Fiona Foley / Badtjala people, Wondunna clan, Fraser Island / Australia b.1964 / DISPERSED 2008 / Charred laminated wood, cast aluminium, .303 inch calibre bullets / Nine parts: 51 x 43 x 26cm (each, approx.); 51 x 500 x 26cm (installed) / Purchased 2013. Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Fiona Foley

Fiona Foley

On Display: GOMA, Gallery 3.5

Fiona Foley’s large-scale, text-based sculpture DISPERSED 2008 is a monument to the Aboriginal people who were driven off their land, and many of whom were killed, on the Queensland colonial frontier in the nineteenth century. The often violent displacement of Aboriginal people from their land was often carried out by a special Native Police force, which was formed to suppress Aboriginal resistance to colonisation.

Many people opposed the violence as morally wrong and illegal, so the authorities used specific words to disguise the actions of the police: instead of killing Aboriginal people, they were now ‘dispersed’. Foley uses the word to draw attention to this dark chapter in Australia’s history.

The letters of the sculpture are made from metal and charred wood, and the letter ‘D’ is embedded with bullet casings similar to those used in police raids.

Born in Maryborough, Queensland, Fiona Foley is a descendant of the Badtjala people, whose ancestral homeland is K’gari (Fraser Island), off the coast of south-east Queensland.

In 1973, Foley’s family moved to Sydney, and it was there that she completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 1986, majoring in sculpture. She was a founding member of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Residents Ko-operative (BAARK), along with nine other artists, including Michael Riley, Bronwyn Bancroft and Tracey Moffatt.

In 1995, she moved to Hervey Bay and worked with her mother, Shirley Foley, to establish the Badtjala people’s native title claim to land on Fraser Island, which was awarded in 2014.

Using photography, sculpture, film, painting and printmaking, Foley addresses issues of gender, race and history. She challenges the way many Australians have traditionally defined Aboriginality, often using her own heritage as a starting point to explore aspects of Australian history that have been forgotten or hidden from view.

Foley has completed a number of important public art commissions, including:

  • pavement designs based on Indigenous shields for Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall in 1999
  • the Bluewater Trail of public art along Mackay’s Pioneer River, and
  • Witnessing to silence 2004, a sculpture installed at the Brisbane Magistrates Court.

Discussion Questions

How important are the sculpture’s materials in communicating meaning? How would the message differ if the artwork was constructed from other materials?


1. Discuss the word ‘disperse’. Create a map of synonyms and phrases relating to the concept. On your map, use an eye-dropper to place small puddles of ink. Blow onto the puddles through a straw to disperse the ink.

2. Research an event related to a social justice issue. Consider the ways to represent the issue using significant words associated with the event. Develop ways of making these words into sculptural forms using materials that add meaning.