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Roberto and Matilde Balsamo

"But the day we unveiled the statues—my parents came from Italy for that unveiling—for me, it was touching the hand of glory, you know?"

Generations of migrants have shaped the face of Fremantle, especially post Second World War when many Italians made their home in Australia. But as times change so too do populations and now a new wave of migrants are making their presence felt in the port city.Artist and sculptor Roberto Balsamo lives in Fremantle, operating out of his gallery The Galleria D’Arte West End where he works side by side with his wife Matilde. Roberto was the inspiration behind, and the creator of, the iconic sculptures of the two Italian fishermen in Fremantle’s Fishing Boat Harbour.

Fashion designer, Matilde, runs the boutique Creato a Mano where she sources local materials for her uniquely designed bags and clothes. The Galleria and the boutique are popular with both locals and tourists who are happy to see a melding of Australian and European designs.

Oh, it’s been a long time, more than 20 years since we came to Australia. I came to Australia because of the big natural open space and, as an artist, I thought it was what my creative side was looking for. Italy is, of course, a beautiful place, full of history and culture, but you need to be in nature to understand what you want to express to the world and to learn about your artistic temperament. I think the light here in Australia is different. I feel different artistically, and it caught me—the big open spaces. Especially in Western Australia which is so isolated.

I was in Sydney for a little while—and Melbourne—just visiting at first, but those cities were more like America and Europe to me. Western Australia is the last best kept secret, here everything evolves very slowly. I think also the temperament is very laid back and in this way I feel I can create without pressure. If I need a bit of culture, let’s put it this way, I’m always browsing, always talking with friends, always going to exhibitions. But Perth is growing, Perth is moving and I’m happy to be here.

A man and a woman with their arms around each other smiling.

Roberto reflects on the changing world of art in Western Australia and the influence this had on his iconic statues in Fremantle’s Fishing Boat Harbour.

Art is always changing, it’s not static and I’m glad I was part of that in a way. When I first came here I went to Edith Cowan University where I got another degree in visual arts, specialising in sculpture. As soon as I came out of my studies, I started sculpting the fisherman’s monument at Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour. For me, that was something that I associated with the art world in Perth, Western Australia. But because I’m a person who likes to be a little bit of an outsider, I wasn’t involved in a lot of exhibitions and galleries. But I was a good viewer, because when you come from Europe you have such a heavy weight of culture in your head, and sometimes to explain it is quite hard. In Fremantle, especially, which is growing and expanding, but in a soft way, so that’s why I never get bored here. Today Perth is growing fast, but before it was just gently achieving goals and I think in a few years it is going to be a big place in Australia, especially with links to Europe, China and India, because that’s where the expanding economies are.

It’s a strange feeling because you never think that one day you’re going to be part of a big iconic monument. The creation of the statues came from government sponsorship. I was very honoured because all the community of fishermen that built up the economy of Western Australia for the last hundred years were part of that, so everyone wanted to tell me their stories—“Oh I’ve been this, I’ve been that, and so my family”—So it’s more about what happened with immigrants, what’s happened with the culture, what’s happened with the starting of living in Western Australia.

A sculpture of a fisherman lifting a cray pot at Fremantle harbour

So I was thrilled, I was thrilled because it’s still something I feel proud of—that I was modelling myself with my face—that guy with the hand on the craypot. And it was very exciting. We were working 12 hours a day for one year so it was very exhausting. But the day we unveiled the statues—my parents came from Italy for that unveiling—for me, it was touching the hand of glory, you know? But still today it’s good fun with my friends because it was a big, big achievement.

Today, they are some of the most photographed monuments in Western Australia. It’s the story of the legacy from the old and the young building up the community and feeding the community in Fremantle. There’s still Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Croation here, all living together. And it is still part of Fremantle. The city is vibrant in that way.

We opened the Galleria D’Arte West End more than 3 years ago. I opened it because my father decided to come and visit me and stay for a while. We used to work a lot together until I came here twenty years ago, so I said “Dad if you’re coming along I’ll open a gallery so we can have a little bit of fun. It means we can work together to bring some artists here, and from here they can go to Italy.” But the thing was he went back and passed away after six months so I stopped for a bit. But the gallery is still working on-line for promoting things from here, exploring the market over there in Europe.

The fashion boutique, Creato a Mano, is run by Matilde Balsamo, Roberto’s wife. Matilde shared her experience in working for prominent fashion labels and how this influenced her to open up a small boutique in Fremantle.

We opened this shop, Creato a Mano, seven years ago. Roberto made all the furniture and fittings, everything is made from wood —the shelves, the tables, et cetera. In Italy, I worked as a fashion sales representative. I worked with the big fashion labels, you know, Prada, Burberry, for 27 years. So when I came here years ago I asked myself, “What can I do here?” So I opened a shop, similar to the boutiques in Europe, just to see what would happen. I work with natural fibres and natural yarns. I design and make the bags, and weave on the loom, crochet, knit—and I design all the clothes but they are made in Italy. So it is artisan.

My designs are influenced by what is around me now in Australia and what I experienced in my life in Italy. Western Australia is a beautiful place, it influences me of course, especially in the search for textiles and natural materials—because we are in a natural environment, and in a classic way it’s what I see in Australia. So many things influence me and when I finish something I am happy because it is really what I wanted. The customers are nice and they come back, which is good. Maybe if someone doesn’t like something they tell me which is also good because I can improve.

It’s good to be in Australia at this age because all the time I am challenging myself—with my English, with my culture, with my pasta, with everything.

My life is community. I like Fremantle. I like Roma. So it’s fifty percent for each. We try to do the best that we can do and see what happens. We have good customers, of course, the locals, the tourists, and they come back to us for the knitting and the crocheting.  At this moment Fremantle is going through a transitional time, but things are happening so we keep going.

Roberto reflected on the way Europe has changes over the last twenty years.

I find Italy is very hyperactive these days, everyone has to follow a certain cliché. In Australia we pause, we communicate in a different way, but when we import we chew it over a  lot—in our way—because I’m Australian now. I’ve been living here for more than 20 years and I can see the difference when I go back to Europe. We go every year, first for the shop, because Matilde has friends who work for her. And I need to visit my mum. I’m working on a project to archive my dad’s life’s work. His paintings have to be archived and this is all connected to the museum, the cultural conservation, the cultural institutions, art galleries, collections, et cetera, and I am the eldest, so I was given this authority and in a way it’s such a heavy weight.

But the good thing is, Australia’s getting closer and closer to Europe but we remain the same, inside, so that’s why I’m proud to be here all the time.Copyright © 2019 Roberto and Matilde Balsamo

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storytellers. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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