In September 1986, a dynamic wave of urban Indigenous artists gave notice of their ambitions and style by staging the first contemporary art exhibition by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander photographers. Their exhibition was mounted by the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Sydney from 8–23 September as part of National Aborigines’ Week 1986 and included over 60 images by ten photographers: Mervyn Bishop, Brenda L. Croft, Tony Davis, Ellen José, Daryn Kemp, Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Chris Robinson, Terry Shewring, and Ros Sultan.
The Indigenous photographers’ exhibition was clearly breaking new ground but received little press coverage, with only Moffatt being interviewed by Anne Howell in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was her first public write-up and, later, in 1998 Moffatt was the first Indigenous photographer to exhibit at the Australian Centre for Photography and enter museum collections in Australia.
A highly receptive child of the 1960s, Tracey Moffatt grew up in Brisbane avidly consuming images from magazines, films and television. The media fascinated her with its random and emotional mix – images of fantasy and other realities from across the world combined with the evening news. Film sequences were filed in her personal ‘memory theatre’. But Moffatt did not dream of being the helpless object of the hero’s gaze – she wanted to direct the film.
Moffatt speaks ‘around’ rather than ‘about’ her work – to her wordy theoretical texts seem to ‘breathe life out of’ the actual experiencing of art.1 Of the centrality of popular cinema and the mass-produced image as the gateway to imagination in her youth, Moffatt has said:
Cinema outings were rare. The first film I saw in a cinema was Mary Poppins at age five. I remember the outing vividly. To this day I still believe Mary Poppins to be a cinematic masterpiece. Those 1960s big budget Disney technicolor works of art remain a yardstick on which I judge almost all films, and possibly all other art ... I’m always hungry for an image. All over the world I find myself drawn to bookshops. Even in art museums I prefer to visit the bookshop first. I want to see the artwork in reproduction before I see the real thing on the wall. I can stand in a bookshop and easily scan an art magazine or book in five seconds flat – computer-like, taking in, discarding, or storing for later use, for later (so people tell me) ‘appropriation’.2
In the photo series for which she has become internationally renowned, Moffatt sets up clearly staged tableau images which have a narrative thread but in which many stories are being told. Themes with violence and sentiment mingle, past and present times are combined through flashbacks and the supernatural forever invades the familiar world. To this mix Moffatt brings her perspective on identity in local terms of her Aboriginality and femininity, but she also carefully styles her narratives to allow multiple readings beyond the specific politics of Australian identity.
Something more has the style of a set of stills for a film about the trials of a poor but restless ‘coloured’ girl in rural Australia who wants ‘something more’ out of life than her lot in the back-blocks. In the opening shot, the would-be heroine wears an exotic Asian dress and later steals an old evening gown in her quest for a new identity. After various fragmented images of her encounters and adventures, the heroine’s ambitions to cross into the world of glamour and luxury are thwarted and she dies on the road which promised escape from her origins. Moffatt’s images are tuned to an agenda in which dress and undress, language and labels are paramount issues in an identity dependent on inserting the unfamiliar dark face in a white scene. They also fulfil a quite straight forward love of dressing up theatricals which Moffatt had begun as a teenager. One of her earliest efforts was when she directed her playmates to pose in nativity scenes in the backyard of her house in Brisbane.
Gael Newton 2002
1Tracey Moffatt in Tracey Moffatt: Fever Pitch, Sydney: Piper Press, 1995 p.5.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002