Since 1994, Fiona Foley has produced a series of curious self-portraits. In the first, she modelled herself directly on a photograph held in the John Oxley Library in Brisbane, the only known image of an unknown Badtjala woman. As a Badtjala woman herself, Foley restaged (or, as she says, “perversely re-enacted”) the conventional subordinate role of the anthropological subject: eyes averted from the camera, looking right, head slightly bowed, wearing a shell necklace and a grass skirt. In the second, Foley appeared more assured, wearing a grass skirt and platform shoes, smiling at the camera, in a slightly provocative pose. In a later image, Foley is portrayed lost in thought, looking up and wearing a necklace of Tasmanian shells (a gift from women in Launceston).
But Foley next appeared in seven tableaux modelled on fashion spreads taken from Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine. The original fashion shoot featured all-American cowboys and one cowgirl on a ranch. Foley’s version, however, included Seminole colleagues standing on their reservation in Tampa, Florida, thus reinstating people displaced in America’s settlement who do not appear in glossy media fantasies of American pastoral life. And Foley herself assumed the bearing of a romantic lead, surrounded by men, standing in open fields or by a river.
Curiously, a newspaper critic described the artist depicted “among her people, the largely massacred and displaced Badtjala, formerly of Fraser Island . . . looking over an Australian landscape with heroic sadness”. In a mitigating aside, the critic compared the “costumes” of Foley and her people to the characteristic dress of Native Americans. I don’t think Foley was suggesting that cultural minorities are equivalent. People are certainly not the same, although there are common patterns to their oppression and misrepresentation.
Photography has played a consistent role in colonisation, but Foley says she finds freedom in it: “For a split second, as the aperture opens and closes, those colonial shackles are prized apart and momentarily forgotten.” By mixing the codes by which people are identified and typecast, and trading on the remnants of verisimilitude in a digital age, Foley keeps us guessing at the real or true identity of the sitters in her work.
Foley’s photographs of a New York black hate group, Hedonistic Honky Haters (HHH), show members wearing their trademark robes and black Klan-hoods. To judge by the eyes, I suspect Foley is one of them, assuming the shape of a Klansman while wearing beautiful woven fabrics from Harlem, thus subverting the Klan and inverting the racism, in another self-portrait that lampoons supremacists of all kinds. Foley appeared more obliquely in seven photos of Irish men who posed for her in Dublin. The men stand before a grand piano within a stately room in a Georgian house. Each portrait features a glamour shot of Foley’s feet framed on the wall. Whether wearing classic high heels, wearing beaded slippers from Venice, or with the hem of a Tiwi print showing, she is the distant object of exotic, even fetishistic, taste.
Like other artists who have performed roles for the camera, Foley’s performance suggests the mutability of sexuality, race, and gender in the construction of individual identity. But rather than simply change roles, or play against type, Foley consistently renders herself in these new combinatory personae, whether it be as a Seminole woman from Florida, a black supremacist from New York, or (as she says) “a sexy Venus for Irish men”. Foley has wrested control of her self-image, and, through careful art direction and control over the means of representation, she has compiled a self-portrait that confounds or eludes identity and type altogether (including her indigenous identity), as it constantly tends – unbounded and renewed – towards a radical alternative, a complete fabrication.