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Fiona Foley’s groundbreaking new book Biting the Clouds traces a hidden colonial history of addiction and slavery. “None of the information in this book was ever taught to me in a classroom setting … We have no critical race studies in the curriculum in this country.” By Tristen Harwood.

Badtjala visual artist Fiona Foley

Badtjala artist, writer and academic Fiona Foley.
Credit: Scott Harrower

Over a Zoom call, Badtjala artist Fiona Foley and I each hold copies of her new book, Biting the Clouds, up to our computers. It’s the object that connects us across distance and time – I’m in my Darwin apartment and Foley’s at her place in Wooloowin, a suburb in Brisbane’s north. The striking cover image is a photograph taken in a poppy field, where the soft pink petals of the poppies hang open, windswept, folding into thick cumulus clouds above.

Foley’s buoyant laughter punctuates our conversation, bringing levity to our discussion about the grim legacy of colonialism and the history of opium legislation in Queensland. She has the fluency of someone who knows her subject deeply, and speaks with a compassion that gets her point across. Her method of inquiry is at once intellectual, creative and ingrained in a close personal relationship with her subjects.

She tells me she took the cover photograph at a Tasmanian poppy farm while making her 2006 video Bliss. “It’s where they grow opium poppies for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline,” she says. “I had to get permissions from the company and police clearances.” The high level of corporate and state authorisation required simply to document these flowers demonstrates the granular way colonial power manifests in our lives. The photo marks the beginning of the 15 years that Foley has spent researching and making artwork about the lingering historical impacts of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897, which controlled Aboriginal lives in Queensland.

Biting the Clouds (a euphemism for the opium “high”) reveals how the act shaped Queensland’s history – not only for Indigenous people, but for Chinese and European settlers too. It’s a layered book, which uses art, historical research, memory and relations to reclaim stories that have been written out of history. The book provides a broad account of how the Opium Act shaped race politics in the state, while asserting Badtjala cultural identity and belonging.

In a way, Foley is self-taught – she had to seek this history out and collate it herself. “None of the information in this book was ever taught to me in a classroom setting, either in primary, secondary or tertiary education, and I did six years’ tertiary education,” she says, and – quoting Goenpul academic and writer Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a pre-eminent Indigenous theorist – further explains, “We have no critical race studies in the curriculum in this country.”

To do this work is no simple task, practically or emotionally. Foley had to deal with the absence of information, institutional barriers, and resistance and ignorance from individuals, while searching through archives replete with the suffering of her ancestors.

Grounded in a Badtjala perspective, Foley’s new book addresses some of these historical gaps. While researching the act, she met historian Raymond Evans. “We had lunch at the State Library in Brisbane, and I asked him: ‘So where are all the opium pipes that Aboriginal people used to smoke opium? What collection are they in?’ It was a bit of a mystery for me. He replied, ‘Oh no, there aren’t any’, and I just looked at him, thinking to myself, ‘What are you talking about, there aren’t any!?’ And he goes, ‘Oh no no, Aboriginal people were being given the ash from the opium that had already been smoked by Chinese and European opium smokers.’ They would mix the ash in a concoction with water and drink it, which was sometimes a communal thing.”

Aboriginal people were given the opium ash to make them addicted, so they could be exploited as an indentured labour force in Queensland by industries such as pearl-shell diving, mining and sugarcane farming.

For Foley, that’s when the penny dropped. The complexity of how opium was entwined with race relations and the law, through addiction and control, became palpable. “The only scapegoats that were ever prosecuted under the act were Chinese people – no Europeans were ever prosecuted under the act,” she explains.

Underpinning this, she says, was the European fear of an alliance forming between Aboriginal and Chinese people. Chinese men and Aboriginal women had formed unions, marriages in effect. “It’s a triangle of relationships that’s not really discussed in this country, and when the act was amended in 1901, the state introduced a clause which automatically rendered their children wards of the state and made marriages between Chinese and Aboriginal people illegal.”

As Foley says, “It’s another layer of history in Queensland that people are unaware of, so every time I get an opportunity to speak in public about the legislation, the audience is completely stunned when they hear this story.” The persistence of shocked reactions is a product of coloniality itself, and also a reminder of both how important Foley’s work is and the emotional burden of constantly encountering this epistemic violence.

“This ‘oh, I didn’t realise!’ or ‘I didn’t know!’ reaction of white people really limits conversations, where you’re forced to talk about the history of this country in ‘baby talk’ to adults,” Foley says. But there’s nothing punitive about her work: it’s not about making white people feel guilty about history but is a call to be aware of and responsible about the truths of colonialism. Like Foley herself, Biting the Clouds is resolute and generous in the telling of Badtjala and Queensland history.

Dispossession has dominated the historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state, separating people from their land. It also continues in the attempt to erase history and to obscure the process of that erasure. Biting the Clouds looks at the displacement of Indigenous people in Queensland – in particular the 1897 act’s role in dispossessing Indigenous people in Badtjala Country – and explores further ramifications of the act, such as its influence on legislation in other states. It brings to the fore moments and events obscured from history, doing so in a way that uncovers how the colonial processes of erasure operated.

Foley is emphatic in acknowledging people who have informed and influenced her work, from Moreton-Robinson to Noonuccal theorist and educator Karen Martin to Foley’s own family members.

The artwork and stories in The Legends of Moonie Jarl (1964), which tells the creation stories of Badtjala people from K’gari (Fraser Island), inspired Foley to become an artist. The book was written by Foley’s great-uncle Wilf Reeves (Moonie Jarl) and vividly illustrated by her great-aunty Olga Miller (Wandi) – the two were siblings. Foley says, “I was influenced by that publication, growing up as a child. And I used to copy those drawings when I was in primary school.” The book was the first published Aboriginal children’s book – “another claim to fame”, Foley says, half-joking.

Foley threads these stories into her art and writing, making otherwise ignored truths and narratives public. While The Legends of Moonie Jarl may not be an obvious influence in much of Foley’s artwork, the book of her family’s stories has a palpable presence in Biting the Clouds. Foley has even included one of her great-aunty’s illustrations.

 

It’s difficult to overstate the contribution Foley has made to contemporary Indigenous art. She began exhibiting in the mid-’80s, working across photography, film, installation and sculpture. With Tracey Moffatt and Michael Riley (1960-2004), Foley was one of several prominent Indigenous artists who spent time early in their careers visiting and learning from their experiences at Top End art centres. In 1984 she took part in an artist residency at Ramingining, where she stayed with art and craft adviser Djon Mundine. A Bundjalung curator, writer, artist and activist, Mundine is himself foundational to the critical development and exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art.

“I travelled to Ramingining and Maningrida a number of times in the 1980s, up until 1993,” says Foley. “I went to outstations, it was really good to understand the Country, I had a lot of wonderful experiences up there. I had a small show at Maningrida Arts and Crafts [now known as Maningrida Arts and Culture], I met artists like David Malangi.” A Djinang–Manharrngu bark painter, Malangi’s 1963 artwork Mortuary feast of Gurrmirringu, the Great Ancestral Hunter was infamously used, without his consent, for the design of the 1966 Australian $1 bill.

In 1987 Foley co-founded the Sydney-based Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative with Euphemia Bostock, Riley, Moffatt, Jeffrey Samuels, Bronwyn Bancroft, Avril Quaill, Fern Martins, Arone Meeks and Brenda L. Croft. Boomalli was vital in establishing the reputations of city-based Aboriginal artists at the time – influencing how Indigenous contemporary art was understood and received in this country, and making way for city-based Indigenous artists today.

Foley’s work is committed to the past that is omitted by colonial history’s ellipses – the names, narratives and events absent from the archives, the errors in the official record, the misconceptions reproduced in popular media. Her renowned 1994 triptych Badtjala Woman is based on an ethnographic photograph of an unnamed Badtjala woman dated circa 1899 and simply titled Aborigine, Fraser Island, an image Foley found in the State Library of Queensland archive. The unnamed woman – photographed topless, deprived of a name – wedges an artificial distance between the historical representation of Indigenous peoples and culture, and actual Indigenous people.

Foley’s work cuts across this manufactured distance, contending with the imposed absence of Indigenous narratives in the prevailing historical record.

The ethnographic image isn’t a representation of Indigenous life; rather, it is evidence of a possessive white mode of inquiry, which simultaneously recognises and disavows the “other’s” difference. As decoloniality theorist Walter Mignolo writes: “There is not a world that is represented, but a world that is constantly invented in the enunciation. The enunciation is constituted by certain actors, languages, and categories of thoughts, beliefs, and sensing.”

Badtjala Woman is a rebuke, a type of non-performance refusing the notion that Indigenous life-worlds can be represented in ethnographic photography. Foley brings Indigeneity into relief at the site of its negation. In these photographs the viewer is confronted with a Badtjala enunciation of history. She does the same to the reader of her new book. While the ethnographic photograph contrives to make the Indigenous “other” knowable and visible, Foley shows that in fact – both historically and today – most white people know very little about Indigenous histories and peoples.

Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are central to Biting the Clouds – not simply as subjects of study, but as the foundations for Foley’s whole approach to historiography. “I was introduced to [Karen] Martin’s 2008 book Please Knock Before You Enter while studying towards my PhD,” she says. Martin uses art and a Quampie creation story to elucidate Indigeneity. “I had the opportunity to sit and talk with her about her work. I told her I wanted to use her research methodology for my publication, and she said I could underpin my book with a story from my Country, and that’s what I’ve done – I’ve used the Minguin creation story from The Legends of Moonie Jarl.”

Even in our short interview, Foley’s consideration and care – for the topics she studies, the people who have influenced her, and her audience – is clear. There’s depth in knowledge that comes from the work of proximity, of closeness and concern. It calls you into the immediacy of responsibility.

Recently a colleague, Quandamooka curator Freja Carmichael, reminded me of the first stanza of Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem “The Past”: “Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all about us and within.” Foley does history work, which never ends. As Noonuccal’s poem says, the past is felt and sensed all the time, but it takes dedication and care to put it into a coherent form. To list truths and to bring Indigenous history into the light within an Indigenous framework is life-giving work.

Biting the Clouds is the potent culmination of more than a decade’s work that exposes the relationships between addiction and exploitation – how opium use and its legislation controlled individuals’ behaviour, and how Indigenous peoples in Queensland were defined and understood. It doesn’t only counter historical amnesia: it creates a future for possibilities beyond colonial myth. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2020 as "Clouded histories".

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Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher.