Fiona Foley is a contemporary Australian painter, printmaker, photographer, sculptor, installation artist, writer and community activist, whose work is greatly influenced by her Badtjala heritage and history. The Badtjala are a group indigenous to Australia, whose ancestral homeland was Thoorgine (called Fraser Island by white colonists), the world's largest sand island. By the early 20th century, the Badtjala had almost been destroyed or removed to mainland Australia by the more recent white settlers. Also referred to as aborigines, the Australian indigenous people have been in Australia for many millennia, and their art-making tradition has existed all that time. The visual culture of Australian indigenous people varies by group, and ranges from traditional rock art to contemporary and urban art that reflects the concerns and practices of other 21st century artists.
Though sometimes the practice of art is seen differently by indigenous art-makers than their contemporary artist counterparts, the works themselves often have a lot in common with much contemporary artwork, particularly with conceptual, installation and issues-based art. In ancient times, art had a different function than the modern notions of self-expression or decoration; it was created with spiritual and hunting/survival purposes in mind. The identity of the individual artist/maker of cave paintings, masks and other traditional art forms was not as significant as it is today. Still, the traditional art object is perceived today also as a work of art, and valued for its aesthetic qualities.
Since the late 19th century, artists have increasingly turned to so-called 'primitive' art for inspiration and formal possibilities. From Gauguin's experiences in Tahiti to Picasso's Cubism, the art of indigenous peoples has been used for its expressive and inventive forms. The term 'primitive' is an unfortunate one, being a term applied to art produced by those without formal art training (like Grandma Moses for instance), and to the art of indigenous people in Africa, North and South America, and elsewhere. The use of the word primitive probably arose out of the European colonialism of the last four or five centuries, with its condescending attitude toward less technologically advanced societies. Not much respect was given for the indigenous cultures, or the art they produced.
Now, however, there is more attention paid to this art, and it is shown in major museums and galleries throughout the world. Contemporary artistic forms such as earth art, installation art, conceptual art and Abstract Expressionism have expressed an affinity with our ancient past. The heads of Easter Island, the Native American burial mounds, cave paintings, and pictographs are just a few of the elements influencing modern and contemporary art. Along with the visual forms, attitudes are also affected, whether with an increased spiritual quality, less interest in the artistic traditions of the Renaissance (fidelity to nature, the use of illusionistic space and perspective, etc.), or the use of non-traditional materials and forms.
Now based in Hervey Bay, Queensland, Fiona Foley was born in 1964 in mainland Australia. She grew up in Queensland, and studied art and education in Sydney, Australia, and at St. Martins School of Arts in London, England. She has said that although the idea of artists pursuing an interest in their "roots" existed at the time, she herself was not encouraged to do so in school. She also studied with traditional indigenous artists in the communities of Arnhem Land, Ramingining and Maningrida in Australia, and the painful Badtjala memories are important in her art-making, along with the European tradition she absorbed in art school. Later, she helped form a traditional artists' cooperative organization in Sydney.
She uses a wide range of mediums and materials, as do many contemporary artists, with less adherence to traditional categories (such as painting, sculpture, etc.), and artists are free to mix and match mediums, materials and styles. They are often also more interested in the idea or expression in the work, than in stylistic labels. Foley also makes indoor and outdoor installations. (An installation is a contemporary art form, which is usually large (even gallery-sized), and consists of mainly three-dimensional elements, and sometimes with two-dimensional elements, such as text or photographs. Many installations are site-specific, meaning they were conceived by the artist for a specific location, building, etc.)
Foley's paintings are often spare, and with an "organic" geometry; they suggest specific references to her Badtjala heritage. She sometimes uses pastels, in a distinctive manner with this delicate medium.
Her photographs tend to be conceptual in nature, where she poses in the dress of various indigenous peoples. Here, she is referencing the colonial practice of studying and displaying indigenous tribesmen and women as 'specimens' of anthropology, including their bodily remains (which in the past were sometimes collected by bounty hunters). The inference is usually that these societies no longer exist, or exist only as remnants or objects of study. However, many of these cultures, though heavily decimated by the colonial empires of the last 500 years, still exist - and they have held onto their culture against all odds. There has even been a renewed interest in cultural heritage all over the world. Too often, we tend to think of 'aboriginal' or 'Mayan' as people who no longer exist, however these cultures and individuals still survive, and even thrive. They produce some artists who, like Foley, didn't grow up in the traditional ways, but yet have a sense of their history. They combine their ethnic experience with the urban culture of today, with its computers, cars, skyscrapers, etc., as well as Western art training, to produce art with originality and vitality, and which is often in sync with contemporary art forms such as environmental art, installations, conceptual art, etc.
As well as sharing the culture and history of the Badtjala, Foley has also become interested in the experience of the indigenous people of North America (Native Americans), in particular the Seminole tribe of Florida, who were also dispossessed of their land. She has posed for her photographs in Seminole traditional dress, which is of beautifully patterned patchwork fabrics, and has included these women's dresses in her installations.
Her indoor installations, like her collages, use natural materials and sometimes include the Eora language, with specific references to aboriginal history and culture, and are striking conceptual works. Their forms reflect aboriginal forms, for instance two forked sticks with a cross bar between them. Using non-traditional materials such as flour and aboriginal spiral forms, they are subtle but powerful works, which deal with the taking and purchase of aborginal land, sometimes with beads, knives, flour, etc. In Australian history, the aborigines were at times given flour and other provisions laced with arsenic, and many died from this. In Foley's work, there are references to historically recorded massacres and other events which helped to decimate the original inhabitants of Australia.
An installation created by aboriginal artists, The Aboriginal Memorial, is an answer to the bicentennial celebration of Australian white presence. White recorded history is 2 millennia - the aboriginal history is about 50 millennia, with a continuous art tradition. (We continue to say that we "discovered" Australia and America - in the face of the obvious - we don't really see or hear indigenous cultures, or acknowledge that they were here first.) There are 50,000 years of Australian rock art, with its graphic symbols. These works have layers of meaning, for those traditional people in the know (the sacred meanings); other, less secretive works are shown to the public. The Aboriginal Memorial is a collaborative work, which consists of 200 hollow log coffins (of the type used in mortuary ceremonies to keep the bones of deceased clan members). They were made on the occasion of the Australian Bicentenary in honor of the aboriginals who died in the struggle to protect their land, and who never received a proper burial.
Foley's outdoor installation pieces, often produced in collaboration with another artist, are particularly striking. They include large "poles" of wood, steel and sandstone, often with small shelves containing relic-like objects (such as human hair), which refer to specific indigenous traditions. One example of these is Edge of the Trees, a work produced with English artist Janet Laurence. These works use materials such as human hair (a symbol of mourning), wood, feathers, shells, etc. and occasionally incorporate sound.
Foley's main concern is the indigenous experience, and in this sense her work is highly political. She intends to bring this experience to the world by way of her art and other activities, such as lecturing and curating. Her work has become widely recognized around the world, and she has had major exhibitions in Australia, North America, Europe and Russia (at the Hermitage Museum). A 2006 exhibition at the October Gallery in London, titled Strange Fruit (a probable reference to Billie Holliday's song about the American South's practice of lynching), showed Foley's series called Hedonistic Honky Haters. The pieces consist of fabric costumes both worn by black men and also the empty costumes hung on the gallery wall. The costumes have black hoods very similar to the white hoods worn by the American Ku Klux Klan, and the clothes are made of the brightly colored fabric traditionally worn by indigenous peoples. The series is satirical, but also meant to make a point about the alive-and-well issue of racism. You can see other examples of Foley's work here.
Since the 1960's, artists have been affected by ancient art, perhaps fueled by the environmental crisis and a desire to return to our roots, and to nature, with a less elitist attitude toward non-Western art. With all our technology, we are not really that different, as humans, from our ancestors. We have the same physical, emotional and spiritual needs - the same goals - all of our education and technology haven't changed these. What we have improved upon stands against what we've lost - and perhaps this is the reason for a return to pre-literate times. Our advances have brought us forward in technology, items of convenience, physical comfort, knowledge; but look where it has gotten us environmentally, emotionally and spiritually. We long for the authentic, the rich - as opposed to the empty, the sham.
This is reflected in much modern and contemporary art; we are facing up to our terrible colonial past and its aftereffects, some of which are still unfolding (the Middle East, Northern Ireland, etc.). Hopefully, we will learn from it - the diversity and multi-cultural character of today's art is encouraging in this regard. Art is now a long tradition, which flows between refined and vital; when it becomes too refined (stale), something more vital will come along to enliven it and give it freshness (as in music too). It is like we get sustenance and inspiration from the original source. The true nature of art lies not in education or "pedigree" - it has the same source, since charcoal from the fire and red and yellow earth were smeared onto cave walls and stones were carved into tiny figures 50,000 years ago. The Old Masters we study, like da Vinci or Rembrandt, are relatively recent; the oldest masters were these first painters and carvers. Art-making today comes from this; rather than limiting it to a painting on an easel and sculpture on a pedestal, we know there are no limits to what art can be - only possibilities. What is primitive is the preconceptions about aboriginals, rather than the aboriginals themselves, whose culture is, like other indigenous people, more profound than the dominating materialistic cultures. Long marginalized from the art mainstream, and dogged by preconceptions and stereotypes; indigenous art is becoming better known and accepted, as its forms are more closely reflected in those of contemporary art. The debates about what "authentic" aboriginal art is have quieted somewhat, and artists are given wider latitude in what they create, to reflect their individuality as well as their culture.
The perception of indigenous peoples, as historically shown in museums and textbooks, is as 'anonymous,' nameless stone-age people, when in fact these people are someone's ancestors, just as precious as those of genealogy-buff whites. Claiming the identities long denied them, indigenous artists are triumphing over stereotypes and misconceptions. Foley has searched Australian and overseas museum collections for Badtjala cultural objects - originally collected as 'specimens' of primitive/exotic cultures - and relegating these cultures to the position of the 'other' - not like us (the inference being not quite as good or advanced as we - culture versus curios). These realities are significant because the struggle for land, etc. continues today; citizenship was only granted to aboriginal people in 1967. Museums collecting objects as scientific specimens can be seen, on one level, as a well-intentioned endeavor, but on a deeper level it reveals a built-in condescension on the part of the museum/society. (How would we whites feel about our ancestors' bones being housed in a museum of another culture?) We need to educate/enlighten about these issues, not just for the sake of indigenous people, but for our own sake. (We are only free when we are all free.) As the world becomes more global, and cultural homogenization is growing, many of us are reaching back to our (lost) heritage, and realizing how valuable it is to us (all of us). Artists can choose to make art which manifests this cultural heritage, but probably more often they produce such work in a natural or semi-conscious fashion, simply because it reflects who they are as individuals.
A good artist is a good artist, whether or not they've had formal art training, for the essence of art has little to do with training or the lack of it. (Technical skill or facility are not the key elements of art-making - rather it is the content, or meaning, of art which is most important.)
Viewing indigenous peoples as 'wild,' 'uncivilized,' or 'savage,' etc. ruled the 19th century and part of the 20th; and was/is a dangerous fallacy. It led to loss of land, loss of culture and language, and even loss of life for indigenous people all over the world. Indigenous people have also often been romanticized, as for example in Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti, or the stoic, noble Native American figures; this is really just another way to avoid seeing them as real, three-dimensional humans, with complexity, individuality and intelligence, and continues to enable discrimination and block opportunity today. This misunderstanding and denial on the part of white culture is also the subject of Foley's art.
The University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum exhibited Dreamtime, Our Time: The Eternal Circle, a multi-disciplinary collaboration of dance, theater, art and anthropology. Foley created for this exhibition, River of Corn, an installation which filled an entire room. A work whose nature was conceptual, it consisted of a room-sized basin of yellow corn about one foot deep, through which visitors had to walk to see Foley's photographs on the walls. (They had to remove their shoes first, then wade through the corn, which produced a strange sensation similar to walking against a water current.) The effect was an awareness of the process of walking and the difficulty of this process. Foley's photographs were of herself dressed in traditional Native American dress. The conceptual nature of the work is its experiential quality - rather than a passive watching of a painting or photogaph, the experience of wading through the corn has an effect on the viewer/participant. Foley's statement is about how indigenous women are perceived (or not perceived); we are forced to be aware of our preconceptions - our concept of beauty, etc.
White artists have long had the luxury of being able to create any kind of art we wanted - relatively free of self-consciousness and expectations, especially with regard to our ethnic or national heritage. People of color, on the other hand, have often been seen in terms of their background, and expected to reflect this expectation. We are free to be ourselves, whatever that may be, whereas an artist of color is often seen as a "black" or "aboriginal" artist - another way of marginalizing them and their work. We should all be allowed to self-realize, without typecasting.
Contemporary aboriginal artists work in all contemporary mediums - film, video, installation, and conceptually. There is great multiplicity in this art scene. Foley's work, though about the great losses indigenous and aboriginal people have experienced, reflects this healthy situation.
But there is also a more personal, poetic side to her work, perhaps also a reflection of her heritage. The indigenous people of Australia refer to The Dreamtime, an idea central to their belief system. It is their idea of how the world was created and by whom (their "creative ancestors" or spirit beings), who after creating the world, retired into the sky, earth, clouds and all earthly creatures. The present time is called the Dreaming; ceremonies re-enact the events of the ancient era of creation in chants accompanied by didgeridoo or clap sticks. Dreaming doesn't refer to dreams or unreality, rather a state of reality beyond the mundane; it is art and religion, including supernatural powers. An individual's links with the ancestral beings and the land, and their spiritual and social identity, are expressed through totems of natural species and phenomena, which feature in ritual songs, dances and through the creation of art. Patterns such as cross-hatching create a 'visual vibrancy' that evokes the power of the ancestors, along with the resonance of ancestral power in the landscape. It is now thought that the aboriginal people migrated from Africa, the beginning place of homo sapiens; art is thought to have begun at least 50,000 years ago, by the Africans, and carried to Australia. By looking at African and aboriginal art, we can perhaps see how art originated, and what its original significance was.