Aboriginal artist Fiona Foley joins the line-up today for a major symposium on indigenous art. She has a bone to pick with one of our leading artists, Adam Gifford reports

Fiona Foley has a wero for one of New Zealand's most successful Maori artists. Michael Parekowhai didn't respond when she challenged him in 2011 over his handling of a commission for a public art work in Brisbane, so she will use today's Changing The Story symposium at Auckland Art Gallery to lay out the case against him.

In 2011, when Parekowhai was asked to make a sculpture in the forecourt of Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art, Foley wrote to him pointing out the absence of any indigenous Australian culture in Brisbane's Southbank cultural precinct, and asked him to pass the $1 million commission to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist.

His piece, The World Turns, was based on an African story of an elephant and a mouse. Parekowhai switched the mouse to the native marsupial water rat, or kuril, which gives the museum's Kurilpa Point site its name.

"That's when the piece became very problematic, because now you've got a Maori artist referencing Aboriginal culture but there is no real consultation in that process," Foley says. "I'd love to have a conversation with him but he didn't avail himself, and culturally what he did was theft. He stole part of a dreaming story, and he is accountable for his actions, and I want his people in New Zealand to know what he did in Brisbane.


"I am not invited to Auckland to do a public work and stick a big dingo up on a marae. Culturally, it wouldn't be done."

Foley, who has just won the 2013 Australia Council Visual Arts Award, sees The World Turns as an example of the way cultural institutions like GOMA silence Aboriginal people.

Work by photographer Fiona Foley which is part of the My Country Aboriginal exhibition on at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell
Work by photographer Fiona Foley which is part of the My Country Aboriginal exhibition on at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell

None of the artists featured in My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia has been curated into the Asia Pacific Triennial, Queensland's flagship showcase for contemporary art. Despite living in Brisbane for almost 20 years, Foley's first invitation to speak at GOMA was for a panel as part of My Country.

It's not that she doesn't have a way with words. Foley is an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland and is invited to speak around the world. She says Maori artists need to show solidarity.

"They need to think more deeply when they come across for the APT. They're put on pedestals, but their poor cousins, the Aborigines here, are nowhere to be seen, and they lap up all the attention. But they don't ask any questions. They are in a very privileged position, but they never say anything that is going to cause any controversy at the institution because they fear they won't be invited back.

Australian artist-curator Fiona Foley giving the keynote address in London.
Australian artist-curator Fiona Foley giving the keynote address in London.

"I've watched this year after year, and they never say, 'How come Vernon Ah Kee isn't speaking? How come Fiona Foley is not speaking? What is happening in these institutions?' They have a voice at the table. We don't."

Foley feels she is fighting a society that isn't just ignorant of its history, it doesn't want to know. One of her public sculptures was created after a curator at the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennial told a room of 1000 people that Australia was settled peacefully.

"I didn't think I'd heard him right, so I asked what he'd just said. He qualified it by saying it was settled 'relatively peacefully in comparison with New Zealand'. That made me think, so in 2004 I did the work, Witnessing to Silence, outside the Brisbane Magistrates Court.

"I asked a researcher to find all the massacre sites in Queensland from the public records, and I engraved the names of the 94 places in the pavement.

"The work was done by stealth - I told the commissioners these were places of fire and flood. That was the only way I could get the piece in.

"Where I come from, Fraser Island and Hervey Bay, they put up a 20-year resistance. There were strong warriors but they were not written about."

Foley's reading of Aboriginal history is seen in her work, as in the photographs in My Country based on the capture of an Aboriginal woman by oyster fishermen.

Queensland's economic expansion in the 19th and early 20th centuries was due in large part to the unpaid labour of Aboriginals, including young children, who were forced to work on farms, in factories, fishing boats and pearl diving.

Another work, Black Opium, shown at the State Library of Queensland in 2009, looked at the practice of graziers feeding Aboriginals the dregs of opium pipes to get them addicted and make them a compliant workforce.

The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, passed in 1897 in response to public concern about the practice (and also driven by anti-Chinese sentiment), ended up not being about protection but became a tool to restrict the freedom of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and deny them their civil and human rights - as well as their children, their wages and whatever else took the fancy of the officials.

"I can see why I have never been invited to speak on a panel at APT, because they don't want to examine their own backyard," Foley says.

In New Zealand the debate has evolved in different ways but our institutions are evolving ways to incorporate an indigenous presence.

Foley hopes some of that will be brought into GOMA by new director Chris Saines, who saw the change during his 16 years as head of Auckland Art Gallery.



Changing The Story: How Do We Understand Contemporary Indigenous Art Today?

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, today; free but bookings needed

What: Artist floor talk by Fiona Foley

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, level 1, tomorrow at 1pm