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2015 Artists Stories

Gary Foley

Prominent activist, actor, writer and educator Dr Gary Foley was presented with the prestigious Red Ochre Award at the National Indigenous Arts Awards on Wednesday 27 May 2015.

The Red Ochre prize, awarded annually since 1993, acknowledges an artist’s outstanding contribution to and lifetime achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts at a national and international level.

As an actor, arts administrator, activist, cultural thinker and currently Associate Professor in History at Victoria University, Dr Foley has been integral to Australia’s political, cultural and Indigenous landscape since he was a teenager living in Redfern, Sydney.  Across many roles, through more than four decades, Dr Foley has successfully agitated for positive social change for Aboriginal people and their communities.

As a member of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s, Gary Foley saw the arts as a powerful vehicle for political change.  This led to the creation of the National Black Theatre in Redfern, which sought to produce theatre devised, performed and created by and for Aboriginal people.  Black Theatre also sought to educate white people using political satire as a means for self-reflection and to see Australia from a black point of view.

Gary’s acting career began with the NBT revue Basically Black in 1972 performed at the Nimrod Theatre. He then was the main writer the ABC-TV version of Basically Black which became the first all Aboriginal TV show in 1973.  Since then he has appeared in various productions, including the film Backroads in 1976, which he also co-directed with Philip Noyce, as well as cameo roles in films Going Down, Pandemonium, Dogs in Space, and television series Flying Doctors and A Country Practice.

Gary was also instrumental in taking Indigenous art to an international audience.  In 1978 he was part of a group that introduced films on black Australia to the Cannes Film Festival and then to Germany and other European countries.  He returned to England and Europe a year later to set up the first Aboriginal Information Centre in London.

At this time Gary was attracting supporters from Europe, including Joe Strummer and the Clash, whose tour of Australia he joined in 1982.  Gary used to join them on stage to rap about rights for Indigenous people and the working class as part of the Clash song, Armagideon Time.

Gary Foley became the first Aboriginal director of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Arts Board in 1984 and with friend and political mentor Chicka Dixon, Chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board, set about reforming the operations of the Board.  This included ensuring funding specifically reached Aboriginal artists and organisations, decision-making which reflected Aboriginal values and principles and employing Aboriginal staff on the Board.  This period saw Indigenous artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Lin Onus and Destiny Deacon supported, and the largest exhibition of Indigenous art ever shown in Europe, Aratjara: Art of the first Australians, which was arguably the most successful Australian art exhibition to ever tour outside Australia.

His activism included the Springbok tour demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa in 1971, the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, the Commonwealth Games protest in Brisbane in 1982 and protests during Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1988.

He was also involved in establishing Redfern’s Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Medical Service and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.  Gary was a consultant to the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody in 1988.

In 1994 he created the first Aboriginal owned and operated website, the Koori History Website, which continues to this day to be the most comprehensive Aboriginal history education resource available online.

Since completing his BA with first class honours in history at Melbourne University in 2002, Gary Foley has emerged as an academic. From 2001 to 2006 he was a lecturer in history at the Education Faculty at the University of Melbourne and from 2007 until 2015 was a senior lecturer at Victoria University. He has recently been promoted to an Associate Professor in History at Victoria University.

His PhD thesis, completed in 2012, An Autobiographical Narrative of the Black Power Movement and the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy was praised as one of the best ever submitted by its assessors, Professors Larissa Behrendt, John Maynard and supervisor Nikos Papastergiadis.  It received the University of Melbourne’s 2015 Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence.

‘His thesis was able to blend lived experience with an understanding of the historic archive and the canonical text in his field,’ said Professor Behrendt. ‘Dr Foley is a scholar who brings a lived experience and a passion for his subject matter. The same passion and intellect is embedded in the artistic and creative work he has produced over a lifetime and in the leadership he has shown as an actor, writer, producer and director.’

International interest in this research led to the Aboriginal Embassy Symposium at the ANU in 2011, a second symposium at London University in 2013 and the publication of The Aboriginal Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State, the most comprehensive work on the 1972 Aboriginal Embassy. Co-edited by Dr Foley, this book was made possible by his unsurpassed expertise on the subject and his own archive, the Foley Collection, built up over 50 years of being at the forefront of grassroots Aboriginal political activism.  This invaluable archive is now housed at Victoria University.

His research also underpinned the Ilbijerri production Foley, directed by Rachael Maza and written and performed by Gary, and staged at the Melbourne Festival in 2011 and the Sydney Festival in 2012. He is currently co-writing another production, a theatre collaboration between Ilbijerri and Malthouse in Melbourne, on the story of ASIO surveillance of Aboriginal activists.

Dr Foley has been both the subject and historian on a range of recent documentaries, notably Persons of Interest – The ASIO Files: Episode 3 Gary Foley, screened on SBS TV in 2013. Other recent documentaries involving Gary Foley include The Redfern Story (2014), Silent Shout: The Nicki Winmar Story (2014) Bastardy (2009), Lionel (2009), Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002),and an Irish television production, An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) (2012). He also featured prominently in an episode of the Canadian production, Fair Play, entitled Have you Heard From Johannesburg: Stories From the Global Anti-Apartheid Movement 1948-1990 (2010).

‘Most of his contemporaries from the era of activism from which he first emerged are dead,’ notes Professor Papastergiadis from the University of Melbourne. ‘Foley’s sustained passion, energy and most of all sense of humour in the face of tragedy is to my mind the most significant evidence of his exceptional courage.’

Gary’s further plans include a study with Curtis Levy of Aboriginal representation in Australian cinema and an ambitious ten-part historical documentary series. Australia Council Board Director Lee-Ann Buckskin acknowledges Foley’s huge contribution, past and present.

‘Gary has left a lasting legacy across a wide spectrum of Australia’s cultural and political landscape and is in the unique position of not only being a part of history but also shaping it, of being a significant activist but also an important interpreter.’

Kahl Wallis

Queensland songwriter and lead singer of the hit indie band The Medics, Kahl Wallis, was the 2015 recipient of the Dreaming Award.

The Dreaming Award provides $20,000 to a young artist aged 18-26 to create a major body of work through mentoring or partnerships. Kahl, aged 25, was the first musician to win the annual Dreaming Award since it began in 2012.

Kahl’s project, working with family members in Cairns, is the recording of his first full-length solo album, infused with his traditional language, songs and stories, and make an accompanying documentary about this journey into his Indigenous heritage.

His Uncle Jimmy Wallis, cultural contributor to this project, is the last of Kahl’s family to speak their Wuthathi language. His Uncle, Bunna Lawrie, is another of Kahl’s cultural and musical mentors: he was the original frontman and songwriter for the band Coloured Stone. Kahl says Bunna’s mentorship provides the project with cultural integrity and diversity, vast experience in the recording and production process and expertise in additional instruments, song and language.

Bunna’s two sons, Kahl’s cousins are also involved in his project. Filmmaker Arruna Lawrie will contribute while Jhindu Lawrie, a fellow musician with Kahl in The Medics, will provide drums, percussion and backup vocals.

‘My uncle Jim Wallis introduced me to Wuthathi country and shared stories and culture and my uncle Bunna Lawrie has always been a huge spiritual mentor and music educator in my career,’ says Kahl. ‘My father Warwick and mother Gillian raised me in a home always filled with music like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Michael Jackson, just to name a few.’

‘My Wuthathi mob come from the white sands of Shelburne Bay, Cape York, while I live over 2,000 kms away in Brisbane, disconnected geographically but intrinsically linked through culture, song and bloodlines.’

‘As a young Aboriginal man living in an urban city, music has been the way in which I stay connected to my heritage and share my heritage with others.’

In April this year a hearing in Cairns acknowledged that some 1,200 kilometres in and around Shelburne Bay, one of Cape York’s most breathtaking dune landscapes, was the land of the Wuthathii people. Kahl’s people were removed from the land in the 1930s and have been fighting for possession of their homeland for nearly four decades.

Kahl Wallis, cousin Jhindu and friends Andrew Thomson and Charles Thomas have had a spectacular rise with The Medics, since their first release, This Boat We call Love, five years ago. Other singles followed – Beggars, Joseph, Griffin and Slowburn, all scoring frequent plays on the national broadcaster Triple J, which originally “Unearthed” the band.

The Medics won their first Deadly Award in 2010 but their stunning debut album Foundation two years later was a turning point. J Mag described the new album as an ‘epic vision realised’, Indie Shuffle called it ‘a truly brilliant album’, Rolling Stone Australia crowned them ‘Best New Talent’ and the boys won Best Album, Best New Talent and Song of the Year at the 2012 National Indigenous Awards.

The Medics’ considerable fan base on social media helped in January to make a hit out of their rousing protest song, Wake Up for Australia Day. The band is on track to release their second full album next year.

Winning the Australia Council’s Dreaming Award offered Kahl Wallis an exciting solo opportunity.

‘I’m truly honored to receive this award,’ says the young singer. ‘It’s given me the opportunity and freedom to explore music on a deep, cultural level. The guidance from family and mentors has helped shape the music I’m now able to record. The body of music I’ve been writing as a solo artist can now be fully realised, supported and nurtured to its potential.’

Kahl is committed to recording his album and most of the documentary in Cairns. It’s home to many of his family members and also to sound engineer and frequent collaborator Mark Myers and his recording studio Big Sister Studios.

‘I believe the cultural and environmental integrity of the project will be greatly enhanced if created in the right space and Cairns is a quiet, yet energetically potent, tropical location much closer to my family’s native land than any other major city.’

‘Recording this project in Cairns will also help promote the continual development of music in regional parts of Australia.’

While Kahl credits many mentors in his life, the songwriter and self-described environmental activist is himself a mentor to others. He is looking now for a young Indigenous musician just starting out who would like to join his project. And in remote communities, especially in the Northern Territory, Kahl also works as a music facillitator for the Jimmy Little Foundation.

‘Kahl has travelled to the Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi, Galiwinku, Gapuwiyak and Ramingining under the Thumbs up! banner to conduct music workshops with school children and perform concerts and he has also recently represented the Foundation at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair,’ says the Foundation’s CEO Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup.

‘He has displayed superb leadership qualities in his work with the school children in Aboriginal communities and in my opinion Kahl has all the qualities needed to inspire younger artists to achieve their potential.’

Kahl Wallis, it seems, is a young man to watch.


Brenda L Croft

The celebrated artist, curator and scholar Brenda L Croft was one of two fellowship recipients at the 2015 Australia Council’s National Indigenous Arts Awards.

In 2015 the fellowships focused on visual arts and provided financial support towards a major project.

Solid/shifting ground is an experimental, multi-media, collaborative art project building on Brenda’s research

‘I am making work from an auto-ethnographic, immersive, insider/outsider standpoint as a person of mixed heritage – Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra on my father’s side and Anglo-Australian/Irish/German heritage on my mum’s,’ says Brenda.  ‘I consider myself part of a Gurindji diaspora, living away from customary homelands, like so many of our community who are descendants of the Stolen Generations.’

Brenda has been collecting audio, film and stills on local sites and personal memories associated with the journeys of her father and his contemporaries from the Stolen Generations.

‘These walking/mapping/memory-scapes are being created through performative, embodied sound/visual time/space representations,’ she adds.

Solid/shifting ground extends Brenda’s Phd work since 2012 as an ARC Research Fellow at the National Institute for Experimental Arts at UNSW Art & Design.  She will stage a collaborative exhibition with Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation at the UNSW Galleries in September 2016 followed by a national tour to select university art museums.  A solo exhibition of her photo-media work was hosted by Sydney’s Stills Gallery late last year, while an exhibition of her mixed media work is due at the Niagara Galleries in Melbourne in 2017.

Brenda credits this Fellowship as one of the highlights of her career.

‘It is an acknowledgement of my work over the past three decades which has led me to what I am doing now and will provide me with much appreciated creative freedom over the next two years.’

Another career highlight was receiving the 2013 Deadly Award for Visual Artists of the Year, because ‘it came from the community’.  She regrets the Deadlies are no more and remembers fondly that the first were held at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative two decades ago. Brenda was one of 10 Indigenous artists who founded that influential Co-operative and was its general manager from 1990-1996.

She went on to be curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1999-2001) where she staged a major survey of Indigenous art from south Western Australia. Later, as senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia (2002-2009), she established the National Indigenous Art Triennial. The inaugural NIAT Culture Warriors was held in 2007 before travelling widely, including to Washington.

She has also lectured at Tranby Aboriginal Co-operative College in Sydney, Canberra School of Art and the University of South Australia.

One of her happiest moments was ‘being awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Visual Arts from the University of Sydney in 2009, which my darling mum attended – miss her every day.’

Indeed, what Brenda Croft would most like to leave behind is ‘to write my father’s story for his grandchildren, so they know who they are as contemporary Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra and Anglo-Australian young people who are following in the footsteps of those who fought for equal rights for all of us.’

Brenda also has plans to continue her long collaboration with Dr Nancy Mithlo an Art History Associate Professor in American Indian Studies at the Auty National Center Institute.  She will also spend research time at the Auty Museum, which houses one of America’s largest photographic repositories of Indigenous peoples.

This year has already been a big one for Brenda Croft: she has received the University of Western Australia’s Berndt Foundation Postgraduate Award and a UNSW Art & Design Postgraduate Award.

But she acknowledges the ‘sad/bad times’ which are part of the difficult life of being an artist. And so, what’s her advice to younger artists?

‘Make your vision distinctive and not like anyone else’s, believe in yourself, listen to others even if you don’t agree with them, be willing to work really hard for little benefit, find good mentors, help other people and demand high standards of yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself if things don’t happen as quickly as you want. And if all else fails, walk, as the rhythm of walking resets your body and mind and lets you think.’

Reko Rennie

Former graffiti enthusiast, now internationally exhibited artist, Reko Rennie was one of two fellowship recipients at the Australia Council’s National Indigenous Arts Awards.

In 2015 the fellowships focused on visual arts and provided financial support towards a major project.

In 2015 the multidisciplinary artist unveiled a six-metre aluminium wall work in the Pallazzo Mora at the 56th Venice Biennale, as part of the Global Art Affairs Foundation exhibition, Personal Structures: Crossing Borders. He has also shown internationally in Paris, Berlin, Italy, Jakarta, Shanghai and USA.

Reko received no formal artistic training but as a teenager discovered graffiti, and through it expressed his Kamilaroi identity using traditional geometric patterning drawn from his community in northwestern NSW.

Reko will use that same vividly coloured diamond patterning in his Fellowship project, along with a crown symbol and the Aboriginal flag. His goal is to hand-paint a 1970s Rolls Royce with this multiple patterning of symbols.

‘The crown, the diamond and the Aboriginal flag, are presented as an emblematic statement about the original royalty of Australia,’ says Reko. ‘The crown symbol is both in homage to my graffiti roots and also pays due respect to Jean-Michel Basquiat, but most importantly symbolises sovereign status, reminding us that Aboriginal people are the original sovereigns of this country.’

The 1970s Rolls relates to the period he was born and a vehicle he remembers as once being driven by wealthy pastoralists. He plans to also customise the interior by screen-printing diamond shaped patterning on the leather and carving texts such as ‘Always was, Always will be’ and ‘Deadly’ into the wooden panelling.

‘This draws on the traditional Kamilaroi practice of carving, from which my family roots originate, and pays homage to the tradition of tree carvings for which the area was known.’

Once fully ‘Blackfella’ customised, the Rolls will be filmed in various locations near the western NSW regional towns of Tamworth, Coonamble and Walgett, where Reko’s grandmother was born. His project involves shooting the vehicle doing burnouts on local land in the shape of diamonds.

The painted Rolls and accompanying multi-channel art video will be shown next year by Melbourne’s itinerant visual arts exhibitor, blackartsprojects, and in regional galleries.

Reko says he is both honoured and humbled to receive the Australia Council Fellowship, which he describes, along with being featured this year in the Venice Biennale, as a highlight of his career.

‘When I received the news, naturally I was very excited but also proud that I have received the opportunity to make a work that makes an important statement. It means I can take risks and make larger scale works and test different mediums that normally I wouldn’t be able to do.’

Reko is also currently working on a large-scale painting for a group show at the Art Gallery of South Australia in October and will be exhibiting new work at Sydney Contemporary Art Fair later this year.

His work continues to draw on the striking colours, codings and street-art style he used as a graffiti artist in Melbourne’s west. He remains keen to provoke discussion about Indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments.

No sleep till Dreamtime, for example, was a huge, brightly coloured and metallic geometric installation at the Art Gallery of NSW, taking its cue from the Beastie Boys single, No sleep till Brooklyn.

‘In this work I merged traditional Kamilaroi diamond-shaped designs, hand-drawn symbols and repetitive patterning to subvert romantic ideologies of Aboriginal identity,’ Reko said. ‘My work often references the hip-hop and graffiti subcultures that were influential on my artistic practice in my formative years.’

His interest in the patterning of crowns, diamonds and Aboriginal flags was evident also in his exhibition of acrylic and gold ink work, entitled Royalty, at Gertrude Contemporary Studio in 2013.  That same year he also created a huge 15 metre high abstraction of diamond motifs to greet visitors to the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, for the exhibition, My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Contemporary Art From Black Australia. He called his work, Trust the 2%, alluding to the percentage of Aboriginal Australians.

‘I am very proud of my identity. I am proud because, for so long our people were dispossessed and dislocated for declaring their identity, so it’s very important to me to acknowledge who I am. And through my work, I have a voice. Art can be a very powerful tool to raise awareness or make a statement or present an idea.

‘More than 25 years ago, I was using a can of spray paint to express my identity on the street and beyond. Now I have any medium at my disposal to express myself whether it is a neon work, bronze sculpture or a simple spray can, I just have more choices now.’

Reko Rennie though is still a dab hand on a wall.  As part of the City of Sydney Streetware Program in 2012, he covered a key building in busy Taylor Square, on Oxford Street, with fluoro-pigmented paints, applying again the geometric diamond markings of his Kamilaroi people. Across the front of the building, his neon text read ‘Always was, always will be’. It may have been a temporary work but in this urban context the meaning was clear – this always was and always will be Gadigal country.

‘To be considered an authentic Aboriginal in this country, you’ve got to be black, illiterate, walking around the desert and painting dots,’ says Reko.

‘Too often we get lumped into a very mono-singular culture, and we’re not.

‘What I think is exciting is the diversity of mediums, where Aboriginal people have the freedom to talk or express themselves without inhibition and fear of reprisal.’

As for young artists starting out today, Reko encourages them to be confident and to give it a go.

‘Exhibiting at the Venice Biennale was something I had wanted to do many years ago and I was laughed at, at the time.

‘It comes down to self-belief, determination and a strong will to prove others wrong. And if someone says you can’t do it? Use that as the fuel to continue and keep on going. That is what I have always done.

‘And remember there’s nothing wrong with having a dream or fulfilling a desire. It’s just finding like-minded people to give you advice or help on the way, and there are plenty out there.

‘There are many influences in my life, from other artists, to community leaders, to family. But it is my partner and daughter who have given me the support and freedom to pursue this crazy journey of being a full-time artist.’