“My Horizon can be about one wanting to see beyond where one is. It can mean to have vision. It can mean to project out and exist in the realm of one’s imagination. This is what artists do, this is what I do and this is what saves me.” – Tracey Moffatt
As a young Yorta Yorta woman I was at university studying in Melbourne when I came across Tracey Moffatt’s artwork. I was totally absorbed. I loved that it gave me the freedom in connecting to a narrative of whatever I understood it to be, no direction or assertion of fact. This was the first time I saw contemporary art by an Aboriginal woman, art that went beyond ‘traditional’ looking Indigenous art. It was photography and film, sexy and challenging and political in its own way and as the only Aboriginal woman in my class – studying her work was empowering.
Fast forward ten years and I am at the 57th Venice Biennale with the Australia Council for the Arts’ ‘First Nations curatorial exchange’ delegation and standing in front of the artist at the inaugural private viewing of ‘My Horizon’ as she makes history as the first solo Aboriginal artist to exhibit in the Australian Pavilion. Moffatt presents two video works Vigil (2016) and The White Ghosts Sailed In (2016) along with two photographic series titled Passage (2016) and Body Remembers (2016). A team of women were the closest to Moffatt in developing this work, dedicated arts leader Naomi Milgrom AO was the 2017 commissioner, and curator Natalie King worked with the artist for over two years. Significantly, for the first time since 1997, there were two Indigenous curators involved, Hannah Presley and Coby Edgar.
On the exterior and within the pavilion Vigil depicts Hollywood movie stars peering out their windows in shock, this is cut in by slightly animated media images of the tragic 2010 Christmas Island boat disaster. A dramatic crescendo builds as the images flash faster, the stars looking on in horror with twisted faces and are met with the distorted photographs of boats sinking, people drowning, lives lost. I wondered if the actors were scared that the refugees may make it to shore or were they tormented by their own complacency? Vigil’s message was clear, critically looking at the fear of the so-called ‘boat people’ and the voyeuristic act of doing nothing.
Passage takes a dramatic approach with 12 large glossy prints, cinematic in look, and is the first work as you enter into the space. There is no fixed storyline to the compositions which have been shot at a harbour, it might be sunset or sunrise. A thick fog of smoke surrounds the people that appear to be in 1940s dress, a policeman, a dapper man, a woman and baby are the characters that set the scene. In Mother and Baby (2016) we see the woman and child bathed in golden light. Holding the baby, she could be anywhere and anyone, the infant pulls away from her tight grasp. Is she saying goodbye? We see a policeman in Mad Captain (2016) he is screaming with his arms high holding onto rope, perhaps on a ship, looking crazed but almost celebratory. Shadow and light play an important role in this series that evokes a theatric meditation on travel, dispossession and of running and seeking refuge.
Body Remembers is a stark contrast to Passage and visually reminiscent of Moffatt’s earlier works. This series of ten large sepia toned photographs feature a central character played by Moffatt, fitted in a 1950s maid’s dress, we only ever see the back of her in a home and the second space a desolate ruin in the country. She looks across the landscape in one image, another she cries into her hands, shadows feature in different ways sometimes signifying her presence when not visible. Transported through time and space in this series it is up to the imagination of whether she’s alive or a ghost haunting the ruins, still hanging out the washing, crying in the shadows. Possibly they are the memories of her domestic servitude, the narrative is endless. Although fictional this work does embody an autobiographical connection to Moffatt and her family history, like that of many Aboriginal families forced into domestic slavery.
The White Ghosts Sailed In is a film that speaks to histories of invasion, violence and change. Moffatt states that this footage of the headlands in Sydney was miraculously found in the archives, a rare film by Aboriginal people captured in 1788 when they saw the invaders arriving. The film is in sepia, surrounded by a burnt wooden frame like planks off a ship, the headlands and moving water is all that is seen. The wind rustles and the beat of clap sticks and military drum can be heard, as if in a call and response between the two. As the sound builds the image distorts into frenzy, like clotted blood under a microscope, returning to the image of the headlands and a baby howls. The uncomfortable anticipation of violence and invasion in this work haunts as much as it inspires a curiosity in the subversion history and anthropology with the idea that Aboriginal people were documenting invasion.
I sat with Moffatt’s work for ten days, it sent me back to my Ancestors and pulled me into a world of drama and imagination. I have realised that her work did exactly what she stated ‘My Horizon’ is about. It inspired vision and for me to see beyond where I was and to look towards where I can be. ‘My Horizon’ whilst being an imagined space focuses on the realities of Australia’s invasion legacy and the human rights that the country continues to violate. The tote bags given out this year (the most popular of any pavilion) stated simply ‘Indigenous Rights’ on one side and ‘Refugee Rights’ on the other, and this is what ‘My Horizon’ boldly shares, and why, on an international stage it is so important.
Kimberley Moulton is a Yorta-Yorta woman and Senior Curator of South Eastern Aboriginal Collections, Melbourne Museum.
Australian Pavilion, Giardini, Venice
Until 26 November, 2017