Fiona Foley

Badtjala artist and academic Fiona Foley has been announced as a recipient of the Queensland Premier's Award for a work of State Significance for Biting the Clouds (2020, UQP). An extension of her doctoral research, this vital project examines the history of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, exploring the use of opium to coerce labour from Indigenous people in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Artist Profile 54, Susie Anderson spoke with Foley about her work in and beyond the academy, her pieces of public art, and truths hiding in plain sight.

Fiona Foley is an artist from the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala nation, whose acclaimed arts practice has been widely exhibited across Australia and internationally for over thirty years. Now a distinguished academic at Griffith University, her latest book Biting the Clouds (2020) weaves rigorous research with art to examine legacies of harmful legislation, disrupting national mythologies of Australia. 

Fiona Foley says Australia’s history of brutality doesn’t surprise her as much anymore. But it ‘has been a burning question for me since I was a child of about five, sitting on the beach at Urangan looking across to Fraser Island, thinking, “Why aren’t there any old people living over there now?”.’

During our conversation in December last year, Foley describes an inability to ‘get close to any kind of history’ that resonates loud and clear with my own experience. As Aboriginal people we know family stories, we know cultural lore and we know our ties to Country to be true, but our truths are missing from the Australian lexicon. Colonial school systems provide an education that reveals very little of before 1788 and certainly doesn’t tell us what happened to our old people. 

Foley recalls watching Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson speaking on ABC’s The Drum in mid-2020, pointing out the absence of critical race studies in the Australian curriculum. It’s a deplorable state of affairs that Foley has seen danced around in her career, describing conferences where the very people who have programmed her casually refer to Australia’s peaceful settlement. These faux pas even from ‘polite society’ indicate a desperate need for a dialogue about the intricacies of the colonial project. An analysis of the methodical, calculated approach Europeans had of clearing this land of its people and their culture is long overdue. 

We spoke one month after the release of her book Biting the Clouds, which found her in quite a good mood, in spite of all that the year had to offer. The book was the culmination of years of research and three awards: the Inaugural Monica Clare Research Fellowship from the State Library of Queensland, a grant from the newly established Cherish Fund by Australia Council for the Arts, plus she was the 2020 recipient of the prestigious Capstone Editing Early Career Academic Research Grant for Women. All up, Foley found meaningful success in what was a challenging year. Yet those words of Professor Moreton-Robinson landed loud and clear.

‘What an indictment on Australia!’ Foley says. In 2020 ‘we’ve had two big things: Black Lives Matter Movements, and the Aboriginal deaths in custody running in parallel’. The mass media attention on the Black Lives Matter movement indeed enabled more people to see the parallels between Australia and America’s treatment of bla(c)k people with the renewed momentum bringing more people on board. Big numbers at protests in Australia’s major cities showed that more people than ever are listening and standing with us.

Biting the Clouds will challenge readers, sitting firmly in the new tradition of books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2014). With accounts from settler journals, archival material and state legislation, this is truth-telling that even non-Aboriginal people are ready for, nor can they argue with it.  

‘Because it’s an object of knowledge you don’t know where it’s going to. People can buy it from anywhere. The legislation is fascinating, with thirty-three sections that governed Aboriginal people’s lives on a daily basis. There were many more intricacies to the legislation. A lot of Chinese men were having relationships with Aboriginal women who came to Queensland in 1848. Europeans were fearful of relationships between Aboriginal and Chinese people. They amended legislation in 1901 to introduce new laws that didn’t allow Chinese and Aboriginal people to have marriages. Children were taken off their parents and made wards of the state – all these nuances that affected peoples’ lives that most Queenslanders are unaware of. No one knows about attitudes towards Aboriginal or Chinese people historically in the state of Queensland. It’s a huge void in their knowledge’, Foley comments. 

Foley’s practice has always coaxed people toward these voids of knowledge. From photography, video, mixed media installations to public art, she has skirted the boundaries of palatability for over thirty years. For Memo Review in 2019, Maddee Clark noted that Foley’s retrospective at the Ballarat Foto Biennale was ‘more than a practice of subtlety, seduction and smuggling, it is guerrilla warfare. She deploys a set of conscious, strategic actions required to publicly speak the things in history that are shrouded in unspeakability.’

The Biennale installation Who are these strangers and where are they going? (2019) included a soundscape of a Badtjala song that includes a reference to the European Endeavour seen on the horizon in 1770. The song scores Foley’s 2019 video work Out of the sea like cloud, floating in and around the opium-fuelled flashbacks of the Badtjala main character. As he recalls a memory of seeing European ships on the horizon from K’gari, the viewer is transported between the opium den and his country. Over sweeping shots of the island, the song builds to a lamenting crescendo in English and in Badtjala language. This incredibly rare Aboriginal account of settler contact is an important chink in the armour of the Australian mythology. By adding Aboriginal perspectives to national discourse, collective repair can begin – for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike. By reintegrating Aboriginal realities of settlement we can begin to repair the ‘deep wailing across this country’, as observed by Foley in Biting the Clouds.

Foley tells me, ‘As an academic, your work is never complete. You can keep going and keep going. I want to make the next ten years the most pivotal, the most interesting. I want to grow into my strength as an Aboriginal woman and claim that space.’ The conscious act of claiming space is crucial, as she notes, ‘All institutions are tricky because they’re institutions of power. They hold the key to shutting you in or keeping you out. They don’t like an Aboriginal person who has an intellect and uses that intellect to have a discerning voice.’

Yet, prominent public artworks created by Foley are installed in major cities at government institutions, from the 1995 Edge of the Trees collaboration with Janet Laurence at Museum of Sydney to Witnessing to Silence in 2004 outside Brisbane’s Magistrates Court and Black Opium in 2006 at State Library of Queensland. In Biting the Clouds Foley describes the process of ‘outmanoeuvring’ all involved in the commissioning process for the latter artwork, ‘because they were so caught up in the minutiae of wanting to present palatable art to a general public.’

I marvelled at her repeat insurrections into these peak institutions, to which she replied, ‘making a public statement when you’re ahead of the pack has a repercussion. It doesn’t win me friends but eases the way for people who come behind me.’ If these public artworks are anything to go by, the truth may be hiding in plain sight, becoming a quiet daily presence before it’s truly acknowledged for what it is. 

Only time will tell if the content of Biting the Clouds will start to filter into Queensland and Australia’s mainstream dialogue. But Fiona Foley’s legacy is a transparent, generous resilience and resistance, with the simple focus of ‘[making] every opportunity a winner.’ 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Biting the Clouds
RRP $34.99
2020, UQP

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