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Gary Foley

May 15, 2019

Photo credit: Caroline McCredie

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.

‘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.’ notes Professor Papastergiadis from the University of Melbourne. 

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.’

Learn more about the 2020 First Nations Arts Awards.