Tracey Moffatt makes rather than takes photographs. Her art often works through and orbits around themes of cultural and personal identity and the imagined lives we generate through visual fantasy. Her print series often take their aesthetic from old picture magazines, movies, film stills and sets. Moffatt is an Indigenous Australian artist born and raised in Brisbane by foster parents. She now works between her base in New York and her homeland and is internationally renowned as an artist and film-maker. Her most recent award was the 2007 Infinity Award for art from the International Center of Photography.
Although Moffatt’s work dates from 1984, her oeuvre was launched in 1986 with Some lads, a five–part series of classic black–and–white portrait photographs of Aboriginal dancers in Sydney. It was not until 1989, however, that Moffatt’s signature style of ambiguous, staged, colour–enhanced, mixed–media works was established with Something more, a nine–part suite of large black–and–white and colour photographs.
As in Something more, and several other series, Moffatt herself appears in First jobs 2008. She has added her own image into old photographs, which she sourced with great difficulty to match or evoke the places she worked as a teenager and art student in Brisbane from 1975 to 1984. A clear gel swiped on the image marks the spot where the artist’s likeness has been digitally inserted.
Her various photographic series have also played on identity and aspiration, as in the aptly titled series Something more, Up in the sky 1998 and her rather under–appreciated 2001 series Fourth—which took as its subject television images of competitors in the Olympics who had narrowly missed a place on the podium. The 12 images in First jobs are prosaically titled in order of date—Store clerk 1975, Housekeeper 1975, Fruit market 1975, Hair washer 1976, Corner store 1977, Receptionist 1977, Meat packing 1978, Pineapple cannery 1978, Selling aluminium siding 1978, Parking cars 1981, Waitress 1982 and Canteen 1984. Moffatt appears busy, happy and productive in these photographs and she has spoken of how these jobs taught her to work with people and bosses. Although she resented rich kids who did not have to do these types of jobs.
The photographs in First jobs are almost fluorescent, with harlequin colours appropriate to Queensland, the sunshine state. The palette and effect recall American advertising and mass–market magazines such as House & Garden. The images clearly reflect products that please—ranging from the colourful selection of lollies at the corner store to the canned pineapple, and from the motel dining experience to a fabulous perm. Like the films and magazines that are so often her source, Moffatt’s works are always alluring in colour and surface texture. No shady characters or social problems mar these perfect images.
Although she often disrupts the inherited and absorbed cultural images, in First jobs, there are no hidden dramas behind these suburban facades—as there were in her series Scarred for life 1994—nor the violence that appears in a number of her still and video works. First jobs seems to evoke nostalgia, and every stop along the young Indigenous artist–pilgrim’s way triggers memories for her audience about their own first jobs—which are rarely given their due as formative experiences. Yet, the perfect flat colours and images, in the end, rather disturb and niggle at the viewer, prompting reflections on how much these early experiences also might limit the path ahead.
Senior Curator, Photography
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra