By Henrietta Summerhayes
Fiona Foley is a fighter, just like her Badtjala ancestors who, in the early days of colonisation, fought the white invaders from the vantage point of their Fraser Island fortress. Politics runs in the family. Foley is also an artist and, just like her artist forebears, engages in an age-old tradition of public art to tell the stories of her people. However, there have been some changes over the intervening millennia; cultural practice now often relies on cross-cultural subversion, and cave walls have morphed into a modernity not always friendly to those particular stories. Fiona Foley, freedom fighter, finds ways to tell them anyway.
Public art is most generally defined as art that is commissioned by governmental bodies to adorn public spaces. This is art therefore that reaches, and generally needs to satisfy, the tax-paying not necessarily gallery-going public, ultimately responsible for its funding. It needs to feel good all round: the funding bodies, the general public funding the funding bodies, and finally, the funded: the artist. Foley is not interested in the mainstream traditional tales of the Dreamtime; rather she tells tales of living nightmares that for the most part, have been edited out of the teaching and telling of Indigenous history. So how does she navigate the roadblocks she encounters when the truth of her stories affronts the very governmental bodies empowered to commission her art?
Foley’s fascination with public art stems from a deep desire to be heard; to give voice to the silenced generations who came before her, battling in vain for a stake in a land once their own. In 2004 she was commissioned to create Witnessing to Silence, a sculpture that would adorn the Roma Street frontage to the newly erected Brisbane Magistrates Court. It took two years and a strategic silence of her own in order to finally negotiate, complete and install the work. In her initial artist’s statement she claimed that the sculpture was to memorialise the ravaging fires and floods in 94 Queensland townships. Three months after the ceremonial unveiling, in a letter to The Australian, Foley came clean as to its real meaning.
Foley revealed that those 94 towns, the names of which are etched on pavers integral to the work, had a much more sinister relevance. They are the 94 sites where massacres of Aboriginal people were known to have taken place, as discovered from an analysis of 19th century government records. The columns bearing panels of laminated ash, stainless steel and a water feature that comprise the work represent the ways by which the bodies from those massacres were disposed: by burning and by discarding into the surrounding waterways. Witnessing to Silence struck a chord, suddenly and publicly exposing what Indigenous writer, critic, curator and activist Djon Mundine once described as ‘our paper-thin, narrow, national official view’. (Mundine, 2009, p.52)
Fion Foley Witnessing to Silence 2004, Roma Street Brisbane. Photo courtesy of the artist
Fiona Foley Witnessing to Silence - paver detailing names of massacre sites. Photo courtesy of the artist
Foley says that her art practice is a platform to talk about other things, and she does so with force. The $200 000 she was paid for Witnessing to Silence must have been sweet payment indeed, as she delivered a condemnation of tyranny to the very doors of the hallowed halls of Queensland justice. Foley jokes that had the commissioning committee spent more time researching Fiona Foley the artist and less time worrying she’d ‘get pissed and go walkabout with their money’ (Foley, 2011*), they would have realised she was always going to be trouble.
Foley’s historical research is exhaustive, but it’s been a largely heuristic process of combing government archives for facts not found on library shelves or displayed in bookstore windows. For instance: the facts surrounding John Batman’s purchase of the 600 000 acres of land upon which the city of Melbourne was established. Records reveal that in exchange for the land, Batman offered blankets, flour, looking glasses, tomahawks, knives, beads and scissors, as well as promising to pay an annual fee or rent. This was a cheap deal, particularly when that promise was never honoured. In collaboration with sound artist, Chris Knowles, Foley was commissioned by Melbourne City Council to create a sculpture to coincide with the 1997 National Reconciliation Convention and the thirty-year anniversary since the 1967 referendum granting Aboriginals the vote. It was this land trade the artists chose to remember.
Fiona Foley Lie of the Land, 1997 - On temporary display Swanston Street, Melbourne. Photo courtesy of the artist
For a period of two months, seven three meter high sandstone pillars inscribed with each of the seven commodities Batman traded, stood like tomb-stones before Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street. The accompanying soundtrack includes a recitation in seven Indigenous languages of a quote taken from Batman’s diary, enumerating his dirty deal. Foley stated, ‘the history has been written by the victors, it is only now that the silent history of the Indigenous populations are given a voice’ (eMelbourne website) Now permanently housed in the Melbourne Museum, the temporary display of Lie of the Land on a major arterial roadway served, if only briefly, to publicly recognise those Indigenous lives impacted so ruthlessly. Seven simple words represented violence and dispossession on a monumental scale.
What a paradoxical quirk it is that a modern day instrument of government enables a public declaration of its guilt on this scale. This was the same year and at the same 1997 convention that the then Prime Minister, John Howard, in refusing to apologise to the Stolen Generation, referred to past atrocities in the treatment of Aboriginals as ‘blemishes’ on our otherwise happy history. And if, as it is still officially maintained, there ever was justification for a claim of Terra Nullius in Australia, why would Batman have offered anything in the first place? Was he seeing and trading with ghosts?
Historian Rosalind Kidd claims that as Australians, ‘we are ignorant of our historical heritage, we remain vulnerable to manipulation by those who have the most to gain from a truncated and distorted debate’ (Kidd, p.349), and Fiona Foley knows this. But if there is dishonesty about our past, the path to reconciliation must surely be through honesty regarding the present, and this is what Fiona Foley wants to continue to address. In 2009, another opportunity for expression on this debate came from an unlikely quarter: Mackay City Council, in the heart of Queensland’s politically conservative north coast. A beautification project of the ‘ring of activity’ encircling Mackay CBD saw the commissioning of six works by Foley; here was her chance to go to town. Through careful negotiation with a committee more enlightened than that of the Brisbane Magistrates Court, Foley was able to construct a poignant and powerful series of sculptures that showcased aspects of the Indigenous experience more specific to the area of Mackay, delivering ‘a political message with power, cogency and an aesthetic which extends sorrow and empathy over generations of losses’ (Louise Martin-Chew exhibition catalogue 2009).
Four of those sculptures now stand proudly on the 19-kilometre Bluewater Trail, and a further two are located in areas adjacent, but the combined cohesive force of the work is a triumph to Foley’s quest for clarity. Three of the works situated on the trail honour the Yuibera people of the area, but another, the most contentious of the works, is called Sugar Cubes (2009). There’s nothing sweet about the Blackbirder history memorialised by this sculpture. Installed beside the Pioneer River, it comprises seven three metre high stacks of box-formed stainless steel cubes, etched with the names of ships on which the South Sea Islanders were shackled and transported. Rounded up against their will from their homelands, they were captured for the purposes of cheap, indentured labour for the booming sugar industry. They were the ‘Blackbirders’, a workforce only recently acknowledged for their historical importance and contribution to the community.
Fiona Foley Sugar Cubes, 2009 Mackay Bluewater Trail. Photo courtesy of the artist
The ugly truths of the treatment of our Indigenous people constituted cannon fodder for the History Wars, ‘negative facts of history’ (Stanner 1968 p214) that have been artfully avoided by the predominant documenters of our history until relatively recently. But Foley has persisted in her research, ‘she speaks to the persistence of memory, to the burden of history. For her, time does not heal all wounds. Like a boomerang, she springs history in a loop and returns it dangerously to the unsuspecting source.’ (Olu Oguibe, 2004 p118). Her heart and soul is buried deep in the public art she delivers, art that can stand proud on the streets of her country and go some way to redeeming the innumerate losses her people feel so profoundly.
Fiona Foley is on a mission to tell the stories that need to be told, and there could be no better platform than her public art by which to do so. This is because art in the public domain makes a claim, like a stake plunged deep into the soil of conquered country, it demands to be seen and considered, or to be deliberately and belligerently ignored. But its very presence, in a non-commercial context, is testament to a growing awareness and understanding of what it might be to be Aboriginal in a modern context. As Andrew Crocker says, ‘the evolutionary nature of all art is common knowledge’ (Crocker 1986 p.147) and Foley has intelligently, powerfully, immensely and provocatively reinterpreted the age-old Indigenous custom of public art to encompass an evolutionary Aboriginal culture that rather than dying out, has very much found new life.
Crocker, Andrew. ‘Traditional and Urban Aboriginal contemporary art – 1986’ in McLean, I. How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art. Power Publications, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane 2011.
Kidd, Rosalind. The Way We Civilise. University of Queensland Press, 1997.
Perkins, Hetti. One Sun One Moon; Aboriginal Art in Australia. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007
Macgregor, Elizabeth Ann and Mitzevich, Nick. Fiona Foley: Forbidden. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2010.
Martin-Chew, Louise. Public and Political; Recent Major Sculpture by Fiona Foley. Artlink Indigenous magazine, Volume 31, No 2. 2011.
Martin-Chew, Louise, ‘Fiona Foley’s Black Friday’ Nulla 4 Eva, exhibition catalogue, Niagara Publishing, Melbourne. 2009
McCulloch, Susan & McCulloch Childs, Emily. Contemporary Aboriginal Art; The Complete Guide. McCulloch and McCulloch Australian Art Books, updated edition 2009.
Mundine, Djon. Seeing Black: Degrees of Visibility, Real Time Magazine, issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009.
Oguibe, Olu. The Culture Game. University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p118.
Stanner, W.E.H. White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938-1973. pp. 198–248.
* Foley 2011 – in conversation with the artist, UNSW August, 2011