Because of the harsh light that Fiona Foley shines on the land swindles, sexual violations and wholesale massacres that have been perpetrated on Indigenous people, many observers regard her as a political artist. She rejects this label, however, and describes herself as an educator. She certainly understands the strategies used by skilled educators – story telling, surprise, humour and a huge amount of underlying research.
As one of the most prominent Indigenous Australian artists she regularly exhibits work internationally, where her photographic and installation-based work fits comfortably into a wider context of world art and postcolonial discourse. A significant aspect of her role as an artist is revealing to other countries that a continuous tradition in Australia, tens of thousands of years old, can be an active participant in contemporary culture, but it’s back home that she meets her most important challenges.
Her late mother was a formative influence. Shirley Foley, a Badtjala woman, dedicated much of her life to researching and sustaining the culture of the Badtjala people whose country is Fraser Island and the neighbouring mainland area. She published a dictionary of the language, and taught her daughter to know, value and participate in her Badtjala heritage. She also collected Aboriginal paintings and artefacts. Fiona Foley recalls growing up surrounded by visual art, hanging on the walls in the lounge room.
Her early work was more clearly connected to Indigenous visual tradition than it has become subsequently. It was alien to the principles that her art school instructors knew and valued, and was not well received (the only Indigenous art included in the art history curriculum was the work of Albert Namatjira, who had learned to camouflage his traditional stories of the land in a western watercolour style).
The National Museum of Australia recognised the significance of Foley’s work before the institutional art world, and acquired her sculpture Annihilation of the Blacks (1986) while she was still a student. Aside from the starkly grim story it tells, this row of simply carved black figures strung up by their necks in a row between two forked poles closely resembles sculptures by the Wik-Mungkan people of Cape York Peninsula, now eagerly collected. The connection would have been lost, however, on the Australian art audience of the day.
Wanting to experience an Indigenous culture that was (unlike her own) intact, she travelled to the community of Ramingining in Arnhem Land in 1985, where Foley met the curator, writer, academic and activist Djon Mundine, who was the art and craft adviser there. She returned almost every year until 1993. In 1989 she lived and worked there for nine months. Participating in the art and life of this community, and feeling the power of belief and ceremony had a strong permanent effect on her career. Foley’s ostensibly cool and conceptually mature work needs to be seen in the context of this ongoing commitment to sustaining the vitality of a cultural tradition that is separate from the non-Indigenous mainstream. She was one of the founding members of the Boomali Aboriginal Artist Co-operative in Sydney, an initiative prompted in part by the example of artist collectives like the one at Ramingining. Boomali was the spearhead of urban Indigenous art in Australia, and Foley became a key figure in this chapter of art history.
The pastel drawings that she was producing during the late 1980s and early 1990s, for which she first became widely known, could be read by a general art audience in the familiar terms of lyrical abstraction. They are drawn after seeing ceremony at Ramingining or collecting natural objects on Fraser Island.
Foley majored in sculpture at art school, and two substantial sculptural installation projects in 1995 – Edge of the Trees commissioned by the Museum of Sydney and Land Deal, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia – established her reputation as a leading contemporary artist. Edge of the Trees, made in collaboration with Janet Laurence, was described by Benjamin Genocchio in his book on Foley as one of the few icons of recent Australian art. The poles that comprise the installation contain small, almost secretive pockets of the types of shells, seeds and ochres that 200 years earlier would have been commonly found on the site as signs of habitation by the Eora people of the Sydney area.
Land Deal represents the colonial swindling and trickery of Aboriginal people, a theme that has subsequently recurred in Foley’s commissioned works of public art. This installation physically displays in the gallery the cheap commodities that John Batman gave to the Wurundjeri people in exchange for the land now occupied by the city of Melbourne. The same trade items were listed, engraved on stone blocks temporarily installed outside Melbourne’s Town Hall in Foley’s 1997 work Lie of the Land. The combination of restraint and sombre gravity of the Melbourne work is a very effective demonstration of the way simply stating the facts can be the most powerfully emotive force in a public monument.
Stating the facts is essentially what Foley aims to do in her work, in ways that are graphically memorable. The bluntly titled 2003 work Stud Gins tells the story of sexual exploitation of Indigenous women by station owners and even superintendents of Christian missions in six words: Aboriginal, Women, Property, Defiled, Ravished, Shared, Discarded. The words are repeatedly stamped onto grey government-issue blankets.
In the early 20th century, blankets like these were issued as a form of state welfare. Foley has occasionally selected materials and artifacts that, like a museum display, generate an element of historical presence. She began doing something similar in her early use of photography by paraphrasing the look of vintage photographs, in a way that could be compared with the revision of history by Indigenous artists in other parts of the world. Her 1994 self-portrait Badtjala Woman is based on a rare photograph taken in 1899 of a woman from her country traditionally clad in a grass skirt. Foley’s reworking of the image has less to do with postmodern deconstruction than with an urge to reconstruct a sense of herself. In the words of Brisbane writer Louise Martin-Chew, her works “resonate for the dispossessed indigene, of whatever place”.
Discussing her Wild Times Call exhibition, first shown in 2001 at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, she has referred to “the camera’s central role … in transforming but really stereotyping, our cultures”. She sees the role reversal of Indigenous people moving behind the camera as an important reversal of power, allowing them to define their own image and identity: “… firstly replacing the documenter, then creatively reinterpreting their photographic history”.
Photography has given Foley scope for expressing her robust sense of humour, which seldom made an appearance in earlier work. In one of her photographic self-portraits as a Badtjala woman in a grass skirt she’s wearing platform-soled shoes painted the colours of the Aboriginal flag. She used the discarded op shop clothing to spell out the words white trash on the beach at Fraser Island for her 2005 photograph Signposts II. Her 2008 exhibition Sea of Love was a surprising departure from the usual themes of her work. The style of these photographs is taken from fashion and advertising, and the subject matter, instead of race relations in Australian history, is gender relations in the age of internet romance.
The recurring references to opium in her recent work are also unexpected, unless the viewer is aware of the Queensland Government’s rather dubious dealings with this substance a century ago. Aboriginal people who had become addicted to opium were imprisoned on Palm Island, while the government-controlled sale of the drug produced a healthy revenue. Foley’s 2006 public art work Black opium in the atrium of the Queensland State Library is one of her memorials to unacknowledged details of our past.
Perhaps Foley’s most confronting work to date is her 2004 photographic series Bring It On a.k.a. HHH (which stands for Hedonistic Honky Haters) produced for the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York. Here the role reversal is distinctly threatening, with black hooded figures wearing robes of the brilliantly colourful African cloth known as Dutch wax creating their own version of the Ku Klux Klan. The photographs are simultaneously frightening and witty (and, because of the textiles, beautiful).
Racism and humour are a dangerous and potentially volatile mix, but Foley’s Nulla 4 Eva series identifies the element of absurdity in the hostilities between Anglo and Lebanese kids at Cronulla beach in 2005. After thousands of years of Indigenous habitation the few generations separating the two waves of immigrants disputing the territory seems immaterial. The 2005 incident was a turf war between these two groups, but by introducing Aboriginal people into the picture Foley offers a reminder of the larger issue, which the brawling kids had overlooked.
For Fiona Foley, reconstructing Aboriginal history is often not just revisionism but a process of finding the pieces of what she calls her shattered heritage and putting them back together. Her work draws attention to details that have tended to be suppressed. She sees herself as “teaching history that people have no knowledge of, or choose to disown”.
Fiona Foley: Forbidden will be on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney from 12 November 2009 to 31 January 2010.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 50 OCT-DEC, 2009.