Tracey Moffatt and the Politics of Representing the Marginalised

Throughout 2017 we have been able to observe a growing number of large-scale art exhibitions making a considerable effort to represent displaced people. Artworks looking to portray the experiences of refugees and of Indigenous people were plentiful at exhibitions like the Venice Biennale and the Skulptur Projekte in Munster, while the hotly-debated decision of artistic director Adam Szymczyk to stage one half of the contemporary art extravaganza Documenta in Athens, signaled an international focus on, amongst other things, what has come to be known in the Western World as the ‘Refugee Crisis’. This institutional shift in the visual arts is indicative of the ever-growing appearance of marginalised people in images across mainstream mediums like film, television and print media. Increasingly, it is through their representation in images that we come to know these people.

More often that not, those seeking asylum have no official documentation by way of passport, birth certificate or photo ID to corroborate their identity, and no means of representing themselves. Under global colonisation, Indigenous people have experienced the same difficulties for centuries, one example in Australia being the appalling documentation of Aboriginal people as animal specimens. Under English occupation, Aboriginal women, men and children have been photographed and written about scientifically, so as to be categorised taxonomically according to the shade of their skin or the compound of their blood. Historically, these people have had little control over their own representation. Within the arena of contemporary image economies, then, how can these people be represented effectively, and what are the ethics around this kind of representation?

Tote bags produced for Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition in the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year—titled My Horizon—sport the words ‘Indigenous Rights’ on one side and ‘Refugee Rights’ on the reverse. In equating the rights of refugees with the rights of Indigenous people, Moffatt’s presentation makes the point that it is a basic human right to have agency in the production of one’s image. Four bodies of work—two photographic series and two videos—interrogate the way that displaced people are represented in images today. These works stand for a unique method of image-making concerned less with identification with subject matter than they are with participation in its creation.

Vigil is a two minute film in which still images of Hollywood actors are juxtaposed with still images of people (presumably refugees) on boats. Many of these images originate from the reporting of the Christmas Island boat disaster in 2010, in which a vessel carrying close to ninety asylum seekers sank just off the coast of Christmas Island, to the north west of Australia. As these images become progressively more shocking in the video—with pictures of boats crashing against the shore and people swimming for their lives—stills of movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Sutherland and Audrey Hepburn are cut in, so that they appear to be reacting to the horrific scenes.

Mainstream media is more often than not the only way by which the citizens of a nation discover the identities of asylum seekers. It is the images of these people that facilitate a public’s perception of them. Images come to fill the physical distance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In Vigil, the windows that the Hollywood stars look out of are metaphors for this distance. Frequently though, images don’t actually correspond to reality, either misrepresenting or stereotyping the people depicted. The image then, comes to preserve the very distance that it seeks to fill. Indeed, Moffatt blocks out the bodies of the asylum seekers with colour, rendering them a formless mass. How much can an image really tell us about these people? Alongside idioms like ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘boat people’ in popular Australian newspapers, pictures like those in Vigil are exploited to further the marginalisation of refugees by playing on the public’s concern for national security.

Passage incorporates this process of exploitation by stylising and dramatising the lived experiences of refugees. In a photographic series comprised of twelve images, the nuanced identities of asylum seekers are replaced with well-worn character tropes—the sharply dressed man with a cigarette, the police officer who may or may not work on both sides of the law and the woman and her child who require the help of these two male figures. The costuming, sepia tone and construction of each image to resemble movie posters recalls 1940s Hollywood, the golden age of cinema. It presents the very real experiences of asylum seekers as sensational, seductive adventure-fiction. One is prompted to reconsider the role of mainstream media in translating the lived experiences of the displaced. A Hollywood movie about an asylum seeker will regularly generate awareness of such affairs, but only by taking the story away from those marginalised people to whom the story belongs. This is the territory explored by Candice Breitz, whose work in the Biennale cannot be left out here for its timing, its quality and for the similar sentiments that it provokes.(1)  For Love Story, the South African artist recruited eminent actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore to recite the transcripts of interviews with refugees, these original video interviews only revealed later in a second room. While the original interviewees—people who have firsthand experience of displacement—struggle to condense their ordeals into a watchable snippet of time, in English, (which is often their second or third language) Alec and Julianne utilise all their experience to deliver an award winning, emotive and highly effecting performance.

Ironically and particularly dispiriting is the reality that often the sensational, edited version of the lived experiences of displaced people produces the most empathy in an audience. The Hollywood blockbuster loosely based upon a true story has the power to reveal the other as human being, via the mechanisms of production and storytelling that a contemporary audience is familiar with. We identify with the clichéd bodies in these works of fiction even though the events chronicled are not theirs, nor will they ever be ours. The fact that the reactions to the images of refugees in Vigil, captured in the horrified faces of Kathleen Tuner and Julie Christie are in fact acted and therefore disingenuous, speaks to the confusing ways in which contemporary image economies manipulate our emotions and form our subjectivities today.

What one can observe within this phenomenon is an indirect representation of displaced people, whose voices are substituted for the voice of the creator of the image. In recognition of this trend, the works in My Horizon confuse us with a form of representation that is lacking in any real content. Passage substitutes real refugees with Hollywood archetypes while in Vigil, brown bodies are blocked out until they are unrecognisable. In the grainy, eroded video work that is The White Ghosts Sailed In, neither the arriving English colonisers nor the Aboriginal people being colonised appear against the empty horizon seen from Sydney Cove. This visually summarises a global image crisis, in which pictures of the other are ubiquitous and easily accessible, though where these marginalised people portrayed enjoy very little of the political power that historically comes with representation in images.

At the point where pictures fail to accurately represent a group of people, Moffatt is interested in the materiality of the image itself rather than its content. In White Ghosts she insists on the physical history of the film by claiming to have found it in an abandoned mission in Sydney, that the celluloid was made from pig’s hooves, that the whole thing has been preserved in beeswax, and that it was made by Aboriginal people with access to film equipment on January 26, 1788, the same date that many celebrate what is known as ‘Australia Day.’ Why the unyielding emphasis on the provenance of this object, rather than its subject matter? White Ghosts reminds us that like humans, things themselves are impacted upon by social forces. These forces can be traced in objects as dents, scrapes or as corrosions for example. So for White Ghosts, it is the materiality of the image itself—the reel of film—that carries the scars and trauma wrought by a violent history. This trauma is indexed by the streaks and puddles scratched into the celluloid of the film reel. There is a literal aspect to this damage, evidencing the inhuman colonial practices that have occurred in Australia for over two centuries.

By placing the origins of this reel of film at a very specific point in time, Moffatt allows for the reconsideration of a prominent date in Australian history from a different perspective. In White Ghosts it is an Aboriginal person who sits behind the camera. The film itself then becomes a piece of history authored by the colonised rather than the coloniser, working to subvert the much-perpetuated myth that Australia was settled peacefully. Simply, the provenance and materiality of this object is its subject matter. Indeed, Moffatt’s varying use of sepia across all four bodies of work in the exhibition maintains a focus on the history and physicality of images rather than their content.

White Ghosts points to the interrelationship of images and agency. By having control over the production of images themselves, here Aboriginal people have a way of rewriting history and defining their own identity onwards into the future. Moffatt goes beyond the capacity of images to represent and into the power that comes from participating in their making. Body Remembers presents the viewer with a plurality of narratives, and likewise a plurality of identities for the subject of the pictures (Moffatt herself.) In this photographic series, Moffatt disturbs the viewer with visible instances of post-production—an impossibly cast shadow, shafts of light striking at odd angles or a solar flare where it shouldn’t be. Inconsistencies like these draw an audience into a world of uncertainty, in which the figure’s maid outfit, location and story are imbued with an innumerable number of possibilities. Within these possibilities, the subject manages to evade a single identity altogether, retaining her agency. This is reinforced by the fact that the figure in Body Remembers never looks us in the eye, appearing to ignore an audience or presenting us with her back. Across this series the artist enjoys the power that comes with representing and even misrepresenting herself, of being in control of her representation.

The images in My Horizon call for an image economy based on participation rather than representation. The exhibition draws attention to the very real plights of displaced people in its subject matter. Moreover, by emphasising the materiality of images, it explores the politics of a crisis not happening elsewhere beyond the gallery walls, but occurring in places where images appear, most pertinently the arena of contemporary art. In stressing their physicality, Moffatt understands images as literal spaces in which the politics of the real world also unfold. The only way to de-colonise institutions, nations and futures is to give real space to marginalised bodies. And the same goes for images—places where marginalised people must be given real space and the power to represent themselves.

(1) The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne was one of the parties responsible for the commissioning of Breitz's work, and it will be on display in December as part of the NGV Triennial.

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Tracy Moffatt, Vigil, 2017, video still, La Biennale di Venezia. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.


Tracey Moffatt, Vigil, 2017, video still. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.


Tracey Moffatt, Vigil, 2017, video still. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.


Tracey Moffatt, Hell, 2017,Passage, Digital C-print on gloss paper,102 × 153cm. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 


Tracey Moffatt, Heaven, 2017, Passage, Digital C-print on gloss paper,102 × 153cm. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 


Tracey Moffatt, Heaven, 2017, Passage, Digital C-print on gloss paper. 102 × 153 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

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Tracey Moffatt, My Horizon, Installation view, 57th Venice Biennale, 2017.

John Gollings


Candice Breitz, Love Story, 2016, Featuring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, 7-Channel Installation. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Installation View. La Biennale di Venezia, 2017. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW. 

Andrea Rossetti


Candice Breitz, Love Story, 2016, Featuring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, 7-Channel Installation. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Installation View. La Biennale di Venezia, 2017. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW. 

Andrea Rossetti


Candice Breitz, Love Story, 2016, featuring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin. Left to Right: Shabeena Francis Saveri, Mamy Maloba Langa, Sarah Ezzat Mardini, Farah Abdi Mohamed, José Maria João , Luis Ernesto Nava Molero. 7-Channel Installation. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Outset Germany + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. La Biennale di Venezia. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, Kaufmann Repetto + KOW. 

Andrea Rossetti

Sebastian Henry-Jones is finishing his Masters of Art Curating at the University of Sydney. He is one founding half of Desire Lines, an art walking tour occurring sporadically in different areas around Sydney. Sebastian is a gallery host at the Museum of Contemporary Art.