Gary Foley in his best Black Power mode

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 30.01.12

Dates: 24.01.12 : 29.01.12
Location: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House

The 40th anniversary last week of the accidental Aboriginal Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra was as good an opportunity as any to learn how it came about even before the messy events that accompanied it. For my 'lesson' happened on the eve of Australia/Invasion Day, during a highly partial history of Black Power in Australia – and a few of the illusions associated with it.

They both came, appropriately from Gary Foley who, borrowing freely he admitted from Winston Churchill's dictum that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”, has a one man show in the Sydney Festival that shouldn't be missed by Noel Pearson, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam, Tony Abbott, or anyone who wants to be cheerfully insulted by this ebullient man; or missed by anyone who wants to understand the deep, but under-examined divide between urban/Blak Aborigines and the remote mob up North.

First the Embassy. As Foley tells it, four fall-guys were sent up to Canberra from the teeming Redfern precinct because Billy McMahon's Australia Day speech in 1972 felt like the final nail in the coffin of hopes which had been falling ever since Harold Holt drowned without implementing his post-Referendum promises regarding Land Rights. The four expected to be arrested. But the gentle ACT Police – unlike their hated NSW equivalents – read the rule book and discovered that it would take 12 tents on the Parliamentary lawns before a crime had been committed. Foley rushed up there with another ten – and a revolutionary precedent had been politely established.

Later that year, Whitlam promised so much after visiting the Tent Embassy and changing ALP policy to disavow its then-current assimilation policies. As Foley imagined it, they were going to get real Land Rights – freehold land handed over from old reserve and unused Crown lands – which would give his mob an economic base from which to achieve self-determination. Something, perhaps, like the controversial Gandangara project on Heathcote Ridge which Elizabeth Farrelly was writing about in the SMH last week? But, in Foley's Fabulous view of events, Whitlam let them down even more than Holt – failing to outface Messers Bjelke-Peterson and Court in the States, and coming up with a namby-pamby thing called Native Title. And worse, it was only on offer to that lot up in the Northern Territory.

“Native Title is not Land Rights” - Foley is crystal clear. And the reason for this distinction emerged in his disavowal of that thing most have us have thought fundamental to Aboriginal belief systems – their relationship with land or country. That's just “airy-fairy nonsense” for the “ooga-boogas” up North.

Now where have I heard that distasteful description – ooga-boogas - of the 40/50,000 people who live remote in the NT, WA, SA and Queensland before – people who may not have the sophistication to entertain a White audience for 120 minutes like Foley, but who cling to a complexity of culture built up over 40,000 years and who, according to Prof Jaynie Anderson in the new 'Cambridge Companion to Australian Art' have found ways of communicating elements of that on canvas to produce “the only (Australian) art that has found a substantial international audience”? Why, those same 'ooga-boogas' appeared in Blak artist Richard Bell's 'Bell's Theorem', the text necessary to explain the painting that won the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Ironically, he managed to attain this artistic peak while denying he was an 'Aboriginal artist', while wearing that T-shirt declaring 'White Girls Can't Hump' to offend Chief Minister Claire Martin, and while mockingly claiming that the Dreaming had now descended on him in Brisbane.

Foley disavows the Dreaming too. His spiritual authorities are Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X; and, though he's acted (unforgettably in 'Dogs in Space') and administered the arts as Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board, I'm sure that Foley's canvases (if he painted) would colourfully reflect his political views rather than the airy-fairy aspects of his Gumbyngger inheritance. That, after all, is what ooga-boogas try to do.

Incidentally, at the Australia Council – unmentioned in his theatrical show – Foley did his best to disrupt ceremonial activities in the North by defunding organisations like the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation which had the temerity to employ White functionaries to assist in organising traditional events like the Groote Eylandt dance festivals that brought tribal groups up from the APY Lands, across from the far Kimberley and over the water from the Cape to maintain and share culture with each other. No wonder the Intervention – and all it's doing to deny self-determination to remote Aborigines – received scant mention in the show.

But 'Foley' is an important show in its nakedness towards this hot-potato subject-matter – even Bell and his proppaNOW mob in Brisbane are shy and retiring by comparison. For surely only Foley could coin an indignity like “Noel Pearson makes Neville Bonner look like Che Guevara!”, and deliver it with such insouciant charm. But from as one-eyed a viewpoint as Foley himself, I'm grateful to Gary for dissociating his urban mob from tribal Australia – something I've often thought should also happen to the two unrelated art forms that are both called 'Aboriginal', allowing each to stand on its own two feet. As Nino Culotta might have put it, “They're a different mob”.


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