Hope, History and the Main Man
Neil Boyack has a snappy chat with Gary Foley
I first saw Gary Foley in the early eighties when I was wagging school, and watching a soapie A Country Practice in the early-afternoon senior’s slot. I didn’t really know it at the time, but that day started a journey for me. It started an exploration of where I lived, and who I was. I started realising that I went to school with a whole lot of Aboriginal kids (outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne – Wurundjeri Country). It made me realise the discourse that mainstream society had kept for Indigenous people, and assisted me to cut through assumptions and myths that white people used to maintain power and privilege, whether around the barbeque or in Canberra( lucky I wagged school that day!). Now a Professor, Gary Foley is a landmark human being. His acting, activism, artistry, and agitation over the past 50 years is worthy of national treasure status. He has shaped debate in and around Indigenous politics, and as a consequence influenced and affected mainstream politics to a large extent, whether marching, speaking, teaching, writing or working. The information and experience Gary holds in his memory, his hands, his achievements and his marks, are invaluable. When I ask Gary what he hopes for, he tells me simply, “a more just and equitable Australia”. This quickly leads to a discussion around the proposed forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities, driven by the Western Australian, and national Coalition Governments. This is “another assimilation tactic” Gary states, “Genocide,” something that creates a deeper “assimilation” and a destruction of culture. Being a veteran of political action over the last 50 years or more, I ask Gary about his views on the most effective form of protest and action. Gary states that becoming a teacher is most meaningful. “Educate yourself then educate the people.” Attached to this is demonstrating a presence through “occupancy”. This was of course effectively demonstrated in recent years by the “Occupy” movement, but earlier than this with reference to the Aboriginal tent embassy (1972). The Aboriginal tent embassy and “occupancy” introduced Australians to an inconvenient, racist reality that was being actively ignored, and maintaining this “occupancy” was extremely effective in raising awareness, momentum and press. One needs to go no further than You Tube for a reminder, not only of protest footage, but for some of the speeches, discussions and exchanges that have been captured from this time. This footage is worth accessing.
When talking about emerging Indigenous voices, and Gary’s enjoyment of speaking to Indigenous young people, he is upbeat and confident in knowing there is hope for the future and that there are “people thinking for themselves.” We discuss a growing sense that the current generation has a hunger for social justice missing in recent times. Gary suggests that this may be so due to the advent of social media, and the ease in which an issue, or news, can be mobilised into action. I express a concern that self-determination may have drifted from the radar a little, but Gary is emphatic, “all roads lead to self-determination”, but “governments aren’t interested in promoting this idea as it implies economic, social, and political independence” favouring instead “trivial” matters such as constitutional change for Indigenous Australians, which diverts from the ultimate goal of self-determination. Gary is upbeat when talking of the new voices of coming through the Indigenous political ranks; Amy Mcquire, who was the editor of Tracker Magazine, and is currently writing, with New Matilda, Professor Larissa Behrendt, outspoken lawyer, writer and artist, and Meriki Onus; someone who Gary states has been instrumental in mobilising support and action in protest against the Government policy around defunding and closing remote Aboriginal communities and founder of WAR (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance https://www.facebook.com/WARcollective ).
When we broach the question of a mainstream Aboriginal political power, or the prospects of an Aboriginal political party, Gary is definite in his response; “no meaningful input is possible” within the mainstream political structure. There’s “virtually nothing you can achieve” by supporting mainstream politics. Yet, in The Dinner Party, a film by Richard Bell, Gary Plays the role of the new President of the “People’s Republic of Australia”, quickly decreeing a dissemination of wealth via stripping the rich. (As a part of the inaugural Gary Foley Lecture, there will be a screening of Richard Bell’s film The Dinner Party). Meeting Richard Bell, Indigenous film maker and artist, more than 30 years ago, Gary states his relationship with Richard Bell become closer after Gary opened a travelling Indigenous art exhibition (Aratjara https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/3952/ich-bin-ein-aratjara-20-years-later/ ) which Gary states, is still the most visited art exhibition to ever leave Australia shores. Through all of Richard Bell’s films, of which Gary is a part, we see challenge and difficulty for mainstream Australian culture. We see a lightning rod for difficult and inconvenient conversations, overlaid with humour and fascinating intra-indigenous political discussions. Expect nothing less at the inaugural Gary Foley Lecture, an initiative of Newstead Short Story Tattoo, and Gary Foley. The inaugural Gary Foley Lecture takes place at the Newstead Short Story Tattoo as a part of the Anarchism, Activism, Asperger’s and Advocacy session, Saturday May 2 at 2pm. Check www.newsteadtattoo.org for further details and ticketing information.