Fiona Foley: Aboriginal art is innately political

20131115-161517.jpgA couple of days ago I had the opportunity to interview somewhat of a childhood hero of mine, Fiona Foley.

Did any of you play “when I grow up I’m gonna be…..”? Well I did and as a Gemini my answer changed a lot and were abit gammin! However there was two constants; artist and storyteller.

Overtime, I realised that to be an Aboriginal artist is to innately be a storyteller, and with that revelation I made steps in becoming an Aboriginal artist by moving off country to study at the College of Fine Arts, Sydney.

It was such an awesome opportunity to spend sometime with Fiona to get her perspective on being a storyteller.

Fiona Foley is a Brisbane-based artist and exhibits regularly in Australia and internationally. She was in London at the same time as me as she had work exhibited at the Royal Academy and at the Ecocentrix Exhibitions. Most importantly she was the Keynote speaker for the Origins First Nations Festival.

Below you will find the little interview I had with Fiona whilst she was in London. She was exhibiting her work in two key exhibitions and presenting a keynote address which I believe is a key indicator of where the Aboriginal Arts industry is now.

How does your current exhibition at the Royal Academy compare to 1994’s Aratjara travelling exhibition curated by Djon Mundine?

The Aratjara Exhibition curated by Djon Mundine in 1994 included over 100 works by contemporary and traditional Aboriginal Artists with many East Coast artists represented such as Fiona and Michael Riley. The exhibition travelled throughout Europe and was taken up by prominent spaces such as Kunstsammlung, Dusseldorf and Hayward Gallery, London.

I asked Fiona how did this experience differ to her current work in the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, London as I was intrigued to see how the differing socio-political environments; the 90’s being the following decade after self-determination and the boom of the red, black and yellow, had impacted upon the exhibiting of Aboriginal artists. I was also interested in the comparison to non-Indigenous and Indigenous curators.

Fiona stated that there was an “explosion” of Aboriginal people in the 90’s and a boom in Aboriginal people creating work, this in conjunction with people like Gary Foley and Lesley Fogarty involved with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board (Australia Council for the Arts) ensured that Aboriginal artists contemporary and traditional had the space and ability to develop and exhibit works internationally and nationally such as Aratjara. Fiona stated in her Keynote address that Aratjara set the benchmark in regards to Aboriginal exhibitions by Aboriginal people and nineteen years on, still has the benchmark still has not been surpassed.

She also noted that despite Aratjara’s critical acclaim internationally; including a significant media presence, the exhibition received little or no coverage within Australia and no galleries explored the opportunities to house the exhibition. Fiona believes it was a shame that it was not picked up back home and believes that the then political environment stifled any possibility to do so.

Fiona also mentioned that during the “Howard” years many Aboriginal artists stifled themselves particularly during the “History Wars” where she believed that many artists censored themselves and their art as many feared not securing funding.

The “History Wars” peaked during Johns Howard’s time as Prime Minister and marks the continual struggle of White Australia’s acknowledgement of Indigenous dispossession and attempted genocide which in turn caused a massive rupture to White Australia’s self-understanding.

How does exhibiting internationally differ from nationally, further yet locally within your own country?

Fiona commented that there is a “historical shackling” when working within Australia and that there is a freedom when exhibiting work internationally as you are not pigeon-holed and you escape the politics.

Internationally, Fiona has produced and exhibited many of her most successful works, such as, HHH and Wild Times Call . Also, she believes developing works internationally loosens the expectation that Aboriginal artists deliver work that comments on the Aboriginal experience and enables artists to deal with universal themes. This is evident in Fiona’s HHH series which was created in the USA and is loaded with connotations on the African American experience with the Klu Klux Klan that universally has impacted upon Black/White issues including Australia.

Locally, Fiona has exhibited locally in her hometown of Hervey Bay and in her home state of Queensland. One of her most prolific and controversial works is Witnessing to Silence (2004) which is a public installation at the Queensland Magistrates Courts.

Fiona also mentioned that there is a lot of pride in exhibiting back home especially from her mob.

Is there any difference between regional and urban Contemporary Aboriginal artists?

Yes, urban Aboriginal artists are immediately assumed to be delivering political art whereas regional art is believed to be more community based and within the context of the market place, expectations are less.

As an urban artist based within Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and other metropolis’ there is an increase of entry points into the national arts industry with a quicker career trajectory internationally. There are a few exceptions such as Karla Dickens and Robert Campbell Junior whom both are regional artists who have received critical acclaim,

There is a struggle for urban artists is to receive recognition for the innate presence of “culture” within their works and their connection to country, this in comparison to the immediate correlations between regional artists and their connection to country and culture shows a huge discrepancy between the expectations of regional and urban Aboriginal artists.

Is Aboriginal art innately political. Is your art deliberately political?

Fiona believes Aboriginal art is innately political.

Arnhem land artists are talking about their country and in turn they are creating their title deed of their country, if you will in western sense.

Urban artists commentary of their Aboriginal experience is innately political however, the market place tries to depoliticise the work, take the politics out.

Fiona believes it is who we are, we are political, its an expression of life, connectedness to family, histories and country and it is neither good or bad thing.

What is it to be an Aboriginal artist today?

As an Aboriginal artist today you have a lot more doors open especially on the East Coast of Australia with better entry points in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Fiona believes Boomali was fundamental in the development of the Contemporary Aboriginal art scene.

Fiona also highlighted once again the better international career trajectory that many Aboriginal contemporary artists experience such as Christian Thompson who is now based in the UK.

After the interview I left feeling pretty incredible. One reason being that I met a childhood hero of mine but more importantly, I just finished having a deadly yarn with a deadly Batjala woman about how incredible Aboriginal artists are. We are powerful storytellers who have a big, big place; not only in the Australian art scene but internationally.

-Gabi

Nàngami

Dreams are said to be the voice of the unconscious.

The ‘Dreaming’ for our non Aboriginal readers and followers is a term used to describe the interconnectedness and complexities of Aboriginal spirituality, mythology and creation.

There is no distinguishment from creation to today.

The term is an English word attached with foreign connotations of what a dream is.

Dreams are studied extensively as an attempt to understand the human brain and psyche.

What do our dreams tell us that words can not?

An analogy for dreams can be seen as files that we tap into each night when we close our eyes to sleep, ultimately downloading knowledge from our ancestors.

What are we, the embodiment of the past, present and future downloading when we dream?

Language is important to any cultural identity and heavily influences the social interactions that people may or may not have. In Australia, the diverse Languages and dialects of the land are disappearing at a rate never before seen in the history of human evolution.

The language of the land embodies the law of the land.

In 1788 Lt William Dawes sailed to Australia with Captain Phillip (soon to be first Governor) and he took an interest in many things “native”. He was especially fond of the Sydney languages and had many interactions with a young woman from the newfound Sydney town.

He kept a two notebooks recording many conversations.

The notebooks are a key resource for the revitalisation of the Dharug language and are more than words on paper. They closely detail a relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang, a young Cadigal woman, by the documentation of their yarns which range from Patyegarang’s sleep deprivation to statements of resistance.

On Wednesday, the Tidda’s had the opportunity to hold Lt William Dawes notebooks and read from the same text the young Patygareng once held and may have even written in herself.

We met up with archivist Susannah Rayner and director, David Nathan from the Endangered Languages faculty who showed us their small collection of materials that delve into first contact stories including Dawes Notebooks . Click here to view Dawes Notebooks online

Thanks to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, the Tiddas were given the time to hold the notes in our hands, to flick the pages, see the words, roll them out on our tongues and to reimagine the yarns between the first peoples and the invader, recorded more than 220 years ago.

After the overwhelming experience of the day before with “that shield” at the British Museum we were unsure of how we would react to the materials especially as they document the experiences of some of the Tidda’s ancestors and the mere fact that what happened in these places created a ripple effect of colonial oppression and cultural genocide in all of our communities.

The Tiddas discovered many things documented throughout Dawes Notebooks, more importantly they found many similarities between themselves and the young Patyegarang.

An excerpt from the notebooks display a level of defiance that is very much still evident today.

William Dawes had asked Patyegarang about a resistance that was forming, some say led by the first patriot to die defending his homelands, Pemulwuy. He had told her that a whiteman had been wounded some days ago in coming from Kadi (Sydney Cove) to Warang (the Rocks, Sydney) and asked her why the black men did it.

Patyegarang: Gūlara – (Because they are) angry.

Dawes: Minyan gūlara eóra? Why are the black men angry?

Patyegarang: Impám yaluri white man Because the white men are settled here.

Nàngami is to dream. This term is documented in Dawes notebook and the Tiddas wonder as to what dreams the Dharug mob were having during the initial stages of first contact?

Did that dream turn into a nightmare?

Milbah.

Ba-rang-a-roo.

War-rai-were Biel-bool.

Go-roo-ber-ra.

Bur-ro-wun.

Gome-bee-re.

Yello-mundy.

Djimba.

Its not too often that these names are spoken nor written. In fact these names belong to the many men and woman of Warran Circular Quay. Their names and stories too easily forgotten.

What messages can be decoded from our own Nàngami?
What are these voices saying?

Byalawayagu speak soon,

Gabi, Ali, Lorna & Lou

Also, the deadly David Nathan from the School of Oriental and African Studies has also written a blog about our experience with the materials. See blog here Thanks Dave!

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Origins: First Nations Festival Opening @ the Bargehouse, London. 22/10/13

By Tiddas Take Back.

Hey you mob! Just giving you a sneak peak of some of the footage from our incredible night at the Bargehouse, London for the Opening of the Origins: First Nations Festival. More comin’ soon!

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Window Seat

By Gabi Widders.

Runyara Lana,

I am writing this entry whilst flying high over somewhere between Broken Hill and the middle of nowhere. I have been either blessed or cursed with a window seat……so far I reckon it’s a blessing as I have a wedge-tail eagles view of some beautiful country. I have passed the familiar and stunning sandstone and saltwater country of Sydney, the spiritual Blue Mountains that are currently consumed by a big white cloud of smoke and the red, red dirt of Western NSW.

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I along with my tidda’s Lorna, Merindah and Ali are on our way to join our sissy Lou in the land of the colonisers, England. I’ve been once before but this time I’m on a mission to flip the English experience on its head.

On the colonisers traditional country I will be celebrating exciting, living Indigenous cultures that the colonisers attempted to silence, I will clasp my eyes on cultural objects and materials that the colonisers have and continue to deprive us of and last but not least to fly the red, black and yellow in place of the Union Jack.

In addition to the above, a few days ago I became more aware of my Irish ancestry. I am a descendent of an Anaiwan Tribal woman whom married Maurice Quinn, an Irish Convict. With this newfound knowledge it became even more apparent that my identity as a Koori woman and my mobs colonial narrative transcends Australian borders and that is why I am heading over to Ireland with my fellow BlackIrish tiddas’s Lorna and Merindah to pay respect and acknowledge our Irish ancestry. I am also using the time in Ireland to find out the origins of the black fulla terms Deadly and In the horrors as I have a sneaking suspicion they come from Ireland. Watch this YouTube clip to see what I’m talking about…. How to put on an Irish accent

Anyways, that’s it from me today because if I don’t get enough zzz I will be landing in London with a case of the horrors BIG TIME. I’ll let you all know how that goes and by the way after a 21 hour flight I still got major love for the window seat!

Big love,
Gabi
Kwanga of the Anaiwan

Notes of reference:
Anaiwan: Aboriginal peoples whose boundaries are situated in the New England, New South Wales, Australia
Mob: Term used to describe a group of people especially family or clan group
Koori: term used to describe Aboriginal people from parts of New South Wales and Victoria
Runyara Lana: good day in the Anaiwan language
Kwanga: child in the Anaiwan language
In the horrors: “out of it”, in a silly mood
Deadly: awesome, amazing, incredible