never stood a chance. Not sober. I don’t drink anymore. I can’t do seduction sober.
He looked around confidently radiating with masculine youth and freedom and all that aura arty types glow with the self-satisfaction of working in the aboriginal arts industry championing the underdog.
He was grimacing, surveyed the crowd, and drank his beer from a plastic cup. My friend mentioned his name and introduced him to me.
“Meet Koulla, she’s a criminal law barrister, a curator, an artist, she lectures in arts law, she writes, she project manages, she reviews exhibitions, she’s a photographer, there is nothing this woman can’t ” at which point he interrupted, grimaced some more and asked “can she cook?”.
“Can I cook?” I thought, what kind of question is that. I felt my bile stirring. I was in polite company though, am I taking this in the wrong way? The question took me by surprise, but my mind was already overanalysing and did not know how to respond. “Can I cook? I love cooking” I said. I smiled. I chuckled. Inside I was shrivelling up, I wanted to die, I was so disappointed with my cowardly reply.
Later, my friend said he was a nice guy, and was being silly and having an innocent dig. But my thoughts niggled away the rest of evening, self-doubt creeped into my sleep, I woke up still feeling anxious and this fixated self-propelling negation amplified on the solitary 30km drive to the prison of lost souls.
This is my apology, my letter to myself, one free woman speaking to another. This is what I ought to have said to him. This is what I was thinking I should have said to him as I was walking towards the shift sergeant in my contraband boots.
Are you negating my success? Are you challenging my gender, my ethnicity, reminding me of my historically determined role? Do you want to deny me the strength I derive from my own sense of existence? Will you negate the infinite forms my individuality morphs into guided by my gender, my sexuality, my own tradition, my own history, my own time, place, space but also stretched into new areas by my own self will. Why do I let myself be eroded by your callous question? Why do I trip from who I was and who I am and who I am becoming? Why am I feeling enclosed, suffocated, and negated by your stereotype thrown in jest?
“Can she cook?” Wit or ridicule, he referred to me in the third person in my presence.
I don’t want to belittle cooking as a skill imparted to me by my grandmother and mother. I can cook a Greek feast, with a large repertoire of national and regional dishes. I’ve written all my grandmother’s and mother’s recipes. I specialise in Greek vegetarian cuisine, or as I joke with my friends, Greek nun food. My Greek feasts are legendary, with some nights starting at 7pm and finishing at 7am.
I know the basics of most of the world’s cuisines, and can bake bread, make my own gnocchi and pasta, all types of complex stews and sauces, European, Ottoman, Middle Eastern, Mexican, South American, Indian, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, south East Asian, entrees, soups, salads, curries, stir fries, raw, gluten and allergy free.
I collect cookbooks. I have read and studied food history, sociology, and critique by authors as far and wide as Ovid, Brillat Savarin, Elizabeth David, MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl.
I have traced the history and geography of the world from primary school obsession and fascination with the explorers, the silk route, the spice trade, the post contact Western European impact, the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism, empire, and all that has challenged and is challenging my Postmodern mind. As I child I knew the tomato did not exist in Italian cuisine before 1492.
I have tertiary qualifications in Economics, Law, and Art history and Philosophy. I have ventured deep into history, literature, art, film, music, approaching my personal study of these as a meditation on their respective archaeology, architecture, and archive as mirrors of zeitgeist and my psyche.
I can cook, and while we’re at it I am not partnered, I wonder why my queer peers want to throw their freedoms from convention by eulogising and coveting the heteronormative prison that is marriage; and no I don’t have children, but I have worked in indigenous legal services throughout the Northern Territory, I have traveled the world, I have shared insights with diverse individuals, I have many adventures to share and have raised my nieces and nephews, on the stories of an intrepid and swashbuckling irreverent adventurer and imaginative historian, and most children, young adults, most of my peers, friends, lovers that I have ever cared for and mentored have thrived as a result of the nourishment I offer unconditionally.
My parents never completed primary school and left their schooling and their home as teenagers, displaced they sacrificed everything for me to have a chance in a racialised country split between the binary of black and white, in a country which refuses to let their experience become part of the reverence of art and culture. Very few in state supported cultural institutions want to support those who write about the tragedy or sing the blues of migrants ostracised and displaced by history on these shores. We get the funding for models that perpetuate silly folksy caricatures and offer token inclusivity by celebrating only their worth through the conspicuous consumption of their food.
I can cook, and I work, and I read and I continue to study, and I dream and I imagine, and I create, and I contribute to my family, my friends, and to the cultural wellbeing of my community. My mind, my heart, my belly, my pockets are full and I share generously my parent’s example.
I am a criminal law barrister with over 25 years of training and refining of my craft. I wake up at between 5-6am every day. I work 12 hours a day on average 7 days per week. I fight in court for the rights of the deviant and the marginalised for the morally abhorrent people society doesn’t give a shit about on dismal legal aid rates.
I appear in trials, in appeals, in Royal Commissions without the help of an instructor. I am my own secretary, solicitor, office manager. I am the first and only Greek woman to sign the NT Bar Roll.
I coordinated the stolen generation litigation, one of the most important litigation in Australian legal history.
I write, I lecture, I make art, I take photos, I curate, I develop, hatch and plan. I exhibit. I am developing an exhibition with 57 indigenous artists spread across 16 remote communities in central Australia-without institution, with very little institutional guidance or help.
I am a reliable and responsible daughter, sister, aunt, friend, peer, professional, social justice advocate, story teller, memory minder, I take the road less traveled, and yes, I can cook, I am an exceptional cook and I never stick to recipes.
Incidentally, that morning I approached the shift supervisor with quiet confidence. He was the same officer who has on two previous occasions refused me entry. I had nothing to lose.
I spoke to him politely and with good humour entered a banter, and reciting the oft well performed mea culpa role. I took responsibility for waking up on a Sunday morning, sleep deprived to drive to the prison forgetting to wear appropriate shoes. “Sargent, I’m wearing blue socks with stars, want me to show you?” I pleaded with him again, “just this once, to spare a thought for my clients and let me in…I promise, on my way home I will stop at the servo and buy and store in my car a pair of thongs.
“Sargent, I know it’s against OHS to walk inside the prison with just my socks on… I don’t want to go back home without seeing my blokes…I gotta get their instructions… They are on remand. Please, I can’t come back later in the day. I have a friend from interstate to entertain…”
The older white male in khaki uniform was happy to see me so jovially attempting to change an un-bendable rule. He put on a feeble show of resistance, but joked with me and laughed and explained his own hierarchical imposed limitations, but he agreed to call his own superior, and after a phone call he said, “just this one time, rules are rules” and authorised my entry. He winked and said, “no more chances”. I slipped back into my steel cap boots, and marched confidently with a swagger towards the interview room.
Koulla Roussos, is Darwin born and based a criminal law barrister with an interest in art history. As an independent curator, she has managed a busy court and Royal Commission practice, as well as engaging local artists, developing cutting-edge exhibitions focusing on Darwin’s shifting urban identity. After securing the in -principle support of Janet Holmes a Court and the participation of the Utopia Batik artists, she is currently developing a commemorative exhibition to celebrate the impact of 1988 Batiks. She is also hatching a revitalisation plan for an important Darwin thoroughfare with local restauranteur and provocateur Jason Hanna.