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Griffith University's Artist-in-Residence for 1988 was Fiona Foley, an Urban Murri artist working at the juncture of European and Aboriginal art traditions. She spent her early childhood at Hervey Bay, and her work is linked to the sea with recurring sea things - icons encasing her heritage as a coastal Aborigine. Her work in this exhibition expresses many of the things of her heritage and also of her present and future. She works in a variety of media including collage, photography and pastels.
An art exhibition often can be read as a whole with a statement of a common theme being energised then expressed piece by piece as in a sentence. Fiona's exhibition to a certain extent follows this structure and has a wholeness based on the unfolding of the icons encased in the collage beginning the exhibition as it is hung. This collage, Melancholy 88-II, a semiotic overkill needs to be read as a catalogue of the icons which are taken up in the succeeding frames. To give an example of this we may take number 2, Black and White Lies (Living Together). Fiona in five small frames (ink, pastel, oil crayon, pencil and collage on paper) uses the icon of the Aboriginal flag to reveal underlying truths, or should I say lying truths.
These frames may appear simple, almost minimal in their direction and movement, but a close attention to detail reveals how the truths and lies have been encased in the icon. Thus in the first frame a stamp depicting Aboriginal traditional art has been placed in the icon, and a contradiction added to this emblem by having the central yellow of the sun smeared with the red of the bottom part of the flag which conventionally symbolises the blood spilt by Aborigines in resisting the invasion of their lands. In the second frame this blood is smeared and congealed around the central sun this time holding incongruously a blue stamp enshrining the Queen of England's head. In the third frame this blue removes itself from associations of royalty to become the main colour of the composition with only the structure of the iconic flag remaining for continuity. This structure becomes the sky and the beach and the sun descends to become a sea-thing. In the fourth frame, the flag icon is restated strongly and recognisably, but the central sun is shown rising as if it has gained strength from the preceding frame. The red of the blood has thinned and dried. The sun has fully risen in the fifth frame and hope shines strong.
Fiona Foley's work sometimes appears minimal as in Seven Dead Orchids, but this is belied in that she takes both natural and artificial icons and quietly develops them to a mood and an intensity which often borders on the melancholy. This is particularly noticeable in Survival I, II, Ill, IV (photo-etching and collage) in which the human enters wedded to the earth, or sea coast as faded icons in their own right. A shell midden might for many people be only a heap of shell, but for Fiona they are traces of her people who once walked this land. The photos depict these old ones and below them are the remains of their lives. The colours are washed out, the photographs faded and now this is all that remains of the traditional food gathering ways of old.
Once an overseas visitor in conversation stated that Australians were a sad people. I thought for a moment and then agreed with him. And although there in humour in Fiona's work, for example Four Art Prawns, the overall feeling I read from her is a sadness, a gentle melancholy encased within her icons which recalls to my mind the comment of the overseas visitor and my agreement with his assessment of the Australian character. Perhaps it is difficult for an Aboriginal artist to achieve a laughter in her work when the tragedy of her people is encased in the deep recesses from which she draws inspiration. It is a matter of survival and a transcending of mere survival. Her art, I feel, succeeds in transcending this and signifies for me a oneness of land, people past and present in icons which represent Aboriginal being in postmodern Australia.