Tuesday, 5 January 2010

On Fiona Foley @ MCA

My relationship with avowedly political art is always a strained one. Even when I find myself in agreement with a particular stance or issue I find the didactic approach problematic, in particular I dislike the implicit demand that my political or social position ought to override my critical faculties. Fiona Foley's retrospective 'Forbidden' at the MCA makes me feel like that again and again, as so many of the works are underwhelming in their impact even while the issue she deals in, the historical atrocities committed against aboriginal people and their cultures and their effects in our world today, is urgent, compelling and righteous.

The 'Nulla 4 Eva' series of photographs are the works with the most obvious contemporary resonance, they stage (in contemporary dress) a range of scenes that characterise the troublesome issue of race, whether between white Australians, Chinese and Muslim immigrants or indigenous Australians. The Cronulla riots have become a complex and little (at least seriously) discussed eruption of tension around ethnicity, Foley's point here is that the hostility about who belongs where between two waves of migrants is misplaced, the aboriginal people are the true owners. The problem here is that everything looks so half-hearted, the art direction is amateurish and the models make unconvincing pantomime gestures. What we're left with are photographs that make not much more than an ironic observation on race and belonging, somehow that doesn't feel enough.

'Land Deal' is the major installation in the show. A series of objects, scissors, axes and blankets flank a spiral of flour on the floor. These represent a pittance of trade goods that were exchanged with the Wurundjeri people in 1835 for ownership of vast tracts of Victoria. The work is striking intellectually, the rank inequity is clear. Emotionally it is less successful. The spiral of flour might indicate an appropriation of the goods into indigenous culture, or it might not and I'm not sure why it would. I was also struck how by formalising these objects into a gallery installation they become more rather than less. It is as though by giving them the status of artwork the pitiful nature of the exchange is lost, this undermining the intent. However shocking the subject matter it seems fair to expect art to work on multiple levels.

The show is being promoted with the striking images from the 'HHH' series. These are large photographic portraits of black men wearing robes and hoods that evoke the Klu Klux Klan, however these hoods are black and the robes are brightly coloured and printed with African and Egyptian symbols we associate with Afro-American black nationalism and in this case HHH stand for 'Hedonistic Honky Haters'. The images are strong and vivid, the silhouette of the hood alone carries immense cultural baggage and the gaze of the sitters is direct, the eyes disembodied. They might be a part of a forbidden anthropology, one that presents images of strong black men who want more than reconciliation.

That anthropological strain is also responsible for the most striking work here, the photographic series 'Native Blood'. In these sepia photographs Foley restages the classic poses from Victorian anthropological studies of aboriginal tribespeople. The works are moving. Foley's own nudity and naked vulnerability fill these museum pieces with a humanity and empathy for the original sitters. That raw human touch only helps shine a dark light on the more abstract notion that these are works about a people's ownership of their images, it's a satisfyingly coherent work.

I want to like the work of Fiona Foley more than I do, but too often the pieces appear fractured, form and content or intellect and emotion are out of synch. Pieces like the large sculptural work 'Dispersed' where the D is threateningly composed of rifle bullets are successful as the unity of the concept gives it power. However a work like the series of gorgeous etchings of opium bulbs, each one entitled clumsily and successively with the words 'Queensland', 'Government', 'Aboriginal', 'Indentured' Labour', 'Shackled' feels bloodless, and that sense of Foley's concepts being unable to communicate the human dimension of the issues she deals with is a real flaw.

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