A Celebrated Urban Storyteller

BY JOHNNY MILNER

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The NFSA is highlighting the work of influential contemporary artist and filmmaker Tracey Moffatt, who features in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists curated collection.

Experimental and Provocative Films

Tracey Moffatt, contemporary artist, looms large in the cultural sphere, working across contemporary mediums such as film, photography and video – and challenging notions of the representation of race, gender and history. 

In this clip from the 1988 documentary Boomalli: Five Koori Artists, Moffatt talks about art and politics. We also see some of her work, including the short experimental and provocative film Nice Coloured Girls (1987):

Nice Coloured Girls (1987)

Nice Coloured Girls (1987) centres around three Indigenous women (played by Gayle Mabo, Cheryl Pitt and Janelle Court) on a night out in Kings Cross, Sydney. The women encourage a drunken white man (Lindsay McCormack) to buy them drinks and dinner and eventually, when the man passes out, steal his wallet and race off to catch a cab, pleasantly satisfied:

The film presents an urban Aboriginal experience, one that differs from on-screen representations which typically manifest ethnographic or documentary-style realism, or antiquated archetypes such as the ‘noble savage’. This urban experience, as Moffatt describes, was more akin to her own upbringing in Brisbane during the 1960s and 70s.   

Nice Coloured Girls centres on the history of relations between Indigenous women and white men. Moffatt creates two histories in the film. She juxtaposes, on the one hand, the girls being sleazed onto by a married white man – whom they refer to as ‘Captain’ – in the bars of modern-day Sydney; and, on the other hand, historical diary entries by captains and lieutenants from the early colonial period, detailing first encounters with Aboriginal women. The modern-day Captain buys the women drinks, whereas the historical captain decorates the women with beads and buttons. 

There is no synchronised dialogue throughout the film. The voices of the three women are diffuse and disembodied, and their thoughts are presented through subtitles. In contrast, the diary entries occur as voice-over. Images of colonial paintings, as well as performance elements, are intercut throughout the film in a way which adds to the contrasting symbolism and makes us contemplate the two histories – the old and the recent. 

Nice Coloured Girls is a deliberately controversial film, with its complex portrayal of contemporary Indigenous women. It challenges assumptions by placing agency back in the hands of the women rather than representing them as victims. Furthermore, it reminds us that we must understand the past better, if we are to address the present.  

Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989)

Moffatt has produced several provocative and political films. Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) responds to Charles Chauvel's Jedda (1955), which tells the fate of an Aboriginal baby adopted by a white mother in remote outback Australia. Night Cries takes us forward to the white mother’s last hours, where she is cared for by the Aboriginal woman she had adopted and raised:

BeDevil (1993)

BeDevil (1993), a feature film which comprises three ghost stories, explores gender and multiculturalism via the supernatural. It also draws from Moffatt’s own Aboriginal and Irish-Australian heritage. The film’s premiere at the Sydney Film Festival sparked debate among audiences and critics, initially over whether the film is art or cinema:

Moffatt’s moving images convey heightened emotion and employ explicit intertextuality. Her imagery seems deliberately staged or contrived – rather than suggesting fleeting moments, captured in real time. References to the history of cinema feature largely in her work. Moffatt appropriates myths, icons and archetypes of cinema, turning them on their head. She deploys sonic and visual metaphors, as well as primary and gaudy saturated colours, to create meaning and to direct the viewer’s gaze.   

Stories Without End 

Since Nice Coloured Girls, Moffatt has become one of the country’s most widely recognised artists, having held around 100 solo exhibitions in Europe, the United States and Australia. In 2017 she was selected to take part in the prestigious Venice Biennale, representing Australia with her exhibition, MY HORIZON.  

As Catherine Summerhayes notes in her splendid monograph, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt (2007), 'Moffatt is a teller of stories without endings or solutions'. As Summerhayes goes on to explain, Moffatt's stories suggest a kind of joyous celebration which, in its way, helps to achieve a form of narrative resolution.  

 

You can see more of Tracey Moffatt's work on australianscreen online.

Main image: BeDevil, 1993