by Julia Powles
‘Australia in this era can be seen very much as a nexus of competing boundaries’ – Martin Thomas, 1993
I HAVE NEVER LIVED WITH A WOMAN
I AM BLACK, BRITISH, CURATOR
I DON’T GO TO OPENINGS
I DON’T LIKE SPIKE LEE FILMS
I’VE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE
LOVE COMES FROM HOLLYWOOD
I NEVER TOLD MY FATHER WHAT I DO
WHAT ARE YOU IF YOU DON’T’ HAVE AN OPINION
ALL IRISH ARE ALCOHOLICS
ALL AUSTRALIANS WALK AROUND WITH COMPLEXES
SOME BLACK MEN ARE INTO WHITE WOMEN
SOME WHITE WOMEN ARE INTO BLACK COCK
I HAVE NEVER SHAVED
I AM THIRTY-TWO
I OWN MY OWN HOUSE
I DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL
IF I HAVE A GIRL I AM GOING TO CALL HER HYACINTH
The above list of sayings were used by Fiona Foley to shape her work Every Girl Needs Her Golliwog (1993). The quotations were originally made by a black British curator who had visited Australia in 1993.
For Foley, such glib generalisations were equivalent to the kind of unhelpful over-simplifications post-colonial discourse sought to redress, which ran the risk of reducing complex social and political histories into next-to-meaningless one-liners. The battle for recognition facing indigenous Australians and black British were, and continue to be, different struggles. Foley was suspicious at the ease with which the visiting black Englishman had conflated the two vantage points. By turning his comments into an artwork Foley reminded viewers of the problematic nature of seeking homogeneity within difference.
Equally problematic for Foley, at the time, was the fetishization of ‘Black Art’. She was concerned with the way many black artists had become ‘categorisated’. She was equally alarmed that institutions holding large-scale exhibitions of ‘Aboriginal’ art were in fact perpetuating the very marginalisation of indigenous practice. The title of her ACCA exhibition Lick My Black Art suggests that Aboriginal artists don’t need to be grateful for the opportunities afforded them by a white arts industry.
As the first solo exhibition of an indigenous artist initiated by ACCA, Lick My Black Art was a significant exhibition. Importantly it was conceived around ‘non-interventionist’ principals. Rather than a curated selection of works, the decisions about content and concepts were decided by Foley. Her installation presented ideas concerning colonialism, Australia’s political and social history, and the co-opting of Aboriginal art for foreign agendas – all through the lens of her own personal memories and specific locality.
Foley was born in Queensland to the Badtjala people. Her ancestral homelands include Thoorgine, now called Fraser Island. A story about Eliza Fraser, an English settler who resided on the Island for some time, was referenced by Foley in the exhibition at ACCA and illustrated the complex nature of interactions between indigenous Australians and white settlers. The story goes that Eliza Fraser survived a shipwreck and was rescued by the Badtjala people on a canoe where she gave birth to a baby that later died. Fraser went onto live with the Badtjala on Thoorgine where she was apparently forced to breastfeed a Badtjala infant in need of sustenance, an act that she found degrading. The contradiction of a white woman saved by black islanders finding it demeaning to nurture a black child was not lost on Foley and the story resonated in an exhibition that required audiences to negotiate the asymmetrical power relationship between a subjugated people and their colonising force.
Fiona Foley: Lick my Black Art
26 November – 19 December 1993
Julia Powles is a curator and educator. She is currently an intern working on ACCA’s First 30 Years archive program.