I like to read little-known histories about race relations in colonial times. Although these books are accessible to the general public, there is still a profound ignorance in this country about important historical goings on. The frontier in Queensland is a fascinating underpinning of attitudes that have shaped Australian society into what it is today—a source that allows me to investigate societal engagements, paternal constructs and laws.
The subject matter of opium has come up in a number of my recent works. Opium once was legal and brought a healthy source of revenue into Queensland’s state coffers. There were opium dens in the main streets of many country towns, but things were to change in the late 1800s. Aboriginal people who were given opium dregs in return for their labour became an indentured labour force for the European land-owners and fishing vessel-owners. The effects of a decade of opium consumption had dire consequences on the health of Aboriginal men, women and children.
The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) had many repercussions for Aboriginals, Chinese and Europeans living in the state of Queensland. The Act was amended in 1901 to outlaw marriages between Aboriginal and Chinese peoples. Such was the fear held by Europeans of this alliance between these two marginalised races.
Like China, Australia has also forgotten its past historical dalliances with this ‘joy plant’—a forgotten time of complex cultural milieus and state government control.
Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land. Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, February 1957
As Dorothy, Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man approach the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, they encounter a field of opium poppies and, as they proceed, are overcome by the fragrance and fall down asleep. Opium was historically associated with sleep and medical use and with death and addiction, but also with enlightenment and spiritual transformation. Opium’s human use has had a varied and undisclosed history since the drug’s apparent discovery in the Neolithic Age.
Fiona Foley conceived of and completed Let a hundred flowers bloom 2010 in Beijing in October 2010. The set references her earlier work, such as Bliss 2006, concerning unrecognised, ignored and censored histories. The current installation consists of 34 photographic images of pink opium blossoms printed in Beijing, 36 long-stemmed metal opium poppies made in Beijing, and three opium pipes Foley bought in Beijing.
Opium poppies grow in a number of colours but perhaps pink and mauve dominate. Although associated with China by many ‘Westerners’, opium’s history actually began in the Arab countries, where it is often smoked, and in India, where it is eaten. In fact, restrictions on its use were beginning to be enacted in China as early as 1730, in the decades before Captain Cook came to the South Pacific. The original ‘wars on drugs’ were waged by the Chinese governments in the mid 1800s to restrict opium imports by the British and other colonial powers into China, where possibly one quarter of adult males had become addicts. The Opium Wars (Anglo-Chinese Wars) of 1839–42 and 1856–60 were waged in order to maintain this drug trade and redress an adverse trade deficit with China.
As a result of these wars and other catastrophes, many Chinese left to seek their fortune in Europe, or in the gold rushes of America and Australia. By the 1870s, both the United States and Australia had introduced restrictions on Chinese immigration and on the use of opium. Many Europeans in these societies had taken up smoking opium recreationally, and many women used the drug as a sedative to relieve the pain of menstruation. In Australia, the importing of opium increased fivefold from 1871 to 1905. The Aboriginals Protection [read: Separation of Aborigines] and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 in Queensland was passed in this context. Aborigines were often paid in rum and opium dregs and became addicted and enslaved as a result. It is this history that Foley refers to in Let a hundred flowers bloom.
The poetic use of ideas, aspirations and beauty is apt in the flowering of these delicate and beautiful blossoms. Like many beautiful emotions, feelings and ideas, opium poppies are fleeting in their appearance. When Chairman Mao Tse-Tung encouraged active, open criticism of his regime in 1957, it took at least a year before Chinese intellectuals believed the sincerity of his offer and began to make serious comment. However, over the next period he turned on those now exposed as critical of the government, imprisoning and killing many. Possibly one should consider why you may be allowed to make the radical statements you do, and that it may not just be your force of personality involved.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. We are now again involved in an ‘opium war’ of sorts with Australian and other Western armed forces engaged among the ‘poppy fields’ in Afghanistan while striving to make cultural engagements with the ‘new’ China in projects and residencies—and it is in this context that the present work emerges. Will it last? Does it matter if it evokes memory and emotion?
Djon Mundine OAM
‘Hundred Flowers Campaign’, Wikipedia, viewed 17 December 2010, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/hundred_flowers_campaign.