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