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

Mesnak… To Be (Or Not To Be)?

20131029-172014.jpgLast night the tiddas and I went to the see the powerful First Nations Québécois film Mesnak. Frightening and familiar scenes, parallels with our own communities, and a pervasive post-colonial melancholia left us weeping.

The director, Yves Sioui Durand, grew up on the Huron-Wendat Wendake Reserve and spent many years in communities in Canada before co-writing and directing the film. Mesnak is the first feature to be released by an Indigenous director in Quebec, shot in Innu and French. Loosely based on the plot of Hamlet, Mesnak follows the story of Dave, a young urban Aboriginal man whose search for his mother reunites him with country but also with the painful secrets and confronting realities of his community and his past. To me Mesnak was more real and much more tragic than the narrative Shakespeare imagined.

I wanted to include an extract from the Origins Festival brochure in which Sioui-Durand talks about the film…

I had started to wonder back in 2002 what would become of Native Americans: the lies, political exclusion, corruption of principles and the ignorance of Aboriginal leaders with regard to the place that art occupies in the heart of any society. The movie became necessary through an exploration of origins, rejection, abandonment, and the reality of living a life which isn’t one’s own. Rediscovering one’s roots is also about recognising that your people have a common destiny.

I think that Aboriginals have Shakespearean destinies. They are larger than life and the issues they are faced with touch the whole community. “To be or not to be?” is the big question that every Aboriginal asks himself or herself at some point. When the world rejects you, should you stay true to yourself and at what price? On the other hand, family secrets and hidden truths are now part and parcel of an Aboriginal way of life that is swamped by collective alienation. Something is rotten in the State of Kinogamish! Here’s another big question: “Is love still possible in a world riddled with betrayal?” Like Hamlet, Dave is an idealist ruled by a love for justice. He is engaged in a search for identity. He has no choice but to find out where he comes from, to meet the mother who abandoned him, then to make peace with her and with himself. – Yves Sioui Durand

There are some pretty dark themes in the film and it includes nudity, sex scenes, violence and drug references. Not suitable for jarjums but an incredible and important film to see!!

See the trailer for the film here – http://vimeo.com/54813980

NOT LOST

By Ali Murphy-Oates.

A few years ago, I drove with my Dad to Dubbo in central-western New South Wales for a corroboree and to visit the graveyard where we thought my grandmother, his mother, had been buried. My grandmother had passed away when my dad was two years old, and he and his brother were sent to be raised by their whitefella paternal grandparents in Cronulla, South Sydney. It wasn’t until recently that I even thought or realised that we might not know where my grandmother was buried, because everyone gets a grave, right? My maternal grandmother and grandfather are right next to each each other, I almost tripped over them when we said goodbye to our great-uncle last year. But hers is unmarked, possibly shared with others, and relegated to the section of Dubbo cemetery where the poor, the unwanted, and the Aboriginal people were buried. A bare grassed strip of land with a plaque on a wall standing guard in the centre – all the names that could be remembered or found again. I don’t think she’s there.

I’ve been in London 6 days, and have 3 days until I fly home again. In this time our group has seen and done some incredible, heartbreaking, confronting, humbling and uplifting things. On our first day we found street art on Brick Lane that addressed both the colonisation of Australia and the current hysteria over our (lack of) refugee intake. We wept over a shield at the British Museum, a moment of first contact, first conflict, frozen behind glass and forgotten. Placed in a hall with thousands upon thousands of collected memories from other colonised countries and presided over by a bust of Joseph Banks. Thousands more from that time, that place, stored away from public eye. We poured over the notebooks of William Dawes at the University of London, recordings of words written in Sydney language, conversations half written that we can almost hear. Missionary reports on the devastation and extinction of the Aboriginal people, printed proper with an addendum of desperation scrawled over the top. Lake Macquarie people, so close to my home. We performed a smoking ritual for the guests of the opening night of the Origins Festival, and I sung my guts out in Darkinjung language. They are some of the only words I know from the country I was born on. And finally realising, through conversations in the museum, at the university and with people on the tube, how distant and disconnected the history and the current state of our people is to the life of the everyday person in the UK. They literally hold our history, and they don’t even know it.

My relationship to my culture has sometimes felt like my relationship to these objects. Locked away, but on display. Other people tell me what it is. Sometimes there’s a fire in my belly, but more often it’s a gentle stirring. A yearning for more. It’s right there, I know, but somehow just out of reach.

Yesterday in the In The Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalisation conference we found ourselves in a debate over the ‘loss’ of language and culture. The implication (accidentally made) of loss upset some of my colleagues, quite rightly. Others proposed the term should be an ‘erasure’ of language and culture, which I agreed with. But the words that have stuck with me since then came from Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, someone whom I was absolutely star struck by and could not believe I was in the same room as. She asserted (and I paraphrase) that our culture is not lost, not erased. It is still there. It’s with our old people. It’s in the land. In our songs and our rock carvings. We just have to listen and look. We just need to reconnect.

Back at the cemetery, after wandering around for while and indulging in a morbid fascination of the ageing tombstones, I eventually found my dad under the largest tree in the row that borders the strip of grass. He’s lying down and looking up through the leaves.
He’s peaceful.
He’s found her.
He’s talking to her.
I lay down next to him and looked up myself. And I knew. She wasn’t lost. She was always here. We just needed to listen and look. To reconnect.

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.

Gone gatherin’

By Ali Murphy-Oates.

I just woke up to read the news that Canberra, our nation’s capital state, has passed laws allowing same sex couples to marry. Maybe it’s the four hours sleep I’ve had (curse you jet lag!) but I’m sitting on the edge of the bed absolutely overwhelmed with emotion. What a sook! So before I start my post, I just want to give a little shout out to all the babes in Oz who might be planning to migrate to our nations’s dullest city to make it a little more colourful with their love. Shine on.

Last week was a long, bizarre week. It started with packing the entire contents of my home up on Monday into 22 garbage bags in preparation for a pest terminator. It went downhill when I lost hours and hours worth of work in a late night computer meltdown on Wednesday night, crying pathetically at my desk. It completely bottomed out when I thought I had lost my passport and spent most of Thursday picking through the aforementioned garbage bags twice over in search of it, calling the passport office to book two separate emergency passport replacement appointments, and enlisting most if my workmates via teary phone call to search my desk for me. Four hours gone and all dignity lost, I found it. It was in a folder next to the bed. And finally the week ended Saturday morning with me posing for a full body nude portrait (hi mum) for the wonderful artist Deborah Kelly and her project In All Our Glory for the 19th Biennale of Sydney. Just the thing to calm you down before a long haul international flight!

And then then I went to the airport and went to England with these ladies. And the new week got stepped up to super-awesome-level-1000.
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If you haven’t taken a moment to read the ‘about’ section of this website, I recommend you do. Right now. G’on den. Git!

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Diary of a Sovereign Traveller.

By Lorna Munro.

Day 1,
Thursday the 17th of October 2013

The preparations for the proposed travel to the land mass now known as “hiɪŋ.ɡLand” has been quite disappointing. My provisions have been size-ably decreased due to miscalculations of funds that were procured many moons ago alas, I look to the founders of our Great Commonwealth, of HaustalRalia for examples of how to create a great and prosperous nation from begging, stealing and borrowing, who have obviously done well with their efforts and I remain hopeful.

In accordance with my orders from the council of sovereign Wiradjuri elders and warriors, I am planning my official statement to be delivered in a few days passing. A ceremony is to be arranged from the landing party on arrival, I am interested in seeing the foreign dignitaries interpret their foreign tongues and art practices and further engaging in a conversation long overdue.

I shall keep you informed as to where my location will be once I have landed on the soil of our Invader ancestors, please prepare smoke and pray and give thanks to the creator for me, ask the father in the sky to protect me as I may encounter danger in my travels and may be interacting with savages and heathens who worship strange gods and monuments.

I eagerly await correspondence from our BLACK QUEEN AND BLACK COUNTRY.
Our forefathers will not have died in vain.
Yours in the Struggle

Yilinhi of the Wiradjuri

'Let me explore by own identity...' by Lorna Munro, 2013.

‘Let me explore by own identity…’ Lorna Munro, 2013.