About the Artwork

Dressing up, acting out, striking a pose, and reframing the past are all means by which Fiona Foley has addressed the viewer in her photographic series since the early 1990s. She has run the gamut from total exposure to total disguise, from proudly asserting her Badtjala womanhood (Badtjala Woman 1994; Native Blood 1994) to assuming the mantle of peoples from other nations: American Seminole dress in Wild Times Call (1994), a radical inversion of Ku Klux Klan robes in the HHH series (2004), and even an Islamic woman’s burqa in Nulla 4 eva (2009). Her manoeuvres are not only intended to sidestep stereotypes and unsettle expectations of the Aboriginal artist, but also to signal affiliations with international first-nation peoples and their shared concerns.

Foley’s sepia-toned images of the ‘Badtjala woman’ were based on historical photographs of c.1899 held by the John Oxley Library, Brisbane − images that she had used earlier in her installation Lost Badtjalas – Severed Hair (1991). By inserting her own image within the pictorial frame, and itemising the shell and reed necklaces, ‘crossed string’ and ‘collecting bag’ (dilly bag) that adorn her naked upper torso, Foley replicates the way that the 19th century photographer ‘collected’ these images of the Badtjala people, whose country included Thoorgine or K’gari (Fraser Island). For the colonial photographer, the ethnographic subject was not an individual but a type, a subject whose exotic features and behaviour could be scientifically catalogued. An unequal power relationship is inherent in such photographs, the photographer controlling the pose and dress, often in a studio setting. More insidiously, images of the naked Indigenous female could be circulated for their exotic quality, unlike images of naked ‘white’ females that were classed as pornography.

Foley’s portrayal of herself as the 'Badtjala woman’ acknowledges the way that Indigenous people were variously positioned as the ‘noble savage’ or, in the manner of Paul Gauguin, the island Venus − an aspect of 19th century Western imaginings about the mythical sexuality of ‘black’ men and women − but her defiant gaze reclaims her sexuality and reasserts the integrity of her forebears’ nakedness.


Michelle Helmrich (curator), ‘Looking at You Looking at Me: Performance and Ethnography in Fiona Foley’s Photographs’, catalogue essay, Fiona Foley: Forbidden, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2009

I don’t see myself necessarily as a political artist. I’ve worked with different themes at different times in my life…What I like to do is read and unearth aspects of history. I am intrigued about the turn of the twentieth century and what attitudes white Australians held towards Aboriginal people.

Fiona Foley, 2009

Fiona Foley

– About the artist


Fiona Foley is an artist, as well as an influential curator, writer and academic. A Badtjala woman from Fraser Island in Queensland, she is known for an incredibly diverse artistic practice spanning two decades and encompassing painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, mixed media work, found objects and installation. Foley traces the ongoing significance of Australia’s colonial histories and her works explore a broad range of themes that relate to politics, culture, ownership, language and identity.

Learn more

– View also

A –  Z

Related Exhibitions

Volume One: MCA Collection

– Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) 2012

Bangu Yilbara: Works from the MCA Collection

– Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) 2006

Mirror with a memory: A History of the Photographic Portrait in Australia

– National Portrait Gallery 2000


In the library

In the shop