The contemporary Australian art is represented by a large number of areas that form the overall aesthetic process in the country. On the one hand, contemporary artists try to extend the cultural and historical tradition of the continent by creating a new discourse with their art practices. In this case, artists turn to ethnic traditions, folk motifs, and myths in order to rethink them in a new cultural context. They are trying to continue the history of art without destroying its borders and foundations. On the other hand, there are certain artists with avant-garde intentions, who criticize and deconstruct the Australian tradition, considering it as a colonial and authoritarian one. Their task is to completely change the aesthetic sense of art and write it in a global context. Fiona Foley and Gordon Bennett belong to the type of artists, who try to find a compromise between the tradition and modernity.
Fiona Foley is a contemporary Australian artist, photographer, sculptor, writer, and activist, who tried herself in different styles and directions. However, the most crucial element in her work is the influence of Badtjala, the Australian traditional culture to which she is directly related. Badtjala is one of the oldest Australian indigenous groups, whose ancestral homeland was Thoorgine, the world’s largest sand island (Bosch 2005, p. 202). Furthermore, another significant fact is that the colonialists virtually destroyed this culture in the early 20th century. Hence, it is a sad and traumatic experience for the members of Badtjala culture and for many Australians. Despite this, the art of this group has always had a great meaning for the Australian artistic scene. Accordingly, Foley is directly related to the culture of Badtjala, since she has studied art with traditional indigenous artists in the communities of Arnhem Land and collected unknown facts about those people. Her task was to recreate the visual elements of Badtjala in the modern urban context, proving that there is no boundary between old and new narratives. In addition, she paid attention to her involvement in the culture, combining the traditional archaic elements of painting with many innovative methods of contemporary art (video projection, installation, collage, print).
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Fiona Foley uses her art to explore how gender, race, and history interact with each other in the context of human memory. In this sense, the artist’s exhibition “Forbidden” (2004) is an example of her reflection of these topics in the context of the national identity and traditional culture. For example, the artist shows a group of people in bright costumes in the “HHH” (2004) (Figure 1), which provokes different emotions. It is unknown who was photographed in the portrait, but all these people are looking directly at the viewer. The group of people refers to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), since all of them seem like the typical members of the movement. Their faces are hidden under black caps. However, they are also dressed in traditional clothes that add some additional contexts for the interpretation.
The life-size figures look at the viewer aggressively, but the bright clothes of Harlem eliminate the overall mood. Nevertheless, the artist creates a clear prompt for understanding this work. The title “HHH” stands for “Hedonistic Honky Haters” and, therefore, points at the issue of race relations: “By using the African-American slang term for the white man, ‘honky’, she deliberately transposes the concept of white-on-black racial vilification espoused by the KKK” (National Gallery of Australia 2014). In fact, the ideal composition appeals to the rational civilization and its anti-humanistic history. This idea may be a concrete manifestation of the KKK in America, but also any other form of discrimination or the totalitarian regime.
The work by Fiona Foley has an acute political and socio-cultural sound and resonates with the contemporary Australian and postmodern art in general. The artists of that movement were substantially sensitive to the issues of identity, because they knew how the colonization policy had affected the traditional culture. Indeed, many post modernists from the 1960s also discovered the ancient culture, trying to go back to the origins of civilization after the disaster (the World War II, the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). They explored issues of history and memory, emphasizing the scarcity of the individual in the context of collective life (Grishin 2013, p. 18). Such contemporary artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Kosuth, Tracey Emin tried to find the inspiration from primitive types of social life. Accordingly, Fiona Foley also continues this line in her “HHH” and other works from different exhibitions, combining fear and beauty, pain and freedom, life and death. Her installation “Black Opium” (2012) (Figure 2) illustrates how the artist interprets the theme of historical memory, combining both traditional and experimental techniques in her art.
The installation of Fiona Foley is an example of rethinking of the history in different contexts, including philosophy, politics, and culture of the Aboriginal people. “Black Opium” was placed in the State Library in 2006 with the aim of attracting new visitors along the Knowledge Walk. This complex object consists of 777 steel poppies that were placed in seven small rooms (each room has 111 copies). The idea is that every part of the installation symbolizes a stage of the history and memory, and, therefore, it should cause certain emotions in the viewer. Moreover, the artist also explores the nature of time, adding a philosophical reading to the installation. The poppies are the symbol of infinity. It means that people constantly repeat the same mistakes of the past, going back to the beginning every time.
In this way, Fiona Foley explains the most tragic events in the 20th century, which, unfortunately, did say nothing for the people. Following this concept, “Black Opium” is a symbol of memory that does not work. This powerful idea is also referred to the Aboriginal culture (Badtjala), since the roots of the modern Australian culture are becoming gradually forgotten. It is essential to note that Fiona Foley was inspired by the book “The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs – The Untold Story”, written by Rosalind Kidd in 1977. This work is about the protection of the Aboriginals and the Opium Act of 1897. The artist reveals the unknown history of the Australian culture, when the aborigines were paid for their work with opium (Museum of Contemporary Art 2016). Accordingly, those people were doomed, because opium usually resulted in death. Thus, the viewer discovers an interesting and terrible story, moving from one room to another, looking at the infinite number of steel poppies.
Gordon Bennett also represents the contemporary Australian art in the context of the Aboriginal revival. The artist went to different schools, but at the age of fourteen years old, he decided to stop studying, because he thought that school did not help him in understanding the world. He also published the manifesto about the Aboriginal people in 1996 (Bennett 1996), where he wanted “to avoid banal containment as a professional Aborigine” (Roberts 2007). In general, the artist thought that the Aboriginal culture is a marker for racism and xenophobia, which he tried to reflect in his works. Accordingly, his art reflects the postcolonial experience in Australia, where it is often hard to understand who is right or wrong. However, Bennett’s Aboriginal culture is not romantic, but rather sad and traumatic one. He experienced its history at the individual level, broadcasting personal emotions on the canvas as a form of struggle for justice. In fact, Bennett’s art is an example of a new humanity in times of high technologies and postmodern irony, since the artist tried to return the viewer to justice, criticism, and guilt. These uncomfortable emotions and themes often scare away both the audience and critics, but, after all, he gradually became the leader of the contemporary Indigenous Australian art.
The basis of Bennett’s creativity is rethinking the Aboriginal traumatic experience due to the modern techniques in the art, opening the possibility of a maximum expression of the complex world of hidden emotions (Bosch 2005, p. 129). In this case, his technique has absorbed both the authentic and borrowed elements: “Bennett blends European symbols with Aboriginal; dot painting technique is applied as benday dots, those once used in photo reproduction, or seen in the work of American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein” (Roberts 2007). His famous work “Possession Island” (1991) (Figure 3) perfectly reflects his intention to discover some unconscious processes in the past, where he “sees in his own history the cultural history of Australia” (Darwent 1999).
The artist interprets the historical experience of the Australians as something ambivalent and similar to Fiona Foley’s perception, drawing and blending different contexts. On the one hand, the work is considerably bright and resembles a mosaic. One can see the pieces of old clothes of the colonialists, and one black figure in the center of the painting. The latter is a key element of the composition, so the viewer should focus his/her attention on this figure. Bennett portrayed him in a red jacket and yellow pants, so it is hard to miss him in this picture. However, the British colonialists are hidden on the canvas being barely marked. The artist used the method of dripping that was popular in the pop art and abstract expressionism, especially used by Jackson Pollock (Darwent 1999). On the other hand, it clearly points to a sad phase of the history, where the Indigenous Australians were forced to work for free as slaves. This idea is the same as in Foley’s “Black Opium” (Figure 2) that also reflects the suffering of natives. Both works refer to the global colonial experience, where the dominant imperial culture used a cheap labor for their purposes.
Bennett tries to understand the traumatic experience, creating archives and narratives of different generations. Therefore, the purpose of this work is to recall the bloody colonization processes from the 19th century. The work was confined to the period of mourning, when the Indigenous Australians remembered the devastating effects of colonial policy: “It is a monument that also unintentionally signals the subsequent dispossession and dispersal of Indigenous Australians from their homeland by the colonisers” (Museum of Contemporary Art 2016). In this sense, “Possession Island” differs from Fiona Foley’s works, since she does not give a clear answer in her paintings or installations. Meanwhile, Foley tries to push the viewer to his/her thoughts and opinions, Bennett has already made conclusions in his works. For him, there are no two or more versions of the history, but a clear aggression of the colonial policy.
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The artist wants to emphasize justice as the contemporary Indigenous artist and social activist, using it as a political manifesto. Sometimes Bennett did it in a radical way by depicting strange creatures on the canvas. In this regard, “Altered Body Print” (1994) (Figure 4) is an example of the abovementioned intention, where he painted the incomprehensible screaming figure. Bennett also used one more canvas in order to write the text, which is the manifesto of his ideas (National Gallery of Victoria 2014). This work also has a mythological element, where the artist uses the anthropological idea of binary opposites: “It is the collapse of the conceptual gap between the binary opposites of self/other, civilized/savage, sophisticated/primitive” (Bennett 1996, p. 32). The viewer can perceive these opposites by himself/herself and, therefore, reconstruct the hidden mechanisms of culture. The main opposite in “Altered Body Print” is self/other, since it reflects both the artist’s personal experience and the Australian cultural identity (National Gallery of Victoria 2014).
The question of identity is evident in many of Bennett’s works, since it connects with the overall aesthetical process of the contemporary art in Australia. The artist borrowed these ideas from Claude Levi-Strauss, who was a structural anthropologist; however, Bennett managed to shift them to the new cultural context (Stein & Stein 2010). In addition, the current work is similar to the aspects of anxiety and aggression in “HHH” (Figure 1), but there are still the archaic old fears that remain to be dominant. It seems that Foley shows the troubling aspects of the modern civilization, whereas Bennett wants to back into the world to mythological images. Nevertheless, both artists are similar in their intention to understand what does it mean for the Australians today. Despite this, they have overcome a local context in their works, which resulted in them becoming a part of the global contemporary art.
The artists actively used many modern avant-garde techniques, borrowing them from the European and American art. Furthermore, the restoration of ancient painting techniques is another feature that unites them. The Indigenous Australians have also expanded the use of new techniques, including painting on paper and canvas (Horton 1994, p. 60). For Foley, the feminist tradition in art was more important, but Bennett preferred to use the heritage of the American art of the second half of the 20th century. There are many things in common, namely, they raise in their art such significant social issues as collective fear, popular culture, aggression, manipulation, identity, gender, and neglect of the tradition.
In conclusion, Fiona Foley and Gordon Bennett Hal are the artists who have managed to transfer the local themes to the world market of art. This is because the problem of the colonial past and cultural identity are crucial for the most countries, so the artists found themselves at the forefront of the contemporary art. In addition, the works of these artists are ambiguous, because they often combine controversial themes and techniques, achieving an emotional imbalance in such a way. On the one hand, they often use the vivid images, expressive motifs and symbols. On the other hand, the positive pictures are often concealed by anxiety and depressive topics that need an extensive perception of the viewer. In this sense, such works as “HHH” by Fiona Foley and “Altered Body Print (Shadow Figure Howling at the Moon)” by Gordon Bennett are close to conceptualism. The reason for this is because they go beyond the aesthetic perception, converting politics, anthropology, philosophy and history into its narratives.
Their common task was to rethink the traditional Aboriginal culture in the context of postcolonial criticism, showing the negative consequences of the Imperial discourse. Accordingly, each of the artists has held various positions. Foley is more democratic in her ideas, since she allows the viewer to interpret a theme on his or her own. By contrast, Bennett is uncompromising in the sense that the colonial policy has destroyed the authentic culture. Thus, the works of these artists are in fact focused on the gradual revival of the Australian art, but, at the same time, they also represent the contemporary art by reflecting the key issues of the modern history.