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Fiona Foley

Badtjala Woman (two sets of beads)  1994

type C photograph

45.5 × 35.5cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 1995


About the Artwork

The three sepia-toned photographs in Fiona Foley’s Badtjala Woman series are based on colonial images of Badtjala people, whose country includes Thoorgine or K’gari (Fraser Island), taken by an ethnographic photographer in around 1899. The images are held in the John Oxley Library in Brisbane, and were used by Foley in an earlier installation, Lost Badtjalas – Severed Hair (1991).

For Badtjala Woman, Foley has replicated the head and shoulders composition of ethnographic photography, which aimed to record its subject not as an individual but a type; a subject whose exotic features and behaviour could be scientifically catalogued. She has also included the woven bag and necklaces that were collected by ethnographers as records of Indigenous material cultures, and which were important products of women’s work.

Nakedness was often demanded by ethnographic photographers, who asked their subjects to undress in order to conform to an idea of what an ‘authentic’ Indigenous person looked like. These images were then sometimes circulated for non-scientific purposes as exotica, in the manner of Paul Gauguin’s island Venuses − a western imagining of the mythical sexuality of ‘black’ women.

Foley critiques the operation of colonial power disseminated through this kind of imagery by taking it over – directing the shoot and posing for the photographs herself. In doing so, she overturns the anonymity and subjugation of the original subjects and aligns herself with them as their descendant, a contemporary Badtjala woman in control of her own identity and image.

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

Born 1964, Maryborough, Queensland. Lives and works Brisbane. Badtjala people.

Fiona Foley is Badtjala and an influential curator, writer and academic as well as an internationally recognised artist. Foley pursues a diverse artistic practice encompassing painting, printmaking, photography, sculpture, mixed-media work, found objects and installation. Foley examines and dismantles historical stereotypes and her works explore a broad range of themes that relate to politics, culture, ownership, language and identity.

From proudly asserting her Badtjala womanhood in 1994 (Badtjala Woman and Native Blood), Foley went on to assume the mantles of peoples from other nations: American Seminole dress in Wild Times Call (1994), a radical inversion of Ku Klux Klan robes in the Hedonistic Honky Haters series (2004), and 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 has been exhibiting since the mid-1980s, and was one of the founding members of the Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Co-operative in 1987. Recent solo exhibitions include Biting the Air, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide (2015); Obsession, Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania (CAST), Hobart (2013); The Oyster Fishermen, Niagara Galleries, Melbourne (2012); and Circumspect Circumstances, Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane (2010). In 2009–10 the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane and the MCA, Sydney co-curated a survey exhibition of Foley’s work titled Forbidden.

Recent group shows include Saltwater Country, Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, Netherlands and touring (2015); Whisper in My Mask, 2014 TarraWarra Biennial, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria (2014); undisclosed: 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2012); Vernacular Cultures and Contemporary Art from Australia, India and the Philippines, La Trobe University Museum of Art, Melbourne (2011); and The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age, 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010).

Foley’s major public sculptures include The Edge of Trees, Museum of Sydney, Sydney (1995); The Lie of the Land, Melbourne Museum, Melbourne (1997); Tribute to A’vang, Parliament House, Canberra (2001); Winged Harvest, Australian National University, Canberra (2001); Witnessing to Silence, Brisbane Magistrates Court, Brisbane (2004); Bible and Bullets, Redfern Park, Sydney (2008); Black Opium, State Library of Queensland, Brisbane (2009); and Sugar Cubes, Mackay Regional Council, Mackay (2009).

She has also created site-specific works, including Beyond the Sea for Visualise Carlow, Ireland (2004) and for Out There, with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK (2005). Foley’s work is held in a number of international collections, including in Britain, New Zealand and the USA, and in major state, regional and university collections in Australia.

Learn more
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