Australian contemporary artist and influential curator, writer and academic, Fiona Foley, will ignite conversation on the institutional barriers against telling honest Aboriginal stories through public art at NAVA’s Future/Forward at the National Gallery of Australia and Parliament House in Canberra from 14-15 August.
Future/Forward is a two-day event that will bring together the nation’s leading arts practitioners and industry professionals including renowned artists Abdul Abdullah, Patricia Piccinini and Peter White, experimental arts group pvi collective and Fiona Foley to debate best practice and the politics of policy change to encourage artistic thinking for creative action.
Fiona Foley’s focus will be on public art. She believes it conveys a critical artistic voice that tells its audience important stories about the places we live in and visit. Through what it presents and what it excludes, public art can educate us on history, local culture and public values.
“The public space is an opportunity for Indigenous artists to write a different perspective of history into the visual landscape, that doesn't currently exist,” says Foley.
Foley’s works encompass painting, printmaking and photography, however it is her work in the public space that has seen her greatest influence. Exploring themes of politics, culture, ownership, language and identity, Foley delves into history to convey her strong messages of culture and place to contemporary audiences so that the Aboriginal narrative can be written clearly into Australia’s history.
“Public art reflects who we are to ourselves and reflects who we are to the world. It is an opportunity to change the mindset of non-Indigenous Australians to embrace their shared history with Aboriginal Australians,” Foley adds.
The process of commissioning public art is where the resistance lies. The commissioning process causes both practical and legal problems that too often undermine artistic intent, with processes that disengage the work from its meaning.
“Aboriginal artists are up against those with a conservative view of Australia, who are currently sitting on these commissioning committees. We need to broaden diversity on these committees so we can create a public space where all Australians are proud of Indigenous culture in this country.”
NAVA champions artistic courage and challenges governments to design policies that honour Indigenous culture, says NAVA Executive Director, Esther Anatolitis.
“Artists shouldn’t feel powerless in the commissioning process, and shouldn’t have to accept their work being compromised and their culture undermined.
“A majority of disputes handled by NAVA concern public art. Time and again we discover that institutional processes are acting as barriers against the participation of Indigenous artists or the development of their work. When commissioning bodies are working with Indigenous artists telling local stories, there’s an ethic that needs to carry through from the very first step to the very last, and that’s about honouring place and telling local stories honestly. We all have so much to learn,” says Anatolitis.
Foley speaks proudly of her work Black Opium, currently at the State Library of Queensland. The work responds to the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act that subjected Indigenous people in Queensland to dependency on opium.
“It was my most enjoyable piece to work on because it was supported by the institution, they embraced the history from the very beginning and didn’t try and shun it. Whereas, other projects I’ve had to fight to share the history,” Foley says.
Meaningful art tells authentic stories of place and culture, however committees are often fearful of taking a risk and causing controversy. Foley argues that it is important to tell Australia’s stories honestly, as it helps to shape our values today and our vision for tomorrow.