By Henrietta Summerhayes
There is nothing up in the air about Up In The Sky; Tracey Moffatt’s photographic series fills its space with a malevolent emptiness, a fragmented polemic on gender, race and violence.
Twenty-five toned photolithographs line the four walls of the AGNSW level-two exhibition space, but that is all that is linear about Moffatt. Her narrative typically resists a tidy definition; it ducks and weaves through a cast of vulnerable, marginalized, and angry subjects freeze-framed against a backdrop of desolate outback poverty. The issues Moffatt unpacks are as black and white as the images themselves. They are pictures of cultural malaise the likes of which have become iconographic in the Indigenous Australian social story over the past 200 years.
The first image is of a white woman in profile holding a black baby who looks out of the window at three nuns in black habits approaching. Instantly the Stolen Generation is invoked, yet Moffatt complicates the imagery with the absence of the baby’s biological mother. Her substitute, a white woman, holds the child in a posture of maternal tenderness made malignant in this moment of passivity. The child is already motherless, defenseless, and innocent of a fate that is set to befall it, yet there is an ambiguity inherent in Moffatt’s casting. Is this white woman complicit in the crime of child abduction, or are all women? The brides of Christ clad in black outside the house are faceless, their features obscured and anonymous, but, like the baby’s absent people, they’re implicated in a crime so grave that its scar on the Indigenous psyche will eternally haunt us all.
If the first image is about birthright, the last in the series is about death in a landscape of despondency and despair. Forgotten and forsaken, a human form is cast out like the car wrecks rendered spent and useless in others of the images. The rancor is palpable; a dead person discarded in the vastness of the open space like the cars left to rust in the dust, playthings of the idle and the angry. Is this analogous of an Indigenous battle for place in a white supremacist world? Tracey Moffatt doesn’t muck around. She parades the bleak and the ugly before an audience eager to understand her intention, but who are left to draw their own conclusions, perhaps to access their own consciences in order to unlock meaning.
Up In The Sky is a compelling title for this series, arguably playing on the cliché, ‘up in the air’ to suggest an equivocation regarding the past, the present and the futures of those represented in the pictures. There is nothing equivocal about Moffatt’s practice, although her refusal to be characterised as an Indigenous artist further subverts the readable perspective. Her photographs are staged and choreographed, sculpted in a way as to prompt the conversation, unsettle the viewer and raise a spectre of complex social and racial issues that have to date, limited the horizons of this essentially bi-cultural nation.
Tracey Moffatt Up In The Sky
Art Gallery of New South Wales, 21 May – 18 Sep 2011