Griffith University: First Nations lecturer wins Queensland Literary Award

Queensland College of Art lecturer Dr Fiona Foley has taken out top prize at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.

Dr Foley won the $25,000 award for a work of state significance for her book Biting the Clouds: A Badtjala perspective on the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, 1897, written as part of her PhD at Griffith University.

As a proud Badtjala woman from K’gari (Fraser Island), Dr Foley’s art practice and research are built around a strong connection to country and culture.

She said the award was “a huge honour”.

“It’s a really big distinction in terms of bringing Indigenous knowledge to the fore, where Aboriginal people are starting to write about their own particular histories,” she told Guardian Australia.

The prize recognises “an outstanding work, by an Australian writer, focused on documenting, discussing or highlighting a uniquely Queensland story”.

The book is part of Dr Foley’s long-term research into the fate of the Badtjala people of Fraser Island, which spans academic research, speaking events and artwork.

“I’m in my 50s, but I remember as a five-year-old child, sitting on the beach at Urangan in Hervey Bay, looking across at Fraser Island and asking my grandmother, ‘Why aren’t there any giivid [Badtjala for Aboriginal people] living on K’gari?” she said.

“It started with native mounted police, then it moved on to legislation and policy, and then it moved on to dismantling the culture, where you remove people from their traditional lands and you stop them from conducting ceremony or speaking language – and also breaking down the generations so that they can no longer transfer knowledge. There were many systems in place to disadvantage Aboriginal nations.”

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Biting the Clouds put “a spotlight on a terrible part of Queensland’s history”.

“This significant truth-telling account will play an important role in building a more inclusive and respectful future for Queensland,” she said.

Biting the Clouds is based on Dr Foley’s doctoral research at Griffith and explores how opium was used to control Aboriginal labour in Queensland during the 1800s.

“The book has been a huge achievement and it’s based on my PhD research here at QCA.

“It’s a history that most Queenslanders aren’t familiar with and it’s very close to my heart.”

Over the past three decades, Dr Foley has built a reputation as one of Australia’s most provocative artists, working across installation, photography, print-making, sculpture and film.

Her work is held in collections around the world – including the British Museum – and she has completed a host of high-profile public installations across the country.

Dr Foley was also the Queensland State Library’s inaugural 2020 Monica Clare Research Fellow.

“My career has been very diverse, and I’m still creating new work,” she said.

“I really enjoy what I do, and I feel there is no stopping – I am on a roll.”