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Chelsea Watego's launch speech for Biting the Clouds
Posted 12.11.2020

Chelsea Watego's launch speech for Biting the Clouds

I feel very honoured tonight to be entrusted to speak to the work of Dr Fiona Foley.

I first met Fiona when she was an Adjunct Professor at The University of Queensland several years ago now. She was providing a guest lecture for a course in the Aboriginal Studies Major that I was convening. The course was called ‘Aboriginal women’ the learning objectives of which included critically analysing and reflecting upon discourse about and by Aboriginal women and understand the impact of colonialism on the experiences of Aboriginal women historically and in contemporary contexts. So Fiona was a natural fit.

I structured the course somewhat chronologically to examine how pre-contact was imagined and narrated, from first contact to the frontier etc. The front end of the course was particularly hard to teach, because of the stories told of that time. As a Munajahli woman and academic I refused to be complicit in the silencing of our history that Foley refers to in Biting the Clouds. In doing so, I too experienced what she describes as the “passive resistance” that is silence. This silence was not just from the students in classroom, but it was also insisted upon by senior academics. In fact, I still recall being told, upon my commencement that “we don’t teach guilt here”.

But I never taught guilt, like Fiona, as an educator and Blackfulla I was interested in truth telling. Now Fiona’s lecture sat around midway through the course where we pivoted to the accounts of Aboriginal women, not from a past place elsewhere. Instead this was where they got to meet Aboriginal women, as living and as sovereign here and now. Fiona in entering the classroom entered into their imaginings of the Aboriginal women and as a sovereign Aboriginal woman here and now, she did such important work in reworking these imaginings. But it wasn’t easy. As she entered the classroom, the students were terrified.

But who can blame them? Before I met Professor Foley, I knew of her, via her international standing as an artist and by her fierceness that is ever present in her work. I too was terrified to meet her – I was in awe of her and I still am! But what I saw when she entered the classroom was a generosity, to this very small cohort of students all of which were unknown to her, of which she had no obligation to. I remember each year and each class she would refuse students the opportunity to stay silent. She insisted that they think out loud, that they used the time they’ve been given to engage with her and to learn together. She notes in Biting the Clouds not just the complicity of silence but the disappointment of it all and in reading this text I could see why she persisted with them.

In the classroom she didn’t present as an expert (though she was) she in that moment was a nurturing and caring educator. I remember students nervously raising their hands to break that uncomfortable silence and offering incomplete and at times (to my horror) incorrect answers. She persisted, encouraged them to stretch their imagining. It was clear to me that this artist was an educator, and a damn good one! From Fiona I learnt that it was okay to push students that little bit further to get them to get it and to let them sit with that discomfort so that eventually someone would say something.

In Biting the Clouds, Foley is pushing the reader to get it. And this book itself is a most generous gift that Foley gives to this nation, to think more deeply about its formation and to push oneself a little further. To read beyond the words, to understand their function in sanitising genocide in the state of Queensland. And no this isn’t a book of guilt, but a book of intellectual inquiry of a sovereign Badtjala woman who was determined to know the terms upon which her existence had been framed, knowing that it had never been on Badtjala terms. While focusing on Badtjala mob, this is a book for all Blackfullas across the state of Queensland and beyond. It is an important historical account of The Act that draws from and builds upon the work of historians, of Raymond Evans, Henry Reynolds and Roslyn Kidd. Foley notes that she didn’t learn this history that she generously shares in any educational institution – she did the work, did the readings, and in this text we meet Foley the historian.

I’ve said this before - there is not one Blackfulla in this state who doesn’t articulate their family tree without some reference to The Act, in having being moved here or there, or in my family’s case in fleeing over the border to northern New South Wales. From Beaudesert to Tweed to Bowen and south Brisbane, and marriages into South Sea Islander families along that east coast, our family story of how we come to be here traces itself along the lines of that legislation known to most as The Act - from its beginnings in 1897 to its end in 1971.

What Foley does so powerfully in Biting the Clouds is to unmask the lies of the colonial account of us, and in turn, tells the truth about the settlers. What is particularly fascinating is how Foley the educator, the author and the historian explains how she brings these truths to light as a visual artist. In this text she ponders the task of “representing a massacre sight in the 21st century artistically”. How does one “represent violence without re-renacting it?” she asks. The story of how ‘Witnessing to Silence’ came about, as an artwork but also as a major public commission is a powerful story that more people need to know about. This story tells a truth of frontier violence but also speaks to the power of the sovereign Black woman, who refuses to accept their account of things, who refuses to know her place on their terms and refuses to forget what they did. She instead insists that our account, as the most truthful, stands in our own lands. To have a story of genocide etched outside the Brisbane Magistrates Court, financed by the state, is the act of a warrior – a most wise one. A warrior carrying on the tradition of her people who she reminds us, staged a 20-year resistance of guerrilla warfare.

Biting the Clouds is a book that serves as another Foley testament as powerful as the artworks she creates. It is a text that will find itself on reading lists in all kinds of places from health, history, law, political sciences, Indigenous studies, gender studies and creative industries. But most importantly it is a book that belongs to the Badtjala people. It is a gift to her own nation and as such its most important home will be on the bookshelves of Blackfullas.

I remember Yugambeh elder and scholar Dr Mary Graham once talking about the important task ahead of us of describing ourselves to each other again. And Foley takes up this task. As I read the text, I couldn’t help but think of Badtjala mob encountering this text and I am excited by what this book does for generations to come and what this encounter will do for them. What fire will be stoked, what self-love will be invoked, what pride will be felt, and what new transformative possibilities will emerge that build upon the labour and legacy of Foley and those before her.

In encountering Biting the Clouds I had been familiar with much of the work that she walks us through but what we discover with this text is the tremendous amount of work or rather “the painstaking labour” as she refers to it, that she has undertaken to produce her work. She also gifts us strategy and motivation for continuing our fight against the ongoing violence of colonialism, a gift she points out was given to her by her mum. And we see in Foley’s work, the legacy of her mum who among other things, worked tirelessly to reclaim and retain language via the Badtjala dictionary.

She writes;

my strength comes from her, an exceptional teacher with staunch morals, a jovial soul who loved life, a visionary who took an arugument on and weaved a path around political obstacles and never settled for anything less for her nation. Yet where is her legacy in the visual landscape?

It is why Foley’s work has been about writing Badtjala people and Aboriginal nations back into the visual landscape. In following in her mum’s footsteps, we see Foley leave her own deep imprints upon the sand of K’gari, in reclaiming the true account of Badtjala here, in Biting the Clouds.

I just want to return to my earliest impression of Fiona – one of fear. It was a respectful fear, more of awe, in the power and beauty of her strength. In Biting the Clouds she engages meaningfully with the scholarship of Distinguished Professor Moreton-Robinson and Associate Professor Karen Martin in thinking through Indigenous sovereignty, but it’s in her being she embodies and exudes sovereignty. And that power can indeed be intimidating. So much so, that it can be rendered a threat. A threat to managed and to be minimised.

And this is the violence that the sovereign Black woman must endure. She can be named any or all things to undermine her and the power she wields. She is deemed difficult, hard to work with, a little over the top, and even in her excellence she is deemed a supposed benefactor of others’ charity. She is angry and aggressive, mean and cold hearted so much so, that she is deemed not even a woman.

Ironically it is typically the sovereign Black woman who truly cares in this place, cares so much that they put those sovereign Black bodies on the line, not to become the first of her tribe, but to ensure that she is not the last of her tribe. You see the sovereign Black women holds in her heart the survival of the tribe. Foley tells us so in Biting the Clouds, having realised that the rest of the tribe in this time are just 5% of who we once were. It is her commitment to the legacy and loss of those 95% that pushes her to do the work that no one else is prepared to do, to tell the stories no one else is willing to either tell or hear.

What people often don’t see in the sovereign Black woman is her love, unconditional, in a social world that refuses to love her back. They don’t know of her generosity, of her painstaking labour. They don’t know of the internal battles of questioning oneself, of being accountable to ancestors both past and present, of wanting to get it right, and of her unwavering commitment to getting justice, all the while knowing she will never see it in her lifetime, that those footprints in the sand she is marking out, are for those ancestors following that she has yet to meet, whose legacy she is yet to know. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to this piece of her legacy, and introduce you to a sovereign Black woman, most loving, most caring, and most generous.

Dr Fiona Foley is from the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala nation. Foley exhibits regularly in Australia and internationally. In 2014 she was the recipient of an Australia Council Visual Arts Award. She is a regular keynote speaker at conferences and symposia all over the world. Most recently she convened Courting Blakness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University (2014) at The University of Queensland, where she was an Adjunct Professor (2011–17). Foley completed her fourth film titled Out of the Sea Like Cloud in 2019. Recent exhibitions include a 25-year photographic retrospective titled Who Are These Strangers and Where Are They Going? Dr Fiona Foley is currently a Lecturer at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

And every other day she is a warrior.