“Over the years, you get built out, you start to look at suburban garages. On five sides of my bush block, I get the view of garages for boats or cars,” Foley says, as she points out a low-lying block her parents bought up the road for $4000 “back in the day”. You used to be able to reach the nearby mangroves, where at low tide Foley still searches for art material, but the new owners have stopped public access.
“I’m going to build a jungle here so I don’t have to look at that cream shed from my studio,” Foley adds. “Anyway, that’s my bit.”
But if Foley can only catch a glimpse of K’gari from her home, it is never far from her heart and her art. Badtjala culture, history and dispossession under colonialism is at the centre of her practice. She has been exhibiting since the mid-80s, moving across installation, photography, print-making, sculpture and film.
In her famous 1994 photographic triptych Badtjala Woman, Foley drew on ethnographic photographs of an anonymous Fraser Island woman taken circa 1899. Posing in the portraits herself, Foley sought to appropriate the colonial gaze and create a space for Badtjala women, in what art curator Anne Loxley described as “a work that is simultaneously a self-portrait, a critique, a protest and a call to accountability”.
Her striking HHH (Hedonistic Honky Haters) photograph series in 2004 destabilised Ku Klux Klan imagery, using African-American models wearing colourful long robes and hoods made from African fabric.
More recently, Foley has turned her attention towards the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. She researched the 1897 Queensland act for her PhD, exploring how opium was used to control Aboriginal lives and labour. Her disturbing photographic and sculpture series, Horror has a Face, includes a series of breast plates with historic quotes inscribed on them and images of opium dens in the 19th century.
“I’ve been allowed to work in that zone unhindered because really no one else is working in that zone so I feel like I still haven’t fully exploited it yet,” Foley says.
“I will keep working in that zone if the work doesn’t become stale and predictable; you always have to be a little bit like Madonna and reinvent yourself.”
These three key works will be included in a survey of Foley’s 30-year artistic practice – called Who are these strangers and where are they going? – which opens at the National Art School this week as part of the Sydney Festival.
It’s a return to beginnings for Foley, who graduated from the Darlinghurst establishment, then known as East Sydney Tech, in 1983. The exhibition takes its name from Foley’s latest work, a soundscape which recreates the oldest known Aboriginal song, which has been handed down orally over generations and records the Badtjala people of K’gari observing the Captain Cook’s Endeavour in 1770.
“My work is research and history based. For me, I think that territory is rich, still largely unexplored … It’s about not letting other people be the expert of your own culture.”
During the Spectrum photo shoot, she asks, with irony and self-deprecation, whether she looks appropriately “like an elder stateswoman of Aboriginal art”, but there’s no denying Foley’s position as one of our country’s most prominent Aboriginal and contemporary artists, a position she has levered into academia and advocacy.
And while her work is thought-provoking, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Foley has no shortage of opinions on Love Island, drinks beer and doesn’t mind a little art world slander-slinging. She lives alone with her two dogs – an aloof German shepherd and sooky cocker spaniel – and works in a small studio at the back of her property.
‘It was very anti-establishment, anti-monarchy, anti-English, anti-authority. We were raised to ask questions.’
Foley’s mother, Shirley, was a Badtjala woman, born on the dirt floor of a humpy in Hervey Bay and raised by her mother after her father died in a boating accident off K’gari. Foley’s father, Barry, was a first generation Australian, son of an Irish father and Scottish mother who met in Sydney.
Shirley and Barry met at a party in Cairns and were married for 36 years (Shirley passed away in 2000 and Barry in 2017). Fiona, the oldest of their four children, was born in a town neighbouring Hervey Bay in 1964.
“With an Irish father and an Aboriginal mother, it was very anti-establishment, anti-monarchy, anti-English, anti-authority. We were raised to ask questions,” Foley says.
Foley spent her early childhood in Hervey Bay, but her memories are troubling. Her father, who at the time worked laying underground PMG cables, was vilified for marrying an Aboriginal woman. Stones and slurs were slung at Foley and her siblings on the way to and from school. It was, she says, her earliest recollection of being racialised.
Her family moved to the mining community of Mount Isa and a year later to Hornsby in Sydney’s north, where Foley’s father had spent his childhood. Her parents worked for the postal service and Foley attended Berowra Heights Public School and Asquith Girls’ High School. While they were at first the only Aboriginal family in Hornsby and she remembers no other Aboriginal students at her school, Foley says she experienced an unexpected sense of freedom.
“In Queensland, there is a real deep psychology about how to think about Aboriginal people. You have a pre-destiny in society here. You’re not thought of very highly, you’re in some sort of lower echelon when it comes to how people perceive you,” she says.
“What was good about going to that school was I just got treated like Fiona, not Aboriginal Fiona. I was Aboriginal but that didn’t define who I was.”
Even though they were hundreds of kilometres away from Hervey Bay and other Indigenous communities, Foley’s mother cultivated a strong cultural connection with her country.
Foley describes her as “visionary”, and a fierce determination, pride and independence was clearly shared between the two generations of Badtjala women. Shirley Foley was a tireless advocate for Badtjala people, and mother and daughter worked together to help establish the Badtjala people’s native title claim to land on K’gari which was awarded in 2014.
“I watched her fight that fight for 20 years. She breathed it day in and day out,” Foley says.
Shirley also collated a dictionary of Badtjala words, which was reprinted this year, and the family spoke Badtjala at home. Foley continues to use Badtjala words with her siblings and cousins.
As a child, Foley would spend a month at K’gari each year. The four kids squeezed into the back of her dad’s second-hand Land Rover, next to the tent and the supplies. In those days, they rarely saw another car on the island; the bread and newspaper were flown in, dingoes were rarely seen in the daytime.
“If we heard a vehicle coming along the beach, we would run over the sun dune, us kids, and wave to the person in the car. They were rare. Today you wouldn’t do that, it’s up and down, up and down, just like a highway,” Foley says.
K’gari, which became a World Heritage site in 1992, is very different today. In the year ending June 2019, the Fraser Coast saw a total of 881,000 domestic and international overnight visitors.
“It is disconcerting because basically the island is over-loved now. There are too many people and it takes its toll on the environment there. I think the numbers do need to be capped otherwise it is going to get more destroyed,” Foley says.
Although the Badtjala people won their Native Title claim, Foley says they gained very few actual rights and can’t make money from the tourism. It’s a point of ongoing frustration for Foley, who has argued for a levy to be imposed on all vehicle permits for the island, the funds of which could be reinvested in Badtjala cultural programs.
“That jewel in the crown, Fraser Island, K’gari, is just sitting there but the Badtjala people cannot make one cent from it as of today; we can’t make one cent out of all the tourists who go there and that is the crying shame of it.”
Foley, who also studied at the Sydney College of the Arts, is considered part of a new generation of Aboriginal artists – the “so-called urban Aboriginal artists” as art critic John McDonald termed it. This generation of contemporary artists has asserted their Aboriginal identity and used their work to address injustice, inequality and misrepresentation.
Foley was a founding member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in 1987, alongside nine other prominent artists including Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Bronwyn Bancroft, Brenda Croft and Euphemia Bostock. She has never been concerned to be called an “Aboriginal artist” unlike some of her contemporaries, including Moffatt, who have rejected the label.
“I grew up with a mother who was proud of her culture. She would say, ‘you didn’t come from a hollow log’. I couldn’t get away with something like that,” Foley says.
Foley’s work is held in collections around the world – including London’s British Museum – and she has been commissioned for public installations here and abroad. One of her most notorious was the 2004 installation, Witnessing to Silence, installed at the Brisbane Magistrates’ Court.
Foley pitched the work as a listing of sites affected by extreme weather, but later, after it was installed, she revealed the place names referenced the history of massacres and violence against Aboriginal people in Queensland.
‘I grew up with a mother who was proud of her culture. She would say, “you didn’t come from a hollow log”.’
Foley was once able to live off her work, but she says the Global Financial Crisis saw the bottom fall away from the art market. Her work is challenging, and art institutions, she says, are inherently conservative and more likely to play catch-up.
“My work takes a long gestation period. My more political work, people will come at it about five years after it’s come into existence.”
Feeling the financial pressure, Foley turned to academia, completing her doctorate in 2017 and then a a post-doctorate combining research and art.
Still, one of her favourite things to do is to comb the beaches and sand dunes of K’gari, where she shares a small villa with her brother. She’s been working on a series of black and white hoods, decorated with shells from the island, that reference its dark history of Indigenous people being abducted to work on pearl ships.
Foley’s favourite Badtjala word is Pir’ri, which means mangroves. The sun is setting and the tide has drifted out when she takes me to a mangrove forest near her house. As we walk, Foley finds the washed-up skull of a turtle and holds it carefully. We’ll have to wait and see what art might become of it.
“You can be alone out here,” Foley says, of why she likes being among the mangroves. She is watched over by K’gari in the distance.
Fiona Foley’s Who are these strangers and where are they going? will be at the National Art School from January 8 to February 8.
Melanie Kembrey and Dominic Lorrimer travelled to Hervey Bay as guests of the National Art School.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.