Fiona Foley is an artist who has benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Having begun exhibiting in the mid-1980s, she is young enough to have missed the great ideological battles that took place in the art of the sixties and seventies. She never had to worry about edges and picture planes, or suffer anxieties about the dematerialisation of the art object – to use Lucy Lippard’s apt but charmless phrase.
The 1980s was a time when Modernism had finally spluttered to a conclusion, and its successor, Postmodernism, was swiftly running out of puff. Indeed, the only place that this lame, parasitical movement seems to live forever is the NSW Higher School Certificate art course.
Foley (b.1964) was one of a group of young indigenous artists who responded to a growing awareness of Aboriginal issues generated by the boom in western desert art, and events such as the Mabo case, which would eventually lead to a new legal understanding of native title. The battles over land rights, which continue today, had a particular urgency in those years when all the arguments were being debated in the High Court.
Having studied at East Sydney Tech (AKA. The National Art School) and Sydney College of the Arts, Foley was very distant from those desert painters who were trailblazing an international profile for Aboriginal art. She belonged to the first generation of so-called “urban Aboriginal artists” – city dwellers whose lives had been spent working and studying within the greater community. It was important to these artists to reclaim and assert their Aboriginal identity, and to use their work to address political injustice.
In the catalogue of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey exhibition, Fiona Foley: Forbidden, there is a photograph of the artist with other members of Sydney’s Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, founded in 1987. Her companions are Michael Riley, Bronwyn Bancroft, Euphemia Bostock, Arone Meeks, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda Croft, Fernanda Martins, Jeffrey Samuels and Avril Quail. Most have gone on to become notable artists and/or curators, while Tracey Moffatt has trod the path of international stardom.
The urban variety of Aboriginal art found rapid acceptance among public institutions, which adored the idea of a group of young, articulate, politically-aware artists in touch with the latest developments in the contemporary arena. By contrast, the differences in language and culture with desert artists have always had a slightly intimidating effect on curators. Even painters as acclaimed as Emily Kngwarreye or Rover Thomas, have remained ‘others’ within the system.
This is not intended as criticism. It is merely a logical result of the difficulties in communication that must always exist among the people of the cities and those of the outback, between those with a global outlook and those whose worldview remains rooted in age-old community traditions.
While contemporary art has become wildly pluralistic, one of the dominant trends of our times is a preoccupation with ethnicity and cultural identity. This echoes the growth of an academic subject called Postcolonialism, born in the wake of Edward Said’s influential but deeply problematic book, Orientalism (1978). Over the past two decades Postcolonialist theory has sprouted its own cast of iconic writers and artists, devoted – in the words of Wikipedia – to destabilising Western ways of thinking. In practice this often devolves into a stream of cryptic utterances attached to impeccably correct political standpoints. In other words: an unlikely blend of scholasticism and activism that speaks on behalf of the oppressed millions, but mostly to a small, like-minded audience.
This propensity for speaking on behalf of supposedly voiceless majorities has made Postcolonialism one of today’s glamour disciplines. In Australia it has boosted the careers of those who fit the Postcolonialist agenda, such as Foley, Gordon Bennett, and more recently, Richard Bell. Such artists have become obligatory acquisitions for institutions wishing to demonstrate their sympathies with both indigenous politics and the cutting-edge aspects of contemporary art. For it is an abiding paradox that our intensely conformist and bureaucratic art museums are all eager to trumpet their “subversive” credentials.
For Foley, as the MCA survey makes clear, art is inseparable from politics. Rather more difficult is to know when to tone down the political discussion and accentuate the aesthetics. Hence we find the artist herself hoping that she is not viewed exclusively as a political artist. However, she does not go so far as Tracey Moffatt and Gordon Bennett, who have said they do not want to be seen primarily as “Aboriginal” artists. Foley takes pride in her background as a Badtjala woman of Fraser Island, and returns to her roots in one work after another.
If you’ll pardon the expression, there is a pronounced streak of black humour in Foley’s work, particularly in the photo-based pieces, which are full of impersonations and play-acting. In Native Blood (1994), she satirises her own hybrid status, wearing a shell necklace and grass skirt, switching, from beneath the waist, to black leotards and colourful shoes. The act is repeated in a more heavy-handed manner in the series Wild Times Call (2001), shot in a Seminole Indian reservation in southern Florida. This time Foley poses in a long, traditional Seminole dress, with her hair slicked down. Her face wears a consistently cranky expression, although it may have been intended as soulful.
In the series HHH (2004), she dresses a group of black models in long robes and pointy masks reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet in place of the white purity of the Klansmen’s robes, her “Hedonistic Honky Haters”, are decked out in boldly patterned African fabrics. In the catalogue, Michele Helmrich says this series questions “the conceptual base underlying an underground yet organized system of racist vigilantism.” It would have been simpler to call it a gag with a point. As Freud said: “Where he makes a joke, there a problem lies concealed.” The problem is the perennial one of racist hatred. The joke is a way of defusing the issue by highlighting the absurdity of the outfits and the ritualistic behaviour, intended to dignify the abhorrent.
This taste for simple, striking images is repeated in Foley’s installation works, such as Land Deal (1995), which gathers together items John Batman used to purchase a lease on Port Philip Bay from the local Aborigines. Foley exhibits a collection of knives, scissors, mirrors and blankets that echoes the goods Batman assembled for this lop-sided deal. The flour, arranged on the floor in a spiral shape, reminds us that the local inhabitants were trading their spiritual birthright for a few perishable goods.
In Foley’s work, everyday items always take on a deeper meaning. For instance, in the early years of settlement, blankets were often carriers of diseases against which the Aborigines had little resistance. On occasions, settlers dealt with troublesome natives by giving them flour laced with poison.
In a more recent series she has used poppies as a symbol of the way the colonial era employed opium as both a source of profit and a means of social control, while deploring the moral degeneracy of its users. This was not only the case in China, but also among the poor black labourers in late nineteenth century Queensland. In 2006 Foley’s large ceiling sculpture called Black Opium was installed in the State Library in Brisbane, as a way of helping to illuminate this murky corner of the colonial past. The piece uses cast aluminium poppy stalks, clustered into an infinity symbol, as if to suggest that nothing ever really changes.
This is not her most controversial work of public art – that distinction belongs to Witnessing to silence, installed in front of the Brisbane Magistrates’ Court in 2004. Foley told the commissioners that the place names listed in the piece referred to sites of flood and fire, whereas they are actually locations where massacres of Aboriginal people were said to have taken place. This act of subterfuge generated some temporary notoriety, but the work has remained in place and further commissions have followed.
What this suggests is that white Australians are only too willing nowadays to admit to the sins of the past. The popular response to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations signalled an openness in attitudes that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
As a consequence this is a very favourable political climate in which to make art that draws attention to racial injustice, the crimes of colonialism, and those undercurrents of prejudice and hatred still simmering today. But does the average visitor to the MCA really need to have his or her conscience pricked in this manner? Probably not, although there is obviously a certain pleasure in savouring the reflection of one’s own political opinions. The only disingenuous element is when this experience is presented in such a way that we are expected to see it as challenging rather than comforting.
Forbidden, Museum of Contemporary Art, November 12, 2009 – January 31, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald January 9, 2010