Over several bodies of work Fiona Foley has immersed herself in discourses and histories of hate and hatred. She dwells in the shadows they cast across constructions of race, be they political, scientific or cultural. It’s an indescribable journey and one that only those who have stamina and resilience can undertake.
Exhibition Dates: 31 March – 23 April 2005
Over several bodies of work Fiona Foley has immersed herself in discourses and histories of hate and hatred. She dwells in the shadows they cast across constructions of race, be they political, scientific or cultural. It’s an indescribable journey and one that only those who have stamina and resilience can undertake. What is it to explore hatred? What is to explore that hatred when you, as inquirer, are the object of it? Foley is stoic, a little like Dante as he traverses the underworld, in her encounters with this stinking sin of humanity. What happens when hate so consumes a person that they embody or personify their hatred and then epitomise it as not only a virtue but as an exercise of faith, an act of attrition or the will of God? When we hate in the name of God, we need not take any personal responsibility for that hatred.
The question is not so much about the nature of hatred but what it is, what it feels like, to be hated. Foley knows all too well what it feels like and in her work those feelings are truly exposed not for the sake of any kind of victimstance but to demonstrate in all its explicit flayed reality that this is what ‘good faithful people’ are capable of doing. Moreover, if we can give our hate the name of God, then what is goodness? We give special names to our goodness, or more appropriately, our virtue—names like faith, hope and charity.
Foley does not and cannot provide answers to these questions—there are simply too many of them—but she has entered this quagmire in heuristic fashion. These questions have woven their way through history and become enmeshed in that knotted tangle we laughingly refer to as the ‘social fabric’. Foley points to the duplicity of virtue and how, as interrelated practices, virtue and whiteness have made an unholy pact. As virtue is bathed in whiteness, whiteness too radiates virtue. This artist knows the near impossibility of prising apart such a powerful symbiosis of meaning but this doesn’t stop her from showing it up.
While Foley’s work crosses several media, her photographic work takes as a starting point, the idea that the camera never lies. However from Foley’s perspective those who wield cameras in such a way have told many a fabrication about Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour. Realism is not the same as reality. Foley’s work charts very difficult territories and No Shades of White is no exception. It is difficult not because of its content but because of its relationship to reality. Through the veneer of classic anthropological style portraits, her series of HHH (Hedonistic Honky Haters) photographs is difficult because it has a direct reference to the photographic glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as a theatre of hatred. We do not so much respond to those photographs as we do to our knowledge about other images such as the documentary photographs of murderous abomination. Photographing race, in that quasi-scientific way, is one thing but what if they start coming for us? Fear rising. Freedom rides. A million black men. Sorry Day. Freedom from hatred and freedom from the shackles of white virtue. Hedonistic Honky Haters are not so much the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan but an inflection—a kind of ‘Right back at you, brother’. You can see it might be humourous but the laugh knots in your throat.
As viewers, we don’t know what is or isn’t true. Does the HHH really exist? Foley confirms that the HHH was founded in 1965 as a secret society and that although the movement was once a thriving national body with an extensive membership, it is now not active. Their activities were held at clandestine places throughout the United States and included ceremonies involving public gatherings, ritualistic practices and Christian paraphernalia. HHH members are highly visible and known for their black hoods and colourful cloaks. When in New York as an artist-in-residence, Foley found seven HHH members who became the subject for this photographic series.
While Foley has deployed an aesthetic strategy, this is not mockery nor parody nor irony nor appropriation. We know these are effective artistic strategies but Foley is pursuing something that is harder hitting and sharper edged than slick aesthetic twists. She is aware of the all too easy characterisation and aggregation of her art in this way, as part of a non-Indigenous aesthetic regime, and Foley does something else. As in her former body of work, Red Ochre Me, Foley is throwing down a gauntlet, endeavouring to stop meaning inscription in its tracks through a challenge to its own sense of virtue. Certainly, it is possible to read these images as representations of race and colour—black hoods, richly ‘ethnic’ patterned robes, brown skin and eyes—and to read them through a veil of radical chic or uncanny encounter. But this is not the point and Foley inquires into the processes of telling and performing other histories in other languages in an art world that either continues to reject them or defaults to the vapid recidivism of ‘backlash’ or culture wars.
Fiona Foley is represented in all major public collections in Australia. In 2002 she was selected for The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, curated by Larry Rinder. In 2001, there were solo exhibitions of her work at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane and at the Contemporary Art Museum at the University of South Florida, Tampa, USA. In 2000, she was included in a group show toured by the National Gallery of Australia to the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, Aboriginal Art in Modern Worlds, as well as Bonheurs des Antipodes at the Musée de Picardie, Amiens, France. She has curated exhibitions and lectured extensively on the subject of indigenous and colonial culture. Foley was one of the founding members of the Boomali Aboriginal Artist Co-operative in Sydney. She has exhibited with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery since 1988.