Story behind art: First Nations artist profiled

The friendship and close professional relationship between esteemed Australian artist Fiona Foley and respected arts writer Louise Martin-Chew has culminated in a book about the former’s remarkable life and career.

Published by the QUT Art Museum, Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life is written as a biography and aims to share the story of the award-winning Badtjala artist, academic and activist to a larger audience.

“Biography has a larger audience in Australia than a book that focusses on the art alone. People are drawn into the life story to better understand the power behind the art itself,” says Martin-Chew, who first met Foley in 2003

“For example, in her early sculpture, Annihilation of the Blacks, 1986, which was acquired by the National Museum of Australia when she was still at art school, Fiona’s ability to combine history with her own connections to create unforgettable visual imagery is traced.

“It focusses on detailed personal testimony rather than a broad historical approach. In that same vein, my biography is necessarily partial, a microhistory that includes the small and the personal, subject to conditions of production which include a living subject, the frame available at this moment in time, and biases both acknowledged and hidden.

“Contemporary art critics don’t always see the value in examining the life of the artist, but Fiona’s life has been, and continues to be, extraordinary. Her journey, her artwork, her academic research and writing all intersect with social and cultural issues that resonate more strongly today than ever.

“Over the years, I became increasingly intrigued by her lack of compromise and the increasing relevance of her artwork to the national debate about Aboriginal agency in Australian life. Fiona’s work and advocacy expose histories that have been long hidden concerning the treatment of Aboriginal Australians since white colonisation, seek to change attitudes and keep ongoing injustice in the public eye.

“It is in this relationship, in which her art is defined, fuelled and infused by her life, that biography offers a critical insight in interpretations of her artwork.”

Fiona Foley (photo: Scott Harrower)

The book’s publication follows the solo exhibition Fiona Foley: Veiled Paradise, which closed last week at the QUT Art Museum, and which celebrated her career with works inspired by her ancestral connection to K’Gari/Fraser Island, drawing equally upon its serene beauty and the history of systemic violence and sexual exploitation perpetrated on its shores. The exhibition travels to McClelland Gallery + Sculpture Park, Victoria, in 2022.

Now based in Brisbane, Foley last month won the Queensland Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance at the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards for her book Biting the Clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897 (UQP), which explores the use of opium to coerce labour from Indigenous people at the turn of the 20th century, told in dialogue between Foley’s art and text.

Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life, by Louise Martin-Chew and published by the QUT Art Museum is available from online, as well as from the QUT Art Museum and bookstores locally and nationally.

A discussion between author and artist will be held instore and online at Brisbane’s Avid Reader on Tuesday 16 November. Book tickets here.

Main image: Fiona Foley The Magna Carta Tree #16 2021 Inkjet print Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer

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