Fiona Foley, Black Velvet, 2014, installation view, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art Darwin.

Fiona Foley: Woman on the Dunes

Foley, Interview
Fraser Island. Photo: Fiona Foley

Your family was awarded a Native Title Claim this year. Can you describe what role in this your identity played and how this has informed your art?

My identity is based on being from the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala nation. We knew this before the Native Title claim was submitted and we knew this after the judges decided to grant the Butchulla People “consent determination” on 24 October 2014. What we gained is very little in terms of actual rights. We have no form of capital at present. It means that we cannot earn a single dollar from all the tourists who visit Fraser Island each year.

The Native Title Act did not inform my art. It was a laborious and excruciating piece of legislation to work with (after Mabo’s High Court challenge to overturn Terra Nullius) and we had to attend copious amounts of meetings in Hervey Bay. The process ended up spanning eighteen years. What I did do was suggest my art could be used in our connection report to the State government as evidence of our continuous connection to Fraser Island.

I don’t actually know what art of mine was used for the connection report in the end. I imagine they were some early pastel drawings by the second anthropologist working on the claim. We had a number of Anthropologists over the years who were all Americans, coincidently.

During my early career in Sydney while showing with Roslyn Oxley Gallery9 I exhibited small and large works on paper. Some shows specifically concentrated on Fraser Island or the Eliza Fraser colonial narrative. I spent a lot of time walking on Fraser Island, especially the sand dunes and the mangroves at Booral, Hervey Bay. I would collect dead animal bones, skulls, turtle bones and dugong bones washed up. It was great solitude roaming around the mangroves at the high tide mark searching for white bleached bones when the tide was out.

In my early years of exhibiting I was known for my pastel drawings. I did, however, major in sculpture and printmaking (etching) at art school. In later years I started to branch out into making public art and work across different mediums.

You’ve been in a number of exhibitions overseas – have you ever been challenged with your Indigenous identity and do you believe in a form of international or universal Indigeneity?

I’ve been challenged many times on my Indigenous identity overseas. I’ve been to many countries during my career and not every one has an understanding of Australia, its history, it’s indigenous nations or politics. In fact, very few people do.

Through projects, keynote speeches, residencies and exhibitions in the UK, USA, Japan, Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, Germany, Denmark, South America, South Africa, Ireland, India, Korea and China I’ve had a chance to see and experience a lot of different cultures.

I’ve worked with Seminole people in Tampa Florida and African American individuals in New York City where we inverted the race hate group the KKK into a direct ideological flip to became the HHH (Hedonistic Honkey Haters) and subverted the colour white to black in African Dutch wax textiles. All invited to wear the garments were African America and made to measure with an amazing seamstress who lived in Harlem.

I’ve created an installation in a derelict church in Carlow, Ireland. I also travelled to Niigata prefecture in Japan to make a work based on a Buddhist word on a pond in the rice-growing country.

From my travels in Japan I felt that the Shinto religion came the closest to an Aboriginal religious expression. It was never explained to me but what Aboriginal people practice is called Animism. We are essentially Animist, because we believe that all things are alive and have a spirit: for example, rocks, trees, water courses, animals.

The place or people I most felt I had an affinity with were the Indigenous people of Chile, the Mapuche and Aymara people, who I met on a trip there in 1996. I met Indigenous people living in Chile through giving a number of talks and one at the Australian Embassy. I was invited to have a solo exhibition in Chile and later in Bolivia. I exhibited a work with seven black cockatoo feathers and one Indigenous person took all of them and left a message on the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago de Chile telephone. My seven black cockatoo feathers were taken. What could I do but believe they gave him more pleasure then me.

I believe that Indigenous peoples from many countries have similar experiences in life but our respective traditional way of life sets us apart as unique peoples in the world and as custodians of particular tracts of land. A Navajo friend once said to me “we have had parallel lives but on opposite sides of the world”.

Fiona Foley, HHH#1
Fiona Foley, HHH#1, 2004, ultrachrome print on paper. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane

Do you think the Australian art world has come to an understanding and a descriptive language with Australian Indigenous art?

The Australian art world boxes Indigenous artists into limited and nonsensical categories. To challenge the art establishment or Australian people in positions of power takes a certain intellect and belief in changing the status quo.

I made a sculpture in my third year at Sydney College of the Arts titled “Annihilation of the Blacks”. Along the Susan River, Maryborough, a massacre had taken place and the associated devastation brought to bear upon Badtjala people was the premise for the sculpture. I was ridiculed by my lecturers who did not understand the complexity of who I was or Australia’s frontier wars. My sculpture lecturers made the comment that “what I was doing was a passing fad and would only last for five years”. Now in my third decade or making art, I have clearly proved them wrong.

More recently, I challenged the erasure of Aboriginal art within the designated cultural precinct at South Bank, Brisbane. To date, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) has commissioned four public artworks, not one by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist. This cultural institution prides itself on the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT). Would this cultural cringe exist elsewhere in the world? I am not so sure. My hope is that QAGOMA prioritise a public art commission by an Aboriginal artist soon.

How do you identify yourself? (This should be the first question.)

Every one has multiple identities in life, based on your physical appearance, the way you speak, the way you dress, your personality, humor, ego, stature, colour, age, sex, race etc. How do you define yourself when others are doing that for you? Identity can be fluid and ever-changing. All I know is that I was brought up to be proud of my Aboriginal identity from a very early age. I knew where I came from and who my clan and nation were. I grew up on my country and had a strong sense of being loved by my family.

Fiona Foley, 2014, UAP Studios, Brisbane. Photo: Mick Richards

Fiona Foley has completed many major public art commissions and residencies in Australia and overseas. In September 2014 she curated courting Blackness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University at the University of Queensland.

Djon Mundine OAM is a member of the Bundjalung people of Northern New South Wales and has worked as an arts advisor, curator and arts writer.