In early 2005, I opened an invitation to an exhibition at Andrew Baker Art Dealer. It was an elegantly understated card with an image that sent shivers up my spine. Simply a photograph of a recent front page of Brisbane’s Courier-Mail, it featured a group of uniformed soldiers wearing white Ku Klux Klan hoods, with exception of a few fellows at the front, who had dark skin. The exhibition was poignant—the artworks dealt with that same issue, but in a very different way.
Fiona Foley’s HHH series (perhaps to be interpreted as Hedonistic Honky Haters) consists of brightly coloured and patterned Ku Klux Klan-style costumes in a group formation, accompanied by a simple suite of photographs of the costumes being worn. The costumes are currently on display in the National Gallery of Australia’s new wing for Indigenous Australian art and are extremely striking, powerful and sublime in a politically charged style. These were the first works by Fiona Foley I saw, and they blew me away.
Within months, I had the pleasure of meeting Fiona as a colleague, for I began working as the gallery assistant at Andrew Baker Art Dealer. She is one of many contemporary artists we represent. Perhaps not to be expected from viewing some her works, Fiona is polite, pleasant and kind, although her sharp wit is most evidently! Knowing her now as I do now, I admire her as a woman, an artist, an academic, an historian, a writer, a curator and, most importantly, as my friend.
In her final year at a prestigious art school in Sydney, Fiona presented the sculpture Annihilation of the Blacks to her lecturers for assessment. The work must have seemed outrageous and nonsensical at the time, because, back then there was criticism heavily, so much so that she was brought to tears. The teachers told her that what she was doing was a phase, which it wouldn’t last more than a few years, and gave general negative comments. It caused Fiona to have meaningful discussions with her parents about the lecturers’ lack of understanding about race relations and the history in Australia. She realised that she was in a position to educate the educators—but didn’t know how to articulate it at the time.
Nevertheless, the large sculptural work was displayed at the end of term exhibition of students’ work, and Fiona was pleased to give it an audience—despite what the lecturers had thought of it. Some weeks later, Fiona received a call informing her that the work had been acquired by the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra, for the generous amount of $2,000. It was her first sale ever, and for a student to sell a work to any institution, let alone the NMA, was a coup.
Fiona’s work has since been prominently displayed in the NMA’s Gallery of First Australians, published and featured in canonical books on Indigenous Australian art. Fiona’s work was then selected by Judith Ryan (Senior Curator, Indigenous Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria) for inclusion in Power and Beauty: Indigenous art now at Heidi Museum of Modern Art. It is one of Australia’s notable works of art from the 1980s. Fiona is an extremely highly regarded artist, with pages and pages of details to her CV, a large amount of works in collections around Australia and the world, and regular exhibitions from Bundaberg to Budapest.
Fiona has been a courageous artist throughout her career. In the 1980s she used parts of Annihilation of the Blacks in an installation on the steps of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, to protest against a major exhibition that did not include any works by Indigenous Australian artists. In the 1990s she posed topless for photographs called Badtjala Woman and Native Blood. Her HHH works invoke varied reactions: some humorous, some unhappy. A body of work she showed in 2008 involved asking men she met online in Dublin, Ireland to pose for photographs.
The focus of Fiona’s art practice is research, scholarship and the communication and recording of little-known histories of the interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. She spends much of her time engaged in research through her role as Adjunct Professor at The University of Queensland. The intellectual clout she acquires through this process manifests itself in different ways of creating art: works on a smaller scale, which are often acquired by private collectors, large suites of photographs, complex and spectacular installations, and public works that are usually placed outdoors, and will persist far beyond our lifetimes.
Being part of the public art process is rewarding but tough. In order to ‘win’ a job, Fiona must wrap her serious and controversial concepts within terms of more charming outer layers. She has achieved this many times, and has had the courage to continue with the integrity of her work, ensuring the ideas and information to be communicated in the best possible way. This is a trait of her work that is evident throughout her oeuvre—the ability to communicate concepts to viewers, while attracting them by something beautiful. Despite many boardroom tables full of developers, architects and other professionals, Fiona has many times been able to quietly negotiate creation of public works that are a joy to see, while holding within them incredible, significant information.
Often asked to speak at seminars, public forums and panel discussions, Fiona is always extremely well-researched, articulate and thoughtful in her public communications. She doesn’t shy away from being critical, and is happy to make her feelings known, in a way that is intelligent and polite. Fiona is a very powerful and considerate correspondent with other artists, curators, benefactors, directors of institutions and politicians. To the current issue of Art Monthly Australia, she contributed an article that discusses the work of a fellow artist, and doesn’t pull any punches in her reasonable criticism of him.
Fiona has faced considerable challenges and roadblocks in her life—far more serious and difficult than any I’ve come across. Despite this, Fiona remains a warm, wonderful and humorous person to spend time with. She has fought through trials with her strong nerve, firm resolve and clarity of purpose. Fiona has been trodden on from great heights, but manages to soar above as a shining light in contemporary Australian society. In the long-term she has conquered, and for that she is one of my personal heroines.
© Christopher Hassall 2011
Born and raised in Brisbane, Christopher Hassall first wanted to be Mary Poppins, then a film director, then a successful international business executive. Despite those fanciful career dreams, he is very happy as Gallery Manager at Andrew Baker Art Dealer in Brisbane. Chris studied Arts then Museum Studies at The University of Queensland, and is so pleased to be free of assignment deadlines now, as he has more time to enjoy the visual and performing arts, watching television and films, reading, following politics, delighting in food and wine, and playing the odd game of golf or tennis.
Andrew Baker Art Dealer
26 Brookes Street
Bowen Hills Qld 4006
07 3252 2292