Books

Louise Martin-Chew
Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life

“The planet seen from extremely close up is called the ground,” writes poet Mary Ruefle. The body seen with this same immediacy might be called the skin. And what might we call a person’s life when viewed so intimately: a biography? After all, a good biography, a juicy one, digs at the ground, digs it up, uncovers its subject’s roots.

Louise Martin-Chew’s biography of Fiona Foley, a Badtjala artist, curator and academic, begins with the sand. Foley’s roots, we learn, are in the island K’gari (Fraser Island), a “touchstone in her life and her art”. Art and life are fully entwined: everything begins from this proposition, everything begins, has always, from K’gari, the island. And so this is where Martin-Chew must go, framing the introduction and many of the book’s chapters through her visits, guided by the artist, to the island.

From here, the book sifts the alluvial traces of the artist’s work, her early life, her kin and collaborations. Using encounters with Foley’s art, conversations with her family and friends and their friendship, Martin-Chew gathers evidence, showing how Foley has indelibly altered the terrain of art in this country.

Martin-Chew writes of a visit to K’gari: “She [Foley] passes me a Midjimberry to try, its muted sweetness touching my palate as gently as the subtlety of its pale colour and mauve spots.” She recalls Foley speaking to the island, her ancestors: “Hello Old People, this is Louise. Keep us safe…” This biographical research is open to the porosity of the body and the mind – the island’s sensations, its sand, wind, water, flavours and colours, aren’t merely influences. They’re co-producers in the work of Foley and, by extension, Martin-Chew’s biography.

Given Martin-Chew’s reflexive method, it’s odd when her study of the Badtjala artist falls back on bureaucratic language such as the term “Australia’s Aboriginal peoples”, which expresses what Aileen Moreton-Robinson has called a “white possessive” logic that underscores settler grammar. This and the occasional appearance of similar language belies what for the most part reads as the author’s intimate consideration of Foley’s lifework.

In a recent artist’s talk, the painter Karen Mills spoke of how she studies the shapes, lines, colours and space around things such as a tree, a branch or a flower. Maybe this is how to perceive a person’s life in extreme close-up, by looking at the spaces they move through and make up. Martin-Chew is at her best when she mixes situated encounter, memoir, diffuse stories and speculation, producing something more like an experiment in long-form art criticism than conventional biography.

Tristen Harwood

QUT Art Museum, 252pp, $30

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life, Louise Martin-Chew".

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Reviewer: Tristen Harwood