Black Opium

Black Opium ArtworkBlack Opium ArtworkGold RoomShrine RoomSlow BurnThe Silver RoomBliss RoomBlack Opium Artwork

By Fiona Foley

Black Opium was commissioned as part of the State Library's 2006 redevelopment and was designed to draw visitors along the Knowledge Walk and to act as a prelude to the John Oxley Library on level 4.

Suspended poppy heads arranged in the shape of the infinity symbol connect to a series of seven small rooms representing different ambiances and cultures, exploring themes of history, memory and politics through sculptural installations and photographs.Foley's artistic concept was inspired by the book,The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs - The Untold Story(1997) by Rosalind Kidd, and the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Foley, an Adjunct Professor with the Queensland College of Art at Griffith University said "This piece of legislation passed in 1897 and the subsequent amendments in 1901 affected so many Chinese and Aboriginal people's lives in Queensland. The story that unfolds through the reading rooms and Black Opium sculpture is a hint of this history".

Foley's visually seductive work leads visitors on a journey through a little known part of the state's history. Her work is layered with meaning, revealing a time when Aboriginal people were often paid for their labours with opium, robbing them of their health, and in some cases, their lives.

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The Queensland Government of the time commissioned Archibald Meston to look at the problems affecting the health of Aboriginal people, resulting in the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Foley was intrigued to find the words "aboriginals and opium" together in the wording of an act of parliament, leading her to further investigate the story behind it. The act allowed Aborigines to be "forceably removed" to missions, quarantined from townsfolk which some considered the heartbreaking sight of Aboriginal people afflicted by opium addiction an "eyesore". Missions like Palm Island and Yarrabah were set up under this new practice of social experimentation and racial eugenics. "This history is not taught in schools."

Foley says her work gives Queenslanders an opportunity to confront and understand parts of their history.

In the process of creating this public artwork Fiona Foley researched Aboriginal and Chinese related collections in the John Oxley Library.

Black Opium is now available for viewing during opening hours of the State Library of Queensland. This project has received financial assistance through Arts Queensland from art+place, the Queensland Government's Public Art Fund.

Rosalind Kidd, Andrew Gillett and Anna Haebich (Griffith University) discuss the historical context of the artwork, and Fiona Foley and Louise Martin-Chew look at the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the piece in the webcast.

Streamed audio: Windows media

Download audio: MP3 [78 MB]

State Library of Queensland would like to acknowledge the following for their contributions to the Black Opium Symposium:

  • Papas and Pace, 160 Ann St, Brisbane
  • Janet Pankoff Grandiflora

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