In her PhD research, artist Fiona Foley asserts that opium was introduced in Queensland in 1897 with the aim of making Aboriginals a compliant source of labour. She casts opium as ‘the Trojan Horse’ used to gain access to Aboriginal communities and control lives through the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.
Louise Martin-Chew spoke to Foley about her solo show, Horror has a Face, which is part of her PhD research. In this series Foley uses photography and sculpture to draw attention to two faces: historic colonial figures Archibald Meston and Ernest Gribble. On the way, she recreates images drawn from history, and her imagination, about opium use in early Queensland, sexuality and mixed race unions. There is a personal and Badtjala perspective in these sumptuously layered images
Louise Martin-Chew: This body of work is set in the heart of your country on Queensland’s Fraser Island. What inspired your interest in historical figures like Archibald Meston and Ernest Gribble?
Fiona Foley: I began working on this series when I was living in Hervey Bay. I knew about Meston and Gribble and their roles in delivering the legislation called The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897.
Meston was Southern Protector of Aboriginals and Gribble an Anglican Minister and missionary, and at different periods they ran Bogimbah Mission on the western side of Fraser Island (1897-1904). They had different approaches to ‘the Aboriginal problem’ and both failed.
The site on the island, and 70 graves discovered in 2014, made me consider the influence of these two men, which is still there in the paternalistic approach to Aboriginal affairs today.
LMC: Many would not realise that the 1897 Act has a connection to Fraser Island, better known for Eliza Fraser’s shipwreck (1836) than as the first site for segregation of Aboriginal people.
FF: Meston’s ideology of isolation on Fraser Island was an experiment to treat opium addiction. Aboriginals from 30 areas all over Queensland were brought to the mission. As an experiment it was a dismal failure. Gribble took over in late 1899, and he thought that the problem could be solved through Christianity. That was also a failure. The legislation enacted other policies to solve the problem.
It was a three-pronged approach, and none worked.
LMC: What does the story offer you as an artist?
FF: I chose two media to tell the story. A series of breast plates have historic terminology inscribed onto them. My favourite uses a quote from 1851 by a police sergeant named Walker who said he wished to “proceed against the ‘charcoals’ of Fraser Island.” A massacre of Aboriginal people took place on Fraser Island on Christmas Eve that year.
The other component of this work is 19 photographs, which were shot in four locations. Like a bowerbird I’ve collected bits and pieces of history, quotes and imagery, and assembled them as seen through a Badtjala lens. There are nine vignettes set in the late 1800s. They start with the characters of Meston and Gribble, and an opium den is created introducing more flamboyant figures.
The title for this body of work is taken from the film Apocalypse Now, based on the publication by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
LMC: This photographic series is filmic in its scope: large cast, props and costumes. What are the challenges of working on this scale?
FF: I visualised and planned, but it came together when people put on the costumes. There are scenes from an opium den that we set up in my house and these are the icing on the cake. They were styled with my assistant on this series Scott Harrower, and costume designer William Kutana. The key with this project was to delegate jobs and understand that people will do their best work if you don’t interfere too much.
LMC: You have made work about the 1897 Act before, but this series enters new territory.
FF: Before now no artist has pieced together an overarching or an in-depth analysis of The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.
It felt like the right topic for my doctoral research. Over time, this topic gets richer and richer.
LMC: You have a direct family connection to Gribble. His sister Ethel met your great grandfather Fred Wondunna on Fraser Island and defied the rules of the time to marry him. How does the connection to Gribble, who was so damaging, affect you?
FF: I don’t feel anything in particular. I met my great grandmother Ethel when I was three, and I grew up with that story. She was in love with him and determined to fight the odds.
LMC: How did your time in Hervey Bay/Fraser Island in 2015 effect this work?
FF: It was crucial. My cousins took me to the site of the Bogimbah mission and showed me where the old graves were found. There is no remaining evidence of the mission, but 70 graves of Aboriginal people were discovered. They were from all over Queensland (not just Badtjala people).
It is an interesting site, but now it just looks like Australian bush because when they closed the mission in 1904 they took every piece of building material off the island.
LMC: Your work has an educative and political purpose in addition to its power as art. Where might this work and your recently completed PhD take you?
FF: Hopefully not the dole queue! So far, 2018 is a mystery, a Lismore fog. More seriously, it has been a huge undertaking. I know that my mum would have been really proud of me. Her generation weren’t afforded education at universities. We’ve come such a long way and for that reason alone it is momentous.
LMC: Why illustrate Queensland’s less than illustrious history?
FF: It is important to challenge an historical amnesia; we have records in the archives capable of jumping like Fraser Island sand fleas!
LMC: What do you hope people understand from these images, and your work more generally?
FF: The same old colonial way of dealing with Aboriginal people seems to be on a repeat cycle. The Uluru Statement this year was powerful and could have been a step forward. The government is actively silencing Aboriginal people. Yet as the Marriage Equality vote showed, the community is more amenable to change than Australian politicians.
LMC: Your work is only part of what you do. Other activities, like organising conferences, events and speaking out are integral to your practice. It’s not an easy role to take on. Why do it?
FF: I credit my mother with influencing me to speak out, but also I have a deep sense of justice. If something is not right, I speak to be accountable.