Mama Alto’s Hot Desk

By Meg Hill

This time last year CBD News covered the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk fellowships. Twenty-four writers were given a stipend and a workspace in the Wheeler Centre to work on their writing projects.

Much has changed – some of last year’s winners even travelled to the Centre from regional and interstate areas. But the 2020 fellowships went ahead, and a Melbourne icon is among the fellows.

The name Mama Alto would stand out for many in the list of 21 talented winners. The jazz singer, cabaret artist and “gender transcendent diva” has made her way into the fabric of Melbourne’s entertainment scene.

Now she is planning to use her fellowship to expand her artistic practice.

“I have always loved writing and the power of the written word, but I wanted to move into this area in a more mindful, meaningful and considered way,” she said.

“In 2019, I was selected for the Creative Victoria program supporting intensive research and development, the Creators Fund, and I used my time and resources in the program to extend and deepen my practice as a cabaret artist - but it also lead to me embarking on my first major book, an exploration of ‘the concept of the diva’.”

Mama Alto said she emerged from that project a better artist and with the beginnings of an artist’s book: a collated bricolage of essays, poetry, memoir, music writing and analysis.

She hopes by the end of her Wheeler Centre fellowship the book will be nearly complete.

The fellowships are, of course, adapted to our times. While an in-person writing space is out of the question, financial, professional and community support will be provided to the fellows in whatever way possible.

That’s welcome news in a scenario where most artist’s income has been totally uprooted, and the future of the industry is up in the air.

“I am privileged to have found stable income at this time in a new role for an arts organisation, but I worry for artists who do not have that stability and I try to do what I can to amplify that message,” Mama Alto said.

“This is a tough time to create in - not only are artists under the usual pressures to perform or create or write brilliantly, but now there are added the challenges of digital delivery with whatever technology might already be at hand.”

“There’s arguably a great deal more effort, energy and stress in this way of creating - for far less financial and spiritual gain.”

For Mama Alto, like most Melburnians, the physicality of the CBD has been a part of their experience of the arts. Even while that physical dimension has, for the time being, disappeared, her fellowship is a continuation of it.

“To me, the city is a place of coming together - and intrinsic to that is storytelling. I think I do always feel conscious that for millennia Kulin peoples have gathered by the Birrarung here for tanderrum, and for thousands of years told stories and made culture on the lands which are now the CBD,” Mama Alto said.

“For me, as a child, going into the city from the suburbs where we lived was mostly to experience the arts, at places like Arts Centre Melbourne, the NGV, the State Library and the East End theatre district, at independent bookshops and small performance venues.”

“And in that way, this city really shaped me. Now, in my performances - some in those same places I adored as a child - it’s quite emotional. Stories are formative. And it’s important who we uplift to help tell those stories, to be the custodians and amplifiers of our collective histories, imaginations and experiences.” •

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