Fiona Foley: Badtjala Woman (two Sets Of Beads)

Art Artwork from Australia. Published by M.C.A. on Monday 06 October 2014.

Fiona Foley: Badtjala Woman (two Sets Of Beads)  image Fiona Foley: Badtjala Woman (two Sets Of Beads)  image

Dressing up, acting out, striking a pose, and reframing the past are all means by which Fiona Foley has addressed the viewer in her photographic series since the early 1990s.

She has run the gamut from total exposure to total disguise, from proudly asserting her Badtjala womanhood (Badtjala Woman 1994; Native Blood 1994) to assuming the mantle of peoples from other nations: American Seminole dress in Wild Times Call (1994), a radical inversion of Ku Klux Klan robes in the HHH series (2004), and even an Islamic woman’s burqa in Nulla 4 eva (2009). Her manoeuvres are not only intended to sidestep stereotypes and unsettle expectations of the Aboriginal artist, but also to signal affiliations with international first-nation peoples and their shared concerns.

Foley’s sepia-toned images of the ‘Badtjala woman’ were based on historical photographs of c.1899 held by the John Oxley Library, Brisbane − images that she had used earlier in her installation Lost Badtjalas – Severed Hair (1991). By inserting her own image within the pictorial frame, and itemising the shell and reed necklaces, ‘crossed string’ and ‘collecting bag’ (dilly bag) that adorn her naked upper torso, Foley replicates the way that the 19th century photographer ‘collected’ these images of the Badtjala people, whose country included Thoorgine or K’gari (Fraser Island). For the colonial photographer, the ethnographic subject was not an individual but a type, a subject whose exotic features and behaviour could be scientifically catalogued. An unequal power relationship is inherent in such photographs, the photographer controlling the pose and dress, often in a studio setting. More insidiously, images of the naked Indigenous female could be circulated for their exotic quality, unlike images of naked ‘white’ females that were classed as pornography.

Foley’s portrayal of herself as the ’Badtjala woman’ acknowledges the way that Indigenous people were variously positioned as the ‘noble savage’ or, in the manner of Paul Gauguin, the island Venus − an aspect of 19th century Western imaginings about the mythical sexuality of ‘black’ men and women − but her defiant gaze reclaims her sexuality and reasserts the integrity of her forebears’ nakedness.