I daresay it is no exaggeration to claim that Fiona Foley is one of the best known contemporary artists coming out of the Australian Indigenous tradition. Even if people don’t always recognize her name, her artworks have a presence in Australia that is hard to overlook.
There is, for example, Edge of the Trees outside the Museum of Sydney within sight of Circular Quay. The installation of tall poles whispering with recorded memories, echoes of the Eora, was created by Foley and Janet Laurence to memorialize the moment of first contact in 1788. Visitors to the National Gallery in Canberra are almost immediately confronted these days with Foley’s monumental sculpture, Dispersed, it title and presence a euphemism for the slaughter of Indigenous Queenslanders, spelled out in letters 50 cm high and stretching 500 cm along a wall, the letter “D” constructed from dozens of bullets facing towards the viewer.
Even more famous, perhaps, are the photographs and robes that constitute HHH. The product of a residency in New York City in 2004, HHH is Foley’s deconstruction of worldwide racism and its violence. It portrays a group of urban fashion models in the full regalia of the “Hedonistic Honky Haters”: black, pointed hoods that summon ghosts of the Ku Klux Klan and flowing robes fashioned from African kente cloth. In the group portrait that constitutes the first number of the photographic series, Foley herself stands in the foreground, hooded and robed, her arms crossed in an attitude of defiance.
Foley works in almost any media imaginable. She has produced numerous photographic essays, graphic works, pastels, sculpture in metal, wood, cloth, and flour. Her installation pieces grace Australian capitals across the continent, insinuating an Indigenous presence into public spaces all around the country; her commissions have taken her around the world.
Perhaps perversely, though, I have always been drawn to her paintings, especially to a group of works in oils that she executed around the turn of the century in order to raise funds for her public installations. Many of these paintings draw their imagery from the lands of Foley’s Badtjala ancestors on Fraser Island and the area around Hervey Bay off the southern Queensland coast: cockatoo feathers, turtle bones whitening on a sunstruck beach, mangrove pods as graceful as a dancer’s arm extended into the light.
Black Tiger’s Necklace (2001) is part of this series, a spare, small (104 x 70 cm) canvas drenched in deep red with a brushy texture that gives what might otherwise be a flat surface infinite depth. The image is a double portrait of a set of monk’s prayer beads that were a gift to Foley from the eponymous Korean monk, Black Tiger, whom she was seated next to on an airplane flight.
I love the whimsy of this work. In the upper half of the painting, the beads are shown as they might appear draped around the monk’s neck. But the form also traces the outline of a simple drawing of a head, perhaps with a tiny lock of hair descending from the nape of the neck. I am sure my fancy is running away with me as I ponder that image, but if I think of this as a portrait of Black Tiger seen from behind, then it becomes a valediction, a last look by Foley at her friend as he walks away from her, leaving behind only the necklace to remember him by.
And so I can see the second image of the necklace, looped upon itself and transformed into a bracelet that Foley has slipped around her wrist, as a self-portrait. Thus the work becomes a double portrait, of Black Tiger and Foley herself, coming together, moving apart, going their separate ways, a moment in the flow of time.
The sense of this ephemeral encounter between the artist and the monk is reinforced in my mind by reference to another series of works that Foley produced two years later. A set of aquatints exhibited in Brisbane and Melbourne in 2003 were entitled Samsara, the Sanskrit word for “continuous flow” that refers to the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation in Buddhist thought, with its overtones of attachment to the physical world and the suffering that comes with it. Several of the images in the Samsara series have a marked affinity to the oil paintings from a couple of years earlier that include Black Tiger’s Necklace; indeed Foley was continuing to make paintings in the mode of Black Tiger’s Necklace while working on Samsara. They comprise simple, graceful designs, often abstracted from the natural world, floating atop deep, usually monochromatic fields of color.
In a career that has often been devoted to the documentation of violence and injustice, Foley seems to have paused early in the twenty-first century in a space of tranquility. Although samsara teaches us that attachment to the physical world means entrapment in cycles of pain, there is something peaceful and reassuring in these images, a sense that beauty itself can be liberating, even if that liberation is only momentary and ultimately illusory. The paradoxes inherent in these paintings, the subtlety with which they are conveyed, and the beauty that transcends the history of violence embedded in much of Foley’s work makes me return to them over and over again (perhaps a seductive and inescapable pleasure in itself). I hope it is not false to the spirit of these paintings to call up Keats’s famous dictum from the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.