Large-scale installations such as Badtjala artist Fiona Foley’s Stud Gins 2003 naturally invite viewers to look closer, to investigate detail by enticing them into its boundary. Although minimal in form, Stud Gins reveals a harrowing and powerful story and an aspect of early colonial encounters that is difficult to openly discuss. Acts perpetrated on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are common subjects for Indigenous artists, although many are careful to tell these stories through subtle references in their work. Artists such as Fiona Foley pull no punches.
Foley is a contemporary Australian artist whose compelling works continue to challenge and engage audiences nationally and internationally.
Stud Gins features seven large grey ‘welfare’ blankets similar to those issued by colonial governments to Aboriginal people. In Australian colonial history, as in colonial histories worldwide, the blanket has become a symbol of deliberate acts of genocide by spreading disease and of the horrific doctrines of early white ‘managers’. The blankets, lined in an orderly row, stretched and pinned flat, each feature a single word repeated in bold black lettering: Aboriginal, Women, Property, Defiled, Ravished, Shared, Discarded. These are stark reminders of the forced and repetitive sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by some colonists.
The title, ‘Stud Gins’, also elicits the attitude that white men had toward Aboriginal women, who, at the time, would have seemed exotic and sexually enticing in their nakedness. This attitude was that Aboriginal women were commodities or ‘property’ to be used, defiled, ravished, shared and discarded.
This powerful installation, inspired by an explanation of attitudes by white men toward Aboriginal women in Christine Halse’s 2002 book A terribly wild man, reminds us of our hidden histories. It reminds us to learn from the past and to acknowledge it so we might better understand and come to accept our shared histories and forge a mutual future.
Foley generously donated Stud Gins to the National Gallery of Australia under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. It will complement the 26 other works by Foley in the collection. She is one of 20 artists represented in the next National Indigenous Art Triennial, opening in May 2012, which will include a large-scale installation work made by Foley during an artist residency in China in 2010.
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 68, summer 2011