Tracey Moffatt | Cultural Justice

Challenging cultural stereotypes involving racial bias, of what women should or shouldn’t do, success and failure, Australian artist Tracey Moffatt seeks ‘cultural justice’ for minorities through her photographs and videos, which is pertinent since she herself is of aboriginal ethnicity.

In one of her earliest works, The Movie Star (1985), which features an aboriginal person trying to look cool at the beach, raises the question of why Aborigines can’t be movie stars and fashion models, since at the time there weren’t any in Australia.

The Movie Star (1985) Tracey Moffatt
The Movie Star (1985) Tracey Moffatt

In quite a bizarre but poignant piece of artwork, the Scarred For Life (1994) series of photographs, Moffatt reenacts scenes from people’s life stories in a graphic display of the domestic injustices that go on daily in Australia, and in any other part of the world actually; a girl gets the job by being more flirtatious, another girl finds out the real name of her father when her mother throws her birth certificate at her and other boys and girls get called derogatory names by their respective parent(s) or siblings.

Telecam Guys, 1977 (1994) Tracey Moffatt
Telecam Guys, 1977 (1994) Tracey Moffatt

There is no doubt about the emotional and psychological damage to a young person that gets lied to by their parents or siblings or other authority figures (like a teacher etc..) and the fact that people lie to each other to feel better about themselves is, ubiquitous and has existed probably since mankind figured out how to speak. But as to why Moffatt felt so strongly about this issue to turn it into an artwork is a bit puzzling.

Job Hunt, 1976 (1994) Tracey Moffatt
Job Hunt, 1976 (1994) Tracey Moffatt

Useless (1994) Tracey Moffatt
Useless (1994) Tracey Moffatt

The thing with lies is that there are bad lies, derogatory lies said about oneself by a parent for example, that somehow stay with us because we believe it. It is untrue but we still believe it sometimes. Then there are lies which are said about others which are also harmful to us, which are untrue but we are tempted to believe, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, or makes us feel superior or takes our mind off our own dreary problems.

Birth Certificate 1962 (1994) Tracey Moffatt
Birth Certificate 1962 (1994) Tracey Moffatt

While on the one hand these pictures show our propensity to believe in lies, young and old, on the other hand, studies have shown that it takes at least a quarter of a million dollars (US) to raise a child in advanced economies. So perhaps its the absurdity, the sadistic tendencies of certain unenlightened human beings to spend this money to raise a child only to say things that will hinder or even ruin the child’s development, just to feel better about oneself for a moment. Perhaps that’s more baffling.

Charm Alone, 1965 (1994) Tracey Moffatt
Charm Alone, 1965 (1994) Tracey Moffatt

Up  In The Sky (1997) is another series of photographs, this time they weren’t staged, that deal with ambiguity and challenge cultural stereotypes set in the desolate Australian outback. A caucasian woman holds an Aborigine baby with nuns coming to the house in the distance. Are they here to help or to take the baby away, which was part of the Government’s assimilation policies? The fact that nuns in those days wore black overralls adds to the creepiness.

Up In The Sky No.1 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.1 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.9 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.9 (1997)

There is somewhat of a story, a narrative running through these photographs, which is the experience of a visitor, a photojournalist at one of these outback towns; a place of desolate ruin, populated by ‘misfits and marginal characters’. In Up In The Sky No.15 (1997) one is confronted with the feeling of being an outsider as our visitor takes a turn into a back alleyway of a village, a commune really, and all the inhabitants come running out their back doors to watch the arrival of the visitor. But is it a curious gesture, or are they guarding their property? With their standoffish posture and looks of ‘what do you think you’re doing here?’ it definately seems like they guarding, weary of outsiders.

Up In The Sky No.15 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.15 (1997)

And the reason for their behaviour might be found in the lawlessness of Up In The Sky No.3 (1997) with a topless Aboriginal guy, walking barefoot down the middle of a street to confront our visitor, with no policeman anywhere in sight, arms opened wide and acting like “you’re mine now!” as his caucasian friends, in similar hooligan posture, fellow inmates of this invisible jail which has no fences or guards, look on. This is a dystopian scene, apocalyptic, like one from the mad max movies or the 2010 thriller The Book Of Eli. It seems one doesn’t need walls, fences or guards to make a jail if you have enough space, which fools people into thinking they’re free.

Up In The Sky No. 3 (1997)
Up In The Sky No. 3 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.14 (1997)
Up In The Sky No.14 (1997)