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

The Warriors Ode

Rewind.

Ok, so after the visit to The British Museum, my Tiddas and I were extremely overwhelmed after coming into contact with artifacts forcibly ‘acquired’ from an unrecorded war.

The frontier wars as they are known.

When captain cook had first attempted to land and invade our lands in 1770, he was met by two warriors. These warriors responded to the european landing party, treating their attempted landing as a declaration of war with the throwing of their spears.

The english fired and ‘wounded’ one of the warriors. A bark shield was ‘dropped’ and picked up and taken on board the endeavour. This was recorded in cook’s journals but was also a yarn that has been told and retold and told again…….

Fast Forward.

242 years later, in the land where the invasion began we are standing, looking at the bark shield behind glass. A displayed relic of the untold story of Australia’s history exhibited and held as a part of the ‘colonial story’ elicited many different emotional responses. We watched as a group of schoolboys pushed past, looking for items on their activity sheets, they stopped and were pointing and agreeing that it was what they were looking for. This relic of war was now apart of a ‘scavenger hunt’ probably used to entertain the many school groups that would pass through the halls of the museum, to make education seem fun. None of this was fun for us.

I was familiar with the story as it is the story that we relay whenever the term ‘peaceful settlement’ is heard. We know this story because of what it represents and because the young people today who are upholding the legacy and fight for land rights whom use it as the first record of dissent from foreigners invading and founding the country now known as Australia during many heated debates and conversations with non Aboriginal people who like to romanticise about the frontier wars. Who tell US to get over it.

How can we get over it when we are still being oppressed by the ancestors of the invaders? How can we get over the white psychosis being perpetrated and materializing in the deplorable living conditions experienced back home?

I walked out of there feeling like I had a hole in my head.

Literally. It felt like air was hitting a nerve it’s not supposed to, the only way I could describe it is feeling like you just chipped a tooth. It is a weird feeling and I could not help but think about the many warriors bones and heads that have also been ‘aquired’ and stored away. What warrior would drop or lay down his spear and shield? I thought about this quite a bit as our discussions continued on through lunch, and then it hit me.

Only a dead warrior would lay down their shield.

I started to write…….

The Warriors ode

The catalogue
Grows jealous
Of the visual splendour
That in theory it should have……
As art.
As a part

Of the most efficient design
Known to eye
Creations of past nations
Go against the grain of
Colonisation
But hey,
What good is coming from
Even having this conversation?

6000 to 1

A sublime
Character shadowed by his own short comings
A figure cascading
From the sky
To arrive
At this sweet destination
Where life meets death
Better yet
Bitter sweet
Out of date fruit to eat
Polluted buffer
Weighted down
One king had his crown
Stolen
Pay us for what you owe us

Light
Shines through a crack
From inside a box
Not really going anywhere
But staying no where
How did you,
Patriot of a war unrecorded
Get here?
Lorna Munro.

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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All roads lead to Kamay…

By Tiddas Take Back.

We were running late. Avoiding the peak hour tube we chose to black track it instead, navigating the streets of Central London. Someone asked what’s the time? It’s already 10am. Shit we’re gonna be late. Nah we running on Koori time.

We be right.

Arriving at the entrance of the British museum we felt like we had stepped into a jigsaw puzzle of “acquired pieces”. Our backdrop included Romanesque columns and gods but we were no where near Italy.

All roads lead to Rome but as we had learnt all of our roads lead to and from Kamay (Botany Bay).

When we had left home our last steps on our own country was in the same area that was first stepped on by the Gubbas. The foreigners whom “forcibly acquired” that land now known as Australia somewhere between 1700 and 1800.

We met Gaye who is a Palawa woman, a great great grand daughter of Fanny Cochrane Smith.

Gaye works at the British museum and she kindly made time to show us the two Aboriginal displays currently open to the public. Despite only two displays, their collection includes 6000 cultural objects and materials from New South Wales with majority of it pre dating 1860 and being stored in east London, and guess we’re we are staying?

That’s right east London. We may have just black tracked our way into oblivion.

And then – boom! Time stops and Gaye drops the bomb on us, she suggests that we check out the Kings Library, the same king who ordered captain cook ‘to engage and conciliate the affections of the natives’.

Slap the black off me and call me colonised! We had the breath knocked out of our lungs when Gaye directed us to a specific cultural object that elicited a response we could never had anticipated.

Displayed behind a glass panel with a questionable yet very vague description, was a bark shield.

This bark shield was one of the first Australian objects to arrive in Britain. In April, 1770 captain cook and his officers attempted to land on Australia’s south east coast. When two men of the Eora tribe tried to stop the landing, one was wounded by gunfire and dropped this shield. First contact in the pacific were often tense and violent.

What this description fails to mention is that history is recorded by the conquerors so what of the conquered?

Black to reality.

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Lorna, Gabi, Ali and Lou.

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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