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I’ll just go through a quick pre-face to familiarise ourselves with who Fiona Foley is before the big presentation. The work of Fiona Foley consists quite strongly of elements of her life and culture of being an indigenous Australian. Foley uses her art to explore the tensions between sex, race and history and their various constructions. Her unique life history as an indigenous woman growing up in regional Queensland, in a community with a very vivid and living memory of their colonisation by the English remains to be a large instigator of Foley’s work. Her sense of identity is forged around the impact these events had on her family, her community and her history and culture. For Foley however, the political and the personal are not separate entities. Her lifestyle and art both reflect a commitment to her Aboriginal identity and challenge Australian culture to reread history to reveal moments of strength and empowerment. Russian critic Sasha Grishin shows positive reception after viewing Foley’s work in the prestigious Nicholas Hall at the Hermitage Museum in Russia and writes; “This is an exhibition of contemporary art, not in the sense that it was done recently, but in that it is cased in the mentality, technology and philosophy of radical art of the most recent times. No one, other than the Aborigines of Australia, has succeeded in exhibiting such art at the Hermitage. So I actually have a special surprise for everyone today, I have Ms Foley on Skype today to talk to the class about her work. Switch to Skype.

Hi Fiona, how are you today

Fiona replies Is it alright if I ask you a few questions in front of the class about your life and work as an Indigenous Artist? Yes ok.

Growing up and even to this day what has influenced and motivated you in your art?


gus armstrong

As a child, my mother Shirley Foley, a Badtjala woman, dedicated much of her life to researching and sustaining the culture of the Badtjala people of Fraser Island. She published a dictionary of the language and taught me to know, value, cherish and participate in the Badtjala heritage. She also collected a vast array of Aboriginal artefacts and paintings and I have fond memories of being surrounded by visual art hanging all over the walls in our lounge room. Also the book, ‘The Legends of the Moonie Jarl’ that was written by my great uncle Wilf Reeves and illustrated by my great aunt, Olga Miller, was exceptionally nice. But I suppose the real reason for my work comes from the actions and events of the settlement of the western world upon our own traditional one. A lot of stories need to be told about past events and how our two cultures collided and brought with it a storm of problems and chaos. I guess you can really see it in works such as Black Opium, that I did which tended to the Queensland Governments rather dubious dealings with opium a century ago. Aboriginal people who had become addicted to the substance were sent to Palm Island for imprisonment, all-the-while the government-controlled sale of the drug produced a healthy revenue for those involved. This is an example of one of the more unacknowledged details of Australian history that I guess people would rather leave alone than to bring up again.

Quite often we hear of your labelled as a political artist, what’s your say on that?

I despise the label political artist, I am an educator of the western world, and all my works are based and structured on real occurrences in my life. You will actually see on my biography page on Design & Art Australia website that I am listed as a photographer, sculptor, printmaker and painter, and that is specifically what I am. Thanks for that, could you please run us through your 11 major works and then just give a brief insight as to what they are all about? Sure thing Gus, I’ll do a few for you, so in order from my oldest work to most recent it starts with Sacred Land, Drifting Ephemerally, Land Deal, Edge of the Trees, Black Velvet, The Lie of the Land, Wild Times Call, Winged Harvest, Hedonistic Honkey Haters otherwise known as HHH, Witnessing To Silence and Black Opium. So we have already discussed Black Opium so well skip that and talk about Witnessing to Silence and a few others. Witnessing to Silence adorns the Roma Street frontage to the Brisbane Magistrates Court and it took me about 2 years to complete the work. In my initial artist statement I kind of said that the sculpture was to memorialise the fires and floods in 94 Queensland towns. This, I guess, was only half the truth. Those 94 towns that are etched onto the pavers are actually the 94 sites where massacres of Aboriginal people were known to have taken place. The columns bear panels of laminated ash, stainless steel and a water feature and it echoes the method in 3

which the bodies were disposed of, by burning and discarding into the waterways. So probably my most confronting work to date is the work I did in 2004 titled Bring it On a.k.a. HHH, for in which the HHH stands for Hedonistic Honkey Haters. This was produced for the International and Curatorial Program in New York. I reversed the role here by making these black hooded figures adorn robes of brilliantly colourful African cloth known as Dutch wax, creating a construction of the Ku Klux Klan. This series has been described as ‘simultaneously frightening and witty, and beautiful because of the textile work. This series invigorates a lot of hatred, but subtly reduced with humour. Lisa Havilah, of the Campbelltown Arts Centre said that ‘We do not so much respond to these photographs as we do to our own knowledge of other documentary images in our minds. HHH are not so much the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan but an inflection that continues to knock you back in the political and social reality of the day.’ The basis of my Winged Harvest work is set on the annual migration of the large Bogong moths as they make a temporary stopover in Canberra on their journey to the caves of the Snowy Mountains from south Queensland. In the past there are stories that Aborigines would travel for kilometres to feast on these huge moths. A roasted moth are said to have a nutty taste and are supposed to be very high in protein. This installation is featured on the ANU Sculpture walk and is comprised of seven poles, each with a different design. Two of the poles refer directly to the Bogong moth and feature 400 laser-cut aluminium moths on them. Another pole contains the dates when Aboriginal people gathered to collect and feast. The three other poles I’ve stained with white pipe clay, red ochre and charcoal, and am referring to the ceremony and ochre pit sites around Canberra. The last pole is designed with notches in the side and is about climbing to catch animals such as possums. Other indigenous plants are also incorporated into the design. Wild Times Call is a mixture of large paintings, small pastel drawings, blanket pieces, aluminium wall sculptures as well as a series of seven large sepia photographs. I believe that for the Indigenous people, the cameras role has been in transforming but really stereotyping our cultures. But in recent times we have moved behind the camera, firstly replacing the documenter, and then creatively reinterpreting our photographic history. The paintings are kind of a meditation on fragments of my natural world; I placed the Mangrove pods and Nautilus shells on basic backgrounds to create a simple and forceful composition. The photographs are also of echoes to similar experiences to the indigenous in other countries as well. My Black Velvet work is nine stitched cotton bags that are based on Aboriginal dilly bags and more modern flour bags, or even more recently, bags that a made by Third World manufacturers for First World counter-cultural markets. Each bag has a black and red emblem stitched to the front of it representing the female sexual organ, an image as ancient as the prehistoric art forms of all the world’s continents and as a modern application as recent female feminist political movements. I guess it’s quite simple and ultimately pretty bold in terms of its creation and layout, but it’s the message that packs the most punch. I’ve titled this work in to immediately suggest sexual contact between black and white by using the colloquial term for Aboriginal woman by the white frontiersmen. 4

gus armstrong

My collaborative work with Janet Laurence saw the fruition of the work titled, Edge of the Trees. In the poles contained in the installation there a small, almost secretive compartments in which we have placed seed and ochres, that if in the same location 200 years earlier, would have been commonly found signs of habitation by the Eora people of the Sydney Area. Land Deal represents the colonial swindling and trickery of the Aboriginal people, this is a theme I guess, in with subsequently recurs in my works. This installation physically displays and describes the cheap commodities that John Batman gave to the Wurundjeri people in exchange for some 600 000 acres of land in which the city of Melbourne currently sits. The same items were engraved on the stone blocks for my Lie of the Land work. In this piece I just simply used the raw power of just stating the facts to my advantage, as a powerfully emotive force.

So what feeds these creative processes, how do you approach your work?

I guess everything I have mentioned, drives my work. I often start with an image or an idea in my head, ponder on it for a while and do a brief drawing about it as a reference to remind me to keep thinking about it. Sometimes objects will come before the idea, and other times, particularly with the drawings, the composition of the final finished image will come before the materials, whether I will do it in pastels, for example. Approaching a show, I usually start to realise I have the power within me to take a certain direction in my work. Sometimes that gets tied up with political power and other times it is connected with a sense of my Aboriginal spirit and a rejoicing in my own culture. My main outlook is that I don’t set limits upon myself. I feel it is important to keep well educated and to pull in from lots of different sources. I get inspiration from theatre sets, reading novels, seeing films, looking at other artists work in different parts of the world or from going to ceremonies in Arnhem Land, if I am ever that privileged. I’m finding that as time goes on, I can say what I like and I’m not limited to an aspect of a particular Aboriginal art tradition. I can move in and out of different media, different realms and different levels. So I feel an immense freedom. Thank you so much for your time today Fiona, I wish you all the best on your endeavours and that you continue your amazing work.



Fiona Foley :: biography at :: at Design and Art Australia Online (2013), [Online]­‐foley, Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley: Collector’s Dossier – Australian Art Collector (2013), [Online],, Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley – Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia (2013), [Online]­‐1 Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley | John McDonald (2013), [Online]­‐foley/ Accessed: April 2013 Untitled – 50_foley.pdf(2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Completed Projects – Art + Place (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Witnessing to Silence <Artwrite (2013), [Online]­‐to-­‐silence Accessed: April 2013 Public Works: Winged Harvest | The Australian (2013), [Online]­‐works-­‐winged-­‐harvest/story-­‐e6frg8n6-­‐ 1225937579215 Accessed: April 2013 FOLEY, Fiona TREMBLAY , Theo | Drifting Ephemerally (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Edge Of The Trees – Sydney Living Museums – Historic Houses of Trust NSW (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley – Wild Times Call – Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Black Opium (State Library of Queensland) (2013), [Online]­‐on/installations/blackopium Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley – Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 FOLEY, Fiona TREMBLAY, Theo |Drifting Ephemerally (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013


gus armstrong

Edge of the Trees – Sydney Living Museums – Historic Houses Trust of NSW (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley, HHH (Hedonistic Honkey Haters) (detail), 2004 (2013), [Online] Accessed: April Wk12 – Postmodern narratives << Photography’s Histories (2013), [Online]­‐postmodern-­‐narratives/ Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley – No Shades of White, 2005 – Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery Accessed: April 2013 Indigenous Art Culture and Design | A fine site (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 The Lie of The Land: Museum Victoria (2013), [Online] discoverycentre/discovery-­‐centre-­‐news/2008-­‐archive/the-­‐lie-­‐of-­‐the-­‐land/ Accessed: April 2013 Fiona Foley – Wild Times Call – Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (2013), [Online] Accessed: April 2013 Winged Harvest by Fiona Foley | Flickr – Photo Sharing! Accessed: April 2013 Anna Voigt, 1996, New Visions, New Perspectives, Sydney, Craftsmen House Rosemary Crumlin, 1991, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, North Blackburn, Collins Dove Carly Lane andFranchesca Cubillo, 2012, undisclosed, Melbourne, Blue Star Print



gus armstrong

Fiona Foley - An Interview  

Not actually the words of Fiona herself.