Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Prof. Gary Foley – Part 2

Episode 29: Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Prof. Gary Foley – Part 2

In part two of my conversation with Gary, we talked about the voices who have led change.

Show notes

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are advised that the following program contains the names of people who have passed away.

In this episode, after learning about Gary's early political activity in part one, we shift our focus to his influence on the arts scene and his realisation of theatre as a powerful medium for activism.

We also explore the stories surrounding trailblazers such as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Richard Bell, Chicka Dixon, John Newfong, and Uncle Jack Charles, and Gary's significant interactions with each of them.

They each played pivotal roles in reshaping the landscape for First Nations people during the eighties and beyond—spanning literature, the arts, human rights and justice, media, and theatre.

Gary’s networks and discovery of new platforms led to him co-writing and appearing in Basically Black – the first Aboriginal stage production in 1972.

A decade after the establishment of Whitlam’s Aboriginal Arts Board, Gary also assumed the role of its first (Aboriginal) Director. He redirected funding exclusively towards Indigenous-led projects after the revelation that 50% of the resources were benefiting non-Indigenous individuals.

These are just some of the incredible insights Gary shared about his life.

Towards the end of the episode, Gary became known as "Professor Unprecedented” – a title that aptly captures the very essence of Professor Gary Foley.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hello and welcome. I'm here to provide acknowledgement of country. For those who don't know me, I'm kj Karen Jackson, director of Moon Balletic. My genealogy tracks back to Moira Lakes in Bama Forest and Mount Hope in Pyramid Hill. Giving me my connections to Yorta, Yorta, and Barra language groups. There's a couple of things I'd like you to take away from my acknowledgement. The first is to remember the hidden history of Aboriginal people since invasion, our loss of language removal from country, and our new extinction from massacres and pandemics. The second is our strong and inherent connection to community and country. These connections have given us the resilience and courage to rebuild our languages, gain access to country, regenerate our cultural practices in acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which you are now on. I'd like to sincerely thank them for their generosity and kindness in welcoming people onto their lands. Lands never seeded and lands that run deep into their being and spirit. I wish to pay my deep respect to the ancestors, elders, communities, and families of the Ang Wri on whose land I stand and who create connection and share knowledge with all of us. Thank you

Speaker 1 00:01:15 Colleagues. Welcome back to the People of Vu podcast, and the second part of Professor Gary Foley's episode, we're picking up where we left off. So I recommend you listen to the first part where we spoke and talked extensively about the historic Aboriginal tent Embassy of 1972. Before diving in here is the inimitable and incomparable Professor Foley and even Uru herself, you know, Kath Walker, you know, flirted with the Communist Party for a bit and then decided, no, not not for me. But you know, that kind of relationship was sort of around the edge of it, but it was never mainstream in that, in that way. You said,

Speaker 3 00:01:57 Well, Kath was one of the older generation who understood a fair amount of what the younger generation was saying, but it was still, you know, swinging backwards and forwards sometime. I mean, in the same way she sort of blew hot and cold on the Communist Party. She also blew hot and cold on the, on the black power movement. I mean, I think in the early days of her son Dennis, who was by far the most radical of the black power crew in Australia, when Dennis was saying some of his more outlandish stuff, she was opposed to black power. But then she seemed to grasp the, the understanding that, you know, black power wasn't about black violence or black racism, anything like that. It was about black self-determination. You know, that's what it, it essentially always was always essentially did mean. And she became more radicalized as she got older.

Speaker 3 00:03:11 But she was a staunch. I mean, she fought a long, hard good struggle herself. And even in the fight in the late sixties over aboriginal controller for Kasie, in the beginning she was on one side and then in the end she was part of the, the other camp, but always in the end tending towards supporting, you know, the people and supporting self-determination, even though at times she may not have understood or realized it herself. You know, another person like that was Neville Bonner. Yeah. You know, Neville Bonner was, you know, we used to us young people, you know, I regretted for, you know, 50 years down the track. We used to call him Uncle Tom, and he was an Uncle Tom. You know, he was put in Parliament by Joe Begi Peterson. But, you know, late in life, in the most unlikely venue of a pub in Copenhagan Gogan in Denmark, along with Richard Bell, I made peace with Neville Bonner. You know? Wow. Me and Richard Bell got him drunk and we got ya. I got him yarning about the old days. And we resolved any, you know, I mean I always had a, we always had a soft spot for Neville 'cause he always tried, but he was trying for the wrong mob. We always thought. But late in life must might be, might be me getting old or something. But mind you, it was 30 years ago in Copenhagen.

Speaker 1 00:05:09 Yeah. You can remember it though.

Speaker 3 00:05:10 Yeah. Well, it was a memorable night and we resolved everything, you know, and I ended up having respect for him in the end before he died, you know? Yeah.

Speaker 1 00:05:21 Amazing person. And, and

Speaker 3 00:05:23 It's the same with Barry Dexter, you know, my arc enemy from back in the day. I made peace with him before he died. And I even edited and published his book for him before he died.

Speaker 1 00:05:37 Well that's a big thing. It's a very, I mean, interesting that you say that Kath got more radical or more radicalized as she got older. That happens quite a bit. Right. People, whereas, you know, the conventional wisdom is your radical when you're 18 and you reduce, not so necessarily for, you know, indigenous people. It's interesting,

Speaker 3 00:05:55 I think, I think maybe a minor factor in that as well was possibly her experience when she got hijacked that time, you know? Yeah. And she got a, she put a lot of thought into that and she got a, I think she got a greater understanding through of the Palestinian people's situation as well through that. You know,

Speaker 1 00:06:20 It really was. Yeah, it really was. It struck her so much, I think. And looking at Yusuf, I think was the name of the person term. She wrote the poem, you know, and she really never forgot it. And look, I didn't, I didn't meet her until 1980. So a lot of this is that you're describing is before my coming. But you know, when I did, she was sort of standing in her own on at the Point Lookout Pub on, on, you know, north Stradbroke Island or you know, Jeba and just holding court really. You know, like people would come and I was told, if you're really lucky, you might get a word. You might get a word with it. Right. And I said, I think I, I said, would you like to buy, you know, I said, would you like a cup of tea or something?

Speaker 1 00:06:58 I think she might've wanted something else. But we had a great talk. And I think I might've said to Gary that she said, I've got a job for you. Which she used to do a lot to give people jobs, right. And she said, look, I'm a writer. I'm an Aboriginal writer and there's lots of us out there. I want you to go out and interview them all and listen to them. Make sure you write down what they say very carefully and make sure at least a chapter of what you say in your book is about me. And then bring it back and show me before anything gets published. 'cause I want to check it. And she also said, don't listen to the adults of Australia. 'cause they're mentally constipated. Listen to the children, you know? Did she ever say anything like that to you?

Speaker 3 00:07:41 Yes. And you've, you've just reminded me, I, I believe that I did the Uru new knuckle memorial lecture at QUTI think it was a few years ago. I'm losing track of the years as I get older. But yeah, I remember doing that down. I did it for what's his name? It'll come to

Speaker 1 00:08:12 Me. It'll come to you. But yeah. And that, in fact, I think QUT was one of the places that she had an honorary doctorate as well. And so like really, really special. But you know, to be just the privilege in that year, meeting her, seeing you, seeing people at the ab Aboriginal, you know, arts board, you know, lots of, lots of key people who were, you know, chick Dixon was there, lots of other people. John Ong, we talked about it the other day, but what an era for talent. You know, like, seriously. Well,

Speaker 3 00:08:42 Not only that, I mean, at the time of the arts board, at the time you saw me at the arts board, that was Chika and I were making history almost daily at that point. And I mean, the story of how I came to be the first Aboriginal director of the Aboriginal Arts Board 10 years after it's, was created by Whitlam. The story of how I ended up there, which is not where I intended to be, but in the early seventies when Whitlam first set up the Aboriginal Arts Board, Chika had, Chika, Dixon had got a job there as a project officer. So in the Peck and order of the Aboriginal Arts Board was fairly lowly at the time, even though he had more knowledge and experience than most people. But he used to complain to me about his lowly status. And I used to say to him, I used to be Rashly, say to him, don't worry, Fox.

Speaker 3 00:09:53 That was his nickname. And they, and they didn't call him the Fox for nothing. I used to say to him, don't worry, Fox. One day you'll be the chairman of the board, and when you are, I'll come in as your director to watch your back. And so then, you know, 10 years later I get this phone call out of the blue, Hey Foley, it's the Fox. Yeah, yeah. Fox Bob s just appointed me, chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board. Remember what you said years ago? I said, what did I say years ago? He said, you said you were gonna come in and watch my back. He said, I want you to be my director. And so I took over from Bob Edwards, who was the non-indigenous person, who'd been the director of the Aboriginal Arts Board for its first 10 years. And so when I took over, I went through the books and I pulled checker aside and I said, listen, Fox, do you realize that more than half of all monies that the aboriginal arts board's been spending in the last 10 years, more than half of that money's going to white fellas.

Speaker 3 00:11:02 And Fox said, you're kidding. Show me. He said, we're gonna change that. And so Chika and I introduced a new rule, you know, there'd be no funding of non-indigenous run projects unless under exceptional circumstances, the exceptional circumstances being that an indigenous community had to have full approval of it. And Hester had to have ultimately control over it. And so in doing so, we doubled the amount of money and the one fell swoop of the pen. We doubled the amount of money that was available for indigenous artists. And through that extra money that was there, we funded people like Tracy Moffitt, Richard Bell, you know, a multitude of other people. And in doing so, we managed to surround ourselves by, with some pretty extraordinary people. Kat was on the board with us at that point. And as you said, John Ong, you know, the legendary John Ong. John Ong was the one who taught me more than anyone else about the importance of staying at the forefront of information technology, you know, as a means of getting a message across. And John Ong was the first, along with Lillian Holt, I believe, the first aboriginal journalist in a, in Australia working in the mainstream. And John Yong was the media genius behind the Aboriginal embassy. It's one of the ways, in one of the reasons we were so effective in getting our message across in the late sixties, early seventies.

Speaker 1 00:12:53 Yeah. He was an, an incredible person on strategy. And, and he would just sort of, you know, I used to see him sometimes at den, you know, there was a kind of like pub that people gathered in, you know, near Department of Aboriginal affairs and stuff. And you know, sometimes you'd, you'd see people and you'd catch up with him and John would say, here's the latest thing, you better listen. You know, you had that kind of, again, a bit like Cass saying, better sit down and listen. But it was always worth hearing.

Speaker 3 00:13:18 Oh, he was one of the great raconteurs. And he was much more than that. I mean, he was an incredibly courageous man on many fronts. Not the least. He was outrageously, openly and unapologetically gay. He was, I always described him as the, as the black Oscar Wild. He had the same sort of witt and articulate sort of extraordinary knowledge. He had a encyclopedic knowledge of a whole bunch of African royal families. He, he once bought an a Nigerian princess to the Aboriginal embassy to visit us. Amazing. I can even remember a name of his Princess Ko Toba.

Speaker 1 00:14:14 Wow. I didn't know that. I, you know, it doesn't surprise me though, you know, 'cause he was always full of surprises himself. Indeed. Outstanding. I just outstanding

Speaker 3 00:14:22 Person. What an extraordinary, what an extraordinary person,

Speaker 1 00:14:26 You know. But bringing it all together too, like with those, and you just sort of said it before, with someone like Tracy Moffitt being able to launch someone's career that ends up, you know, all over the world in New York and in collecting institutions globally, what a great thing.

Speaker 3 00:14:41 Yeah. Well, I mean, there are many others as well,

Speaker 1 00:14:45 And many, many, many others. Yeah. And, you know, the talent seems to have always been there. But like you said, to get recognized and to have the funding line up with the talent, that was the key, you know, finally to open that curtain. Such a great thing.

Speaker 3 00:15:00 Well, you know, a lot of people who, I mean, from those early beginnings in Redfin, as the collective around us grew, and as other collectives sprung up in other places around Australia, and we built, built what became a, a national network, amazing people just emerged. Some just emerged outta communities. They were natural born leaders. Others sort of hung around on the edges of us and, and, and did extraordinary, had extraordinary learning curves. And some went on to become academics. And there was some of the great thinkers of the aboriginal political movement emerged outta that period. But then, you know, if you think about it, there's been always great Aboriginal political thinkers have always tended to congregate together through, down through the generations. You know, going back to John Maynard's grandfather, my great-grandfather, since the earliest days of the modern day political resistance, which effectively began with the old double a PA.

Speaker 1 00:16:33 That's so true. Oh gosh. And you, you can't forget, right? When you think about it too, that the people at Kevin Gilbert, you know, just how you mentioned him earlier, but going, doing it tough in prison all those years, but becoming a l lino cut artist, a poet, doing all those things behind bars and then just like running plays, you know, all these things. And then just, just taking off when he, when he got out too, it was amazing.

Speaker 3 00:16:56 Yeah. I mean even even the old basically black show we did it and, and the National Black Theater that eventually grew outta what we were doing up there as well. You know, I I remember that. It was Jack Charles, I always said, in fact, I even gave evidence, at least at at least two of his court cases when he was the famous tour wreck Cat Burglar. Yeah. Jackie Charles, I always said, he was the man who got me into black theater. 'cause I saw a performance of that earliest show that Bob Ma, Jack Charles and a, a white actor called Ollie Lewinsky. They formed what was then known as the Nana Theater. And I happened to see, Bob Maser invited me to a performance of that theater production when it was on a A NU in 1971 or something. And I'd never been to theater in my life.

Speaker 3 00:18:05 You know, I wasn't exactly into high what I thought was highbrow culture, but I walked into this theater and I saw this, I heard, first thing I did was I heard this booming Shakespearean sort of voice, or, you know, to me it sounded Shakespearean, very cultivated, nevertheless. And I looked up the front of this theater, way up the front and there's this, this booming voices coming outta this tiny little man. And I, I mean, I watched Jackie Charles perform in that show. It was a show called Jack Charles' up and fighting. And it blew me away. And it, it, it straight away made me think to myself, wow, this is another medium by which we can communicate our message. And then Bob Maer came back from America, having gone to the National Black Theater of Harlem and went to, came to Redfin and roped me in, along with Bindi Williams and Zach Martin and Arlene Corpus into doing this show at the, you know, the early days of the Sydney's famous Nimrod Theater.

Speaker 3 00:19:25 Yeah. In fact, we were the first people to, we were the first show that ever made money for the early Nimrod Theater in Sydney. You know, we played the Packed Houses for six weeks, you know, at the Heart of the cross, which was about as mainstream as you could get outta Redfin Anyway, at the time. And that show was a, you know, the a b well, first of all, we did that show at the Nimrod, big success, good reviews, all that sort of nonsense. And then we said to ourselves as a group, we said, where else needs a show like this? Where's the worst place in Australia? And at the time, you know, Western Australia was another country to us. So we sent ourselves Queensland, that's the worst place in Australia. And so we decided to go on our Ill-fated tour of North Queensland. Wow.

Speaker 3 00:20:32 And we went broke in Cannes, but we played some extraordinary shows. We did a show at Yarrabah Reserve, and this is the, this is in the days of Joe Bgi Peterson. And you know, the Queensland government knew we were entering into their territory and they'd instructed all their, all the managers of the different missions run by the state government, not to let us anywhere near their, their imprisoned aboriginal people. And so we get to Cairns and we had a contact on Yarrabah Reserve. And so we made contact and the chairman of the, the Aboriginal council there, I think his name was Percy Neil said to us, yeah, yeah, you can come on. We'll sneak his over, we'll sneak his onto the reserve and we'll give his a camp down away from the community, which they did. And by the time we got onto the reserve, the manager found out we were there and all he could do, 'cause we'd arranged to do this big show in the community hall.

Speaker 3 00:21:53 And so the manager went round knocking on all the doors to all the people in the community. And he told him, don't go to this show tonight. These are black power people from Sydney. And I mean, we couldn't have had a better PR job, you know, that meant that the virtually the entire community turned out that night to see our show. We did our entire show. And the crowd yelled for more. So we, we all looked at each other and, and I said to Bob and Zach, I said, you blokes can sing, sing a few songs. And Bob and Zach and Bindi then sang a few songs and then, then the people yelled for more. And so Bob said, any of you mob can get, wanna get up here and sing what us. And it was one of the best shows we ever did.

Speaker 1 00:22:43 Oh, that's amazing. It'd be like a Australian idol where the crowd actually goes on stage, you know, and this kind of thing. Oh, that's amazing. And was it basically Black? Was that the show?

Speaker 3 00:22:52 Basically black. And then we, that was in, and and then about four or five days later, we ended up broke. I, I ended up having to hitchhike back to Sydney, but we get back to Sydney and then Bob finally arrives back in Sydney and we're all back in Sydney. And, and then he says to us, oh A BCT wanna do a series based on basically Black. And I said, oh yeah, sweet Big Bucks Fools. We were, so the A B, C filmed this pilot as it turned out. And when they saw the script that we had, they freaked out and they wanted to tone it down politically. So I wrote a few new sketches based on, you know, based on Phantom Comic and the Goon Show. You know, I'd grown up in Tenterfield in New South Wales listening late at night to the Goons on when I was about 10.

Speaker 3 00:24:04 You know, so I'd sort of developed this healthy sense of the absurd, and towards the end of my teenage years, like most black fellas, and I was a big fan of Phantom Comics. And so I put these two ideas together and came up with this character called Super Born, which people are younger Aboriginal people are, are nervous about even saying, oh yeah, super boom. You know? And so I wrote this, you know, series of sketches for the TV version. And I, 'cause I wrote for Zack, 'cause Zack was a brilliant comedy actor and I saw him as playing Super Bowl, as you can see in the TV version. It worked perfectly. But the A, B, C apparently, despite the good reviews and everything, and despite the fact it was the first all Aboriginal television show in Australian history, the A BC was so freaked out by the political, what they thought was the political nature of it, that they did not touch black comedy again for another 40 years.

Speaker 1 00:25:21 Wow. Wow. Almost till the to now. Right. Because now that that's

Speaker 3 00:25:24 The new black comedy show that's been on, that's the first time they've gone near wow. Aboriginal comedy since basically black.

Speaker 1 00:25:32 Isn't that something sort of as a bracket sort of, you know, right after. It's

Speaker 3 00:25:35 Not surprising to someone like me, but, you know,

Speaker 1 00:25:38 But when you think of it too, here we are in Melbourne, we're at Victoria University at the fantastic Ani Baek Center, you know, a new, new building. And of course you have the Melbourne Comedy Festival with a whole focus on First Nations people. And the talent is deep and wonderful and incredible. It always was. But think at that time it took for it to come back into focus again. Yep.

Speaker 3 00:26:02 And many of the things we've, I've talked about with you today, I believe masters and PhD projects that can be done out of this archive here. And all we need is from the Victoria University administration following on from the glowing words said the other day on the project by our chancellor, all we need is more resources to enable us to kickstart all of these projects.

Speaker 1 00:26:34 Well, kicking start and kicking ass is what it's about. I think, you know, in those topics.

Speaker 3 00:26:38 And, and you know, as we've been discussing today, there is a rich history and just the episodes that are, you know, I've got primary source material on in my archive, you know, for all of this stuff. And more,

Speaker 1 00:26:55 Could I just ask you, do you have anything, any records of when you were in the Australian soap opera country practice?

Speaker 3 00:27:01 Of course, I've got all of the episodes ideally not to be seen again. And unless posthumously,

Speaker 1 00:27:12 Oh no, I shouldn't ask.

Speaker 3 00:27:14 All the episodes are in my archive. Yeah. As indeed, I think at least three different versions of the stories I've told over the years about how I came to do that. Yes.

Speaker 1 00:27:27 We don't know which one is true, but I'm,

Speaker 3 00:27:30 It's, it was an interesting episode. I came to play an aboriginal preacher on country practice partly, well, at the time I was involved in this major fight with a bunch of lunatic fringe fundamentalist Christians, American based operating in Central Australia. And these mob are going around evangelizing unsuspecting communities in central Australia. And having evangelized them then telling them that those who advocate land rights are working for the devil. And that what these people needed to do was set up these mining companies called God's Mining Company. So I attacked these lunatics in the media and their res, their response was to put out a publication with my picture on the front page with a big sign. He's the devil sort of thing, you know? And so I was involved in this big brawl with these lunatic fringe fundamentalist Christians. And then one day I got a phone call out of the blue from a bloke called Jim Daven.

Speaker 3 00:29:11 Jim Daven was the guy who created country practice on the set of country practice. They used to call him God 'cause he was God. Anyhow, he rang me out of the blue and he, he asked me if I was interested in doing a guest appearance on a country practice that caught me completely by surprise. But I said to him, I'd be interested in doing it on a couple of conditions. And he said, what are they? I said, as long as I can decide the character I play, and as long as I can write my own dialogue. And he said, that's unprecedented. I said, yeah, and I'm Mr. Unprecedented. And so we agreed. And so I chose with these lunatic fringe fundamentalist Christians in mind, I decided to play an aboriginal Christian pastor, but an aboriginal Christian pastor who advocated land rights. You know, I thought this will, this will really get up the go, you know, up the nose of these lunatics.

Speaker 3 00:30:30 And so I was the only person ever in the history of country practice who was able to write their own dialogue. And on the first day that I turned up for filming Shane Portus, after I was talking to him for a little while, he got this look of shock on his face. And I said, what's the matter? He said, God's just turned up on set. And Jim Davin had turned up to welcome me to the set. And they said, nobody's never done that for anybody. Oh. I said, well, there you go. But that turned into, that turned into about, I don't know, nine or 10 episodes of country practice. But the interesting thing about that was I got a bigger reaction to that than anything I've ever done in my life. I couldn't, I couldn't get on a tram in Melbourne for a year or so afterwards, otherwise I'd be grabbed by little old ladies or kids with their autographed books. And it was excruciatingly embarrassing, but I didn't, you know, when people used to grab me on a tram, little old lady would say, me, oh, you are that lovely man from country practice. Oh no. I say, yeah, but do you remember what I was saying? And I said, oh yes. Well you, you were talking about land rights. And I thought, ah, it worked. It worked.

Speaker 1 00:32:01 Oh, you

Speaker 3 00:32:02 Wanted it. And you know, it sort of, it died down after a while. That's why I was embarrassed that you bought it back up again.

Speaker 1 00:32:09 Oh, I'm sorry to do that. But what year was that?

Speaker 3 00:32:13 In the 1980s? I think it was around the time I was starting at the Aboriginal art.

Speaker 1 00:32:17 It was about the same time. Well, I couldn't help dancing around. 'cause Mr. Unprecedented, professor Unprecedented, and Gary and Professor Foley, who's archive we're in. It's just such a treat. We could go on to episode two, three, even nine, just like country practice. But the truth is we will someday. But for today, it's been amazing just to hear from you where it started in the middle and where we are now. We're sitting in the most fantastic place where your career and of all the people you mentioned is represented for the world to see if the world wishes to come and be part of it. And we, we really hope they do.

Speaker 3 00:32:55 And what do, you probably didn't realize there's another history making moment happening here in that this is the first time our brand new aboriginal history archive podcasting equipment has been tried out.

Speaker 1 00:33:13 Well, there you go. So it's an honor to be the first of something and to talk about it with such a great producer as Stu Cle, who's here with us, and also with you as a friend, as a colleague, and as someone we respect so deeply. Gary, thank you for this episode 21 in people of Vu. Not to be forgotten.

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