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Tracey Moffatt

Tracey Moffatt


It was no doubt the experience of growing up ‘between cultures’ that sharpened photographer and filmmaker Tracey Moffatt’s acute perceptive faculties. Born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, she was adopted by a white working-class family and brought up in the suburban sprawl of outer Brisbane. Her birth mother would visit her there and, as Moffatt describes it, ‘attuned’ her to an Aboriginal identity. At the same time, the bedazzlements and bewilderments of popular European culture both provoked and fascinated her. From her early girlhood, she was intrigued by the images and the possibilities engendered by its purposeful arrangement. Staged neighbourhood snapshots already revealed her directorial talents and hinted at her future stellar career. Moffatt ‘manufactures’ her photographs or moving images rather than ‘takes’ them and consequently, imprints her own bodily self and her own sensibility upon them. She taps into areas of experience that are pushed to the edges of awareness out of habit, haste or social position. An early influence, she says, were the black and white, everyday-life photos that appeared in the 1960’s American Life magazine. To the innocuous ‘snap’ Moffatt applies a deconstructionist approach, looking beyond the obvious and the momentary, to touch upon the unseen forces at work. She brings these to the surface of the image in a surreal mesh of the past and present to reveal the imaginative and emotional ambiguity. The narratives that accompany her images are short and succinct but the power that they unleash in conjunction with these re-constructed visual renditions is often compelling and at times daunting. These narratives do not progress and resolve themselves in the customary manner. These are the frozen moments in the story that intrude on the plot and compellingly divert it, if only briefly. They open a pressure valve in what has been described as 'a boiling hot outburst' (Travis 2000: 555). Moffatt trained in her medium at the Queensland College of Art. Her early works addressed issues of identity and survival from the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians, though firmly focused upon modern motifs and stories rather than traditional ones. In her photo-series Scarred For life 1994, Moffatt’s own experiences of growing up, feed into themes about childhood memory and adolescent alienation, although photo-documentation and/or social comment are never her main imperative. Backyard nostalgia seems branded into the memory with pain. 'I think my imagery comes from my subconscious,'  Moffatt says, '…I think my work is very dreamlike' (Summerhayes 2007: 256). Her reluctance to be thought of as an Indigenous artist stems from her wish to express universal human themes, as reflected more broadly in her work after 1995. Moffatt’s reputation as an exceptional and significant creative voice upon the international art stage followed upon the release of her short experimental film, Night Cries, A Rural Tragedy 1989, and her photo series Something More 1989. Both are tales of women trapped in an arid, rural environment. Issues of race and sexuality, hope and despair, love and cruelty, vie for attention but Moffatt refrains from defining the end result in terms of any of these. No moral lesson is conveyed. As a storyteller, Moffatt varies her strategies of presentation and performance in order to find the most successful manner of the telling. Her highly contrived scenarios draw upon the post-modern techniques of pastiche and (visual) quotation and are thereby ‘super-saturated’ with shifting levels of meaning. 'I am constantly thinking about composition in a photographic sense,' she says, 'and framing and textures are very important to me' (cited in Summerhayes 2007). Her eclectic working method is fuelled by a natural curiosity. In the age of mass-production, it has been said that the image as such has lost its ‘aura’ of contemplative distance (Walter Benjamin) but Moffatt strives towards it once again, employing artifice to create the hyper-reality of myth. In a series of videos made with Gary Hillberg in New York (now her part-time home), Moffatt edits together short snippets from Hollywood films to create a fast-paced, pressure-cooker of emotion and action. In Lip 1999 black women servants ‘give lip’ to their so-called superiors. Artist 2000 explores the act of creation while Love 2003, features the Hollywood romance, over and over, from go to woe. Repeated moments of high drama and impending disaster in Doomed 2007, amuse and startle us, but also somewhat worryingly reflect the mundanity that inures us to events in the nightly television news. Such repetitive gestures subvert our tendency to suspend disbelief and draws awareness to underlying cultural perspectives while glancing humour and brief moments of seeming recognition hold our fascination. After the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Moffatt threaded her way through miles of footage to pick up the experience of athletes who came in just below the line of medal-winning and intense public adulation. This was the subject of her psychologically intriguing photo-series Fourth 2001. Moffatt’s more recent work embraces the era of digital technology with a heavy though playful reliance on computerized manipulation of the image. Adventure Series 2004, plays with the slick, dramatic scenarios of the 1970’s comic strip. Her move towards portraiture is heralded in Being Under the Sign of Scorpio 2005, where she enacts forty photo-portraits of acclaimed women. This exhibition gives expression to Moffatt as a performance artist, using her own body to act/speak on life and individuality. 'Every piece I have ever made, be it film or photograph,' Moffatt says, 'is in some way autobiographical. Each work depicts a mood or current obsession' (cited in Summerhayes 2007). Since her first solo show in Sydney in 1989, Moffatt has proved herself an articulate and communicative artist, willing to share her thoughts and creative processes. Her works have been shown widely in solo exhibitions and international art events throughout Europe, the USA and Australasia since 1995. Moffatt had the honour of representing Australia in the 2017 Venice Biennale, where her work was lauded as a roaring success. Alongside her almost yearly exhibitions in major museums and galleries around the world, she engages in an ongoing dialogue with her now international audience. Her celebrity status has been the inspiration behind her ‘paparazzi-style’ exploration of portraiture in photo-series The Beautiful Human Face 2007. Moffatt captures family and friends at their greatest moments of power, energy and excitement. 'These portraits are in a way a mirror of myself, because the gleam in the eye you see here is my gleam, reflected back to me' Moffatt says ( To her long list of honours and prizes, Moffatt has recently added the Infinity Award (2007) from the International Centre of Photography in New York for her outstanding contribution to the field.  

While she does not promote herself as an Aboriginal artist per se, Tracey Moffatt’s Aboriginal heritage ensures that she is included in the top 100 Aboriginal artists survey. She enjoys a very successful career through Roslyn Oxley’s representation in Australia and with works sold across a number of continents. However, her ranking amongst the most important Aboriginal artists of all time is principally due to the repeated sales of one particular photographic image created in 1991, as well as the most popular of those additional images in the same body of work. Her photographs first appeared at auction in 2000 when three works were offered, of which two sold. The following year all 11 works offered found new homes and this spectacularly continued into 2002 when 17 of 21 works were successful. By this time her clearance rate was a very impressive 86%, which dropped slightly to 83% at the end of 2003. While her career record price was reached the following year when a suite of six Cibachrome prints from the Something More series and three black and white photographs sold for $227,050, her secondary market results have been on a downward spiral ever since. Throughout the 2010s, only about a third of the works offered have managed to sell.   Moffatt's top 30 results at auction almost all consist of the same images from her Something More series. Unfortunately for Moffatt, the secondary market, in Australia at least, has considered her a one-trick pony. Little wonder she has refused auction houses copyright over this ubiquitous image in order to avoid being stereotyped. Nevertheless, Moffatt can hardly avoid it. Even Baz Lurhman, in his epic movie Australia, couldn’t resist dressing Nicole Kidman in a Cheongsam with a weatherboard backdrop as an homage. All this must be the stuff of nightmares for Moffatt, who is a very fine artist. She is equally at home with prints and graphics as she is with photography. Her inclusion in important international exhibitions and the range of work she produces is likely to continue well into the future and this should, in time, round out her auction results. One thing is definite, however. Tracey Moffatt’s work is more worthy than her auction results indicate. Collectors would be well advised to delve deeper into her oeuvre. Her Up In The Sky series created in 1997, Scarred for Life 1994 and Some Boys are good examples of works very much worth collecting, especially given their currently reasonable prices.

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