For over 30 years, Badtjala artist Fiona Foley has been an advocate for Indigenous political and social equality, using her art to educate and inform on Indigenous issues relevant to all Australians. As a founding member of the Boomalli co-operative in 1987, Foley was one of the first urban-based Aboriginal artists to challenge aesthetic and ideological preconceptions around Aboriginal art in this country, embarking on a career that eschewed tradition to explore ideas through a range of new media.
Now a leading figure in contemporary Australian art, Foley is as noted for her public orations and community activism as she is as an exhibiting artist and curator.
Melancholy and understated, much of Foley’s work is inspired by her connection to her ancestral homeland of Thoorgine (Fraser Island) and surrounding areas, filtered through a lens of contemporary urban experience. Her multidisciplinary practice bears witness to the contested history of the land she calls home, and confronts unsettling fissures in her cultural inheritance. The Badtjala, to quote Foley, are a ‘fragmented people’, having endured the decimation of their culture over successive decades as their linguistic, ceremonial and material traditions were consigned to a footnote in Australia’s history. What little remains of the Badtjala legacy is now preserved in public collections, suspended in time and further removed from her people’s custody.
Foley’s desire to reclaim that missing heritage is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in her ongoing series of photographic works that wryly reimagine Thoorgine’s history from an Indigenous perspective. Building on themes explored in previous works, Foley constructs visual narratives that interrogate the reliability of Queensland’s ‘official’ history and examine the myriad influences that systematically erased her cultural heritage. Though largely theoretical, this alternate view of the past is informed by exhaustive research and a commitment to rebuilding the material culture of her people. Now, in an exhibition of new works entitled Horror has a face, Foley pays particular attention to two figures of Thoorgine’s past, Archibald Meston and Ernest Gribble.
Central to Queensland’s The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, Meston and Gribble introduced policies and ordinances that reshaped life for the Badtjala people. Targeting various themes and subjects including governance, exoticism, and reminiscence, Horror has a faceemploys a blend of irony and subversive humour to critique colonial depictions of Aboriginals and confront the subjective nature of historical records. Layered with cultural references, the works ridicule one-dimensional anthropological studies and naïve or ‘savage’ depictions of Indigeneity as seen through the eyes of Europeans. Foley dissects Australia’s recorded history by laying out the evidence—the innate whiteness, the cultural abyss, and the continued appropriation of her spiritual culture. Specific attention is paid to the damaging effect of Christian missionaries in the late 19thcentury, the introduction of opium to the Badtjala people, and the fetishisation of Aboriginal women. Contemporary cues are also present, reminding us that Indigenous voices continue to be widely unheard in national discourses.
Though Foley sees herself more as an educator than a political artist, her work is by its very nature political in that it challenges historical and cultural perceptions and threatens some of this country’s most deeply held national myths. However Foley offers no firm answers with her alternate narratives—only more unanswered questions and the uncomfortable ambiguity they emphasise.
Fiona Foley: Horror has a Face showed at Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane, in December 2017.
This article first appeared in Art Almanac, November 2017.