Art And Activism By Urban Aboriginal Artist At The October Gallery

By Kate Orchard | 17 November 2006
photo shows blanket with aboriginal repeatedly printed on it

Stud Gins 1 - Aboriginal. Fiona Foley. Courtesy of the October Gallery.

Fiona Foley is an Aboriginal artist, activist and curator. Her show "Strange Fruit" has come to London as the latest in a series of Australian exhibitions at the October Gallery. Her work finds grounding in a sense of place - yet is very different from the dot paintings for which Aboriginal artists are widely known.

Kate Orchard explores her work - and the passionate politics and controversial histories behind it.

photo shows ku klux klan shaped clothes, but in african colours with black headdresses

HHH(1) (2004) Hedonistic Honky Haters. Fiona Foley produced this work whilst doing a residency in New York. Courtesy of the October Gallery.

This exhibition takes its title from the poignant protest song made famous by Billie Holiday. The song was composed by Abel Meeropol – a Jewish school teacher and union activist from the Bronx – after seeing Lawrence Beiteler’s horrifying 1930 photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana. Fiona’s work, like the song, is both evocative and confronting.

As you enter the gallery, you see "HHH Hedonistic Honky Haters" - near life size, anthropological style portraits of a ‘clandestine secret society’. It’s a sardonic echo of the photographic glorification of the Klu Klux Klan. Created during a residency in New York, these 7 black hooded figures in colourful ‘ethnic’ cloaks stand holding our gaze.

She asks us to look with new eyes upon history, in particular the too often silenced parts of Australian history, the violent and tragic impact of colonisation upon indigenous peoples. Seven grey government issue blankets hang on the gallery wall stamped with the words ’Aboriginal’, ‘Women’, ‘Property’, ‘Defiled’, ‘Ravished’, ‘Shared’, ‘Discarded’. Within living memory, these blankets were issued as ‘welfare’ but became a symbol of control: used in exchange for land, resources and women’s bodies. Death as a result of sexually transmitted disease was rife.

In colonial Western Australia in an attempt to halt such illegal blanket sales, they were stamped with the imperial crown. Stitched on a corner, an embroidered initial of a previous owner reminds us of the abuse of human frailty.

photo shows series of blankets with words stamped on them

Blankets [Aboriginal Women Property Defiled Ravished Shared Disgarded] 2003. Courtesy of the October Gallery.

“All aboriginal art in this country is political”

Similar historical art-e-facts were used in Foley’s installation “Land Deal” at Canberra’s National Gallery which informed the subsequent public artwork outside Melbourne’s Town hall entitled “Lie of the Land” (1997). This installation consisted of blankets, 50 kilos of flour, scissors, beads, knives and tomahawks.

These were the handful of objects ‘exchanged’ for 600,000 acres of land now occupied by the city of Melbourne - the basis of the 1835 transaction by pastoralist John Batman with the Aboriginal Wurendjeri people.

To a British audience our relationship to these narratives may seem remote, in time and place. However Foley’s work demands that we explore the results of our own colonial past. As the writer and historian Henry Reynolds points out in his book ‘The Law of the Land’, “the inability of Australian law to retreat from historical injustice has had major implications for relations between white Australians and Aborigines”. The ‘discovery’ and subsequent ‘possession’ of Australia was based on the notion that the land was ‘ownerless’. As these horrific encounters remind us, clearly this was not the case.

This it is not a well trodden path. Although a successful artist, Foley experiences major opposition to the content of her work. When displaying "Witnessing to Silence" she chose not to reveal the significance of the work until long after installation outside Brisbane’s Magistrates Court in 2005.

94 place names reveal sites of in Aboriginal massacres while ash and water (fire and flood) describe the mode of disposal of Aboriginal bodies. Fiona speaks of Aboriginal art that is framed by two cultures:

“Art provides us [Aboriginal artists] with an opportunity to talk about our history….from when we are children most of us have had our own traditional culture taken from us. We’re forced to live by two laws, which oppose one another. We are force to adapt – we have to go to Western schools and have to learn about history which usually begins in 1788…Aboriginal people get a one eyed view of history, and the form of oral history that you grow up with before 1788 is contradicted.”
Fiona Foley ‘Solitaire’ By B.Genoccio p57

photo shows australian beach with posts and red tape

In a gallery talk she emphasised the strategic nature of her work. It’s not just about historical recognition, but challenging contemporary lack of knowledge. This call for dialogue and exchange seems to be a driving force in all areas of her work. For example, in Australia there are 100 different indigenous language groups. Although the popular dot paintings of the Central desert have entered into the National curriculum, in sessions with secondary schools Fiona reported, no young people could name five of the indigenous nations. This inaccurate focus on a ‘picture postcard’ view of indigenous culture can be damaging and misleading:

“They don’t want to see remote Aboriginal communities in distress, or even how Aboriginal people have careers in the cities. What they want is dots and images of naked black people sitting around on the hot red earth”
Fiona Foley ‘Solitaire’ B. Genoccio p43

This is only one part of the picture. On meeting the artist it is clear that an intrinsic link to place is what grounds her work. Fiona and her indigenous group the Batjala come from Thoorine or K’gari (Frazer Island, Queensland). It’s known as a holiday destination for many, but to them it is their ancestral home, their country - one of the most distinctive natural environments in Australia.

photo shows clothes strewn on beach which spell white trash

Signposts by Fiona Foley. Courtesy of the October Gallery.

Her work seems to caution us not to be complacent. In "Signposts" voluntary art workers helped to create two temporary site works on Frazer Island. "Signpost 1" (2006) – wrapping the jetty in red tape – a reflection on the Wondunna clan’s ongoing Native Title claim. In "Signpost 11" (2006) The words ‘White Trash’ were written on the sand by volunteers, using second hand clothes. A derogative term for a white underclass, it comments on the negative impact of ‘downward’ envy’ - one group’s ability to look down on another (often indigenous) people.

photo shows mangrove pods

Mangrove Pods (2000) Mangroves were initially cleared by Europeans unaware of the crucial role they play in supporting plant and marine life.

This coast of sandy beaches, rocky headlands and mangrove mudflats was where her mother was born in 1938. In the 1840s the Badtjala people were subject to brutal massacres, including early form of chemical warfare where flour was laced with arsenic. Like many Aboriginal groups across the colonial frontier, those that remained were removed to mission outstations away from ancestral land and connections. Land clearances to establish pastoral land had a devastating impact on indigenous plants and animals.

Granted World Heritage listing in 1991, Frazer Island is now protected. However, the Woodunna clan (of which the Foley family are part) still wait for a response to their Native Title Claim (submitted in 1997) for a small Western section of the Island once used for ceremonies and other events.

There is a delicacy and beauty to her work. Fiona’s drawing and painting features a curious mixture of the handed down Badtjala knowledge, personal stories and symbols from this unique natural environment: animals like dugongs, turtles and dingoes and objects like feathers, shells and bone. Since 1986 Foley’s group have helped in setting up the Badtjala "Thoorgine Education and Cultural Centre" offering eco tourism with an indigenous focus to their "country".

Look beyond the surface and this work lingers with you. Fiona speaks of connection to land and our common responsibilities and relationships to place that extends from the past into the future.

Fiona Foley show runs at the October Gallery until the 2nd December 2006. Tues - Sat 12:30 to 5:30pm.

Related reading

The Natural History Museum have recently agreed to return the remains of 17 Tasmanians to Australia.

More about the Human remains debate

A piece from the Guardian about a Native Title claim now being debated in Perth.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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