World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia
An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000
- Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
- An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
- The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
- The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
- John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
- All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
- 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
- The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
- High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
- Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
- The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton
Laced flour and tin boxes: The art of Fiona Foley
Throughout her career, Fiona Foley has battled categorisation and challenged the preconceived notions inherent in the label 'Aboriginal artist'. Foley works in many media, yet her art is firmly grounded - in structure and meaning - in the traditions of her ancestral people, the Badtjala.
The Badtjala people have lived on the world's largest sand island, Thoorgine (Fraser Island), since time immemorial. By the early part of the twentieth century, however, most of the Badtjala population had been massacred by white settlers and the survivors removed to Christian missions on the island or the mainland.
Foley was born on the mainland in 1964, and lived with her parents in regional Queensland before moving to Sydney where she became one of the first Aboriginal students to enroll at a European-style school of art. Here she encountered criticism from teachers who felt the approach to her work did not fall within the prescribed Western models of art making. Despite this, Foley graduated as a versatile artist working in everything from drawing to painting, print and photography to public sculpture and installation.
In 1984 several of Foley's works featured in the ground-breaking exhibition 'Koori Art '84' in Sydney. The exhibition drew attention to urban-based indigenous artists who, at that time, were marginalised by the mainstream Australian art world. The same year Foley travelled to Ramingining, the first of many inspirational visits to Arnhem Land. Here her experiences of community art co-operatives led her to help establish a similar organisation in Sydney.
During 1987 Foley and eight other Aboriginal artists/students formed the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Residents Ko-operative (BAARK). The group included Tracey Moffatt, film-maker Michael Riley and myself. Most of this group had studied at European-style art schools and we were aware of current debates in art and the workings of the art market. The discourse at the time, especially in the international art scene, surrounding notions of the 'primitive' and the 'other' took on a particularly local imperative once these indigenous artists entered the commercial fine art world.
Foley's work concerns the cultural traditions of her people and their tragic history. Thoorgine is situated just north of Brisbane in the state of Queensland. It was named Fraser Island by Europeans after the legend of Eliza Fraser, wife of British naval captain James Fraser whose cargo vessel The Stirling Castle was wrecked north of the island in 1836. Local Aborigines rescued the Frasers and tried to nurture them back to health, however the captain became ill and died soon afterwards. Six months later, British sailors found Eliza Fraser in good health, thanks to the help of the Aboriginal women. Eliza Fraser returned to England and thereafter made a living by re-telling an embellished and lurid rendition of her experiences among the so-called savages. This event marked the beginning of contact and subsequent misunderstanding between Europeans and Badtjala, explored in much of Foley's art.
In 1995, when Foley attended the Eliza Frazer symposium at the Leipzig Museum in Germany, she saw the collection of celebrated German naturalist, Amalie Dietrich, who had worked in Queensland from 1863 to 1873. The Leipzig collection comprises about 3000 pieces of material culture and included eight skeletal remains from Queensland. It is known that during his time in Australia, Dietrich offered financial incentives to local settlers to shoot healthy Aboriginal 'specimens'. These were added to the collection of shipping magnate, J. Godeffroy and Son for his newly established museum. In fact thousands of Aboriginal bodies were part of the international scientific trade which began during this period of social Darwinism.
Following the Fraser incident on Thoorgine, white settlers began to arrive in the Mary River region on the mainland in the 1840s and 1850s. The Badtjalas and their Gubbi Gubbi neighbours strongly resisted these incursions, defending their lands in an intense war at Mary River and on Thoorgine. The campaigns of the whites and their mercenaries, the Native Police, against the Badtjala were ferocious; with each patrol, Aborigines were massacred in great numbers. By the 1860s Aboriginal armed resistance had collapsed and the survivors were scattered to more remote areas or placed on Christian missions.
Annihilation of the Blacks 1986 (one of the National Museum of Australia's first major acquisitions of a work by a city-based Aboriginal artist) refers to these tragic times. Specifically, it concerns the massacres on the Susan River, a tributary of the Mary River, the story of which was passed on as Badtjala oral history to Foley's mother as a child. The work consists of a wooden frame of two vertical forked sticks and a cross bar, from which several black figures hang by the neck. It is visually similar to the public ceremonial sculptures such as Bone fish 1962 by Wik artists Arthur Pambegan Senior and his son. However, in Foley's installation the hanging objects are not fish but human figures.
By 1988 Foley had become a qualified art teacher and joined the stable of artists of the prestigious Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, a move which signalled a growing perception in the Australian art world that art by Aboriginals could be part of the wider contemporary scene. At this time Aboriginal artists generally tried to move away from art galleries specialising in indigenous art to more mainstream ones.
The definition of 'authentic Aboriginal art' was heavily debated in local art journals and texts. Boomalli challenged stereotypical definitions of Aboriginality. They encouraged the art world to acknowledge urban indigenous artists who use modern materials and forms, alongside artists who continue ancient traditions, using natural materials, in contemporary times. The group promoted Aboriginal art as that of artists from different areas, with different histories, but united by their Aboriginality - hence 'art by Aboriginal people'.
Always undertaking a diverse and active program, Foley has held several solo exhibitions and participated in group shows in Australia and overseas. From 1992 she became one of the first curators at Boomalli and, at Sydney's new Museum of Contemporary Art, worked on three exhibitions including 'Tyerabarbowaryaou - I Shall Never Become a White Man', with Djon Mundine. A follow-up exhibition 'Tyerabarbowaryaou II' was shown at the Havana Bienale, Cuba, in 1994. That year she also held an artistic residency at Open Space in Victoria, Canada.
Now well established as an artist on the international scene, Foley is able to present her people's stories to a wider audience.
In her installation Lost Badtjalas, severed hair 1991, Foley uses copies of 'anonymous' ethnographic photographs - taken about 1900 - of Badtjala people who are, in fact, her forebears. From a traditional 'forked stick' frame hangs a box containing a sample of her own hair - a sign of mourning. The frame refers to those used to construct bark houses and also the burial platforms upon which the bodies of deceased are placed. The photographs are recontextualised by Foley as family heirlooms instead of museum pieces. A memorial to her family, the work challenges the historically common representation of Aborigines as a nameless, stone-age people.
In recent years, Foley has begun producing large sculptural installations using natural materials such as timber, shells and animal bones as well as modern media. The raw materials collected from Thoorgine are a form of cultural memory. They become emblematic of the island's beaches and Aboriginal shell middens. For Foley this fulfils a traditional custodial role; it is a way of reclaiming the history of her people and their land.
Land deal 1995 relates to an incident in Australia's colonial past. On 6 June 1835, the settler John Batman attempted to buy land around Port Phillip Bay, now the city of Melbourne, from the local Aborigines. In his journal Batman wrote:
After a full explanation of what my object was, I purchased two large tracts of land from them - about 600,000 acres, more or less, and delivered over to them blankets, knives, looking glasses, tomahawks, beads, scissors, flour, & c., & c., as payment for the land; and also agreed to give them a tribute, or rent, yearly.
This unequal exchange was disowned by the government of the day. However it was the first attempt to purchase land from the original inhabitants. The beads, scissors, knives, axes, mirrors and blanket in Land deal hang on the wall above a spiral made of flour. The spiral mimics the designs sculpted in the ground for ceremonies in eastern Australia. Ground 'drawings' in sand, coloured ochres and soil are made by Aboriginal people across the country. In this case, Foley comments that the spiral should be seen as a more universal archetype - the most recent image of which she remembers seeing on a Fante flag from Africa. However she further states: 'in the end my art always remains Aboriginal'.
In Velvet waters - laced flour 1996, Foley again makes use of flour. The installation consists of 88 tin boxes arranged in rows against a blue wall. The boxes contain salt, honey, red and brown oxides and human hair. They are 'windows into … history'. This time the stripe of flour on the floor is said to be 'laced' [poisoned]. The work relates to the practice of early frontier conflict when rations of flour, tea and sugar were mixed with arsenic [poison] and given to Aborigines.
In her most recent work, Foley continues her personal exploration of historical constructs in dulin/duling/dooling/dhulin 1998. Four unstretched canvases have been washed with a red ochre ground. Each has a border of metal eylets such as those used by sail makers. The main motif is a nautilus shell. Each canvas carries one word: the Badtjala word for the nautilus shell [nautilus pompilius]. It is the mystery of this indigenous word that leads us to the 'inside' story and memory of the Badtjala people. The shell was used by the artist's forebears as an important ceremonial adornment for tribal leaders and a valuable item of trade between the coastal Badtjala and inland clan groups. The various spellings of the Badtjala word for nautilus shell, devised by English speaking researchers, is symptomatic of the difficulties the settlers have had in understanding the true nature of Badtjala society and culture and, by extension, of Aboriginal culture in general.
Foley's personal searches to discover Badtjala material culture buried in Australian and overseas museum collections continues to inform her work. By referring to these objects - and examining the history of their collection and interpretation - Foley reclaims their true significance to Aboriginal people. Instead of museum 'curios' they are tangible proof of an enduring culture.
The ambiguous relationship between the descendants of the white settlers and Australia's original inhabitants may be summarised in Fraser Island's recent history. Whilst sand mining ceased in the mid-1970s, today the island's natural beauty attracts a constant stream of holidaymakers: is this another form of colonisation? The struggle for recognition of native title for the Badtjala people continues. Through her art and her engagement with museum collections, Foley seeks to challenge the colonial power from the inside.
Bonwick, J., John Batman, the Founder of Victoria, Melbourne: Samuel Mullens, 1867.
Caruana, W., et al, The Eye of the Storm: Eight contemporary indigenous Australian artists, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1996.
Cooper, C., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections in Overseas Museums, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989.
Elder, B., Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788,second edition, Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 1998.
Moon, D. & Krause, J., Deutsche Auswanderer - Hope and Reality, History of the nineteenth century German settlement of Mount Cotton in south east Queensland, Cleveland, Queensland:Redland Museum Inc., 1999