Tracey Moffatt’s Free Spirit

Published in The Saturday Paper

Artist Tracey Moffatt’s latest exhibition represents a homecoming for the one-time New York resident.

Tracey Moffatt has never enjoyed discussing her work. Throughout an esteemed career, spanning more than three decades, the filmmaker-turned-photographer has maintained the same stance: if she spells out what her art might mean, then she shuts off other interpretations. So the news that she had agreed to take part in public talks for her new exhibition, Spirited, which opened in October at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), was received with vague surprise.

Assistant director Simon Wright introduced her on stage. “Tracey’s arguably – I love that word… Bugger it, you are the most prominent Australian artist exhibiting nationally and internationally today. It’s true.” This is difficult to dispute: at 54 years old, Moffatt is a bona fide art star. She’s had more than 150 solo shows, exhibiting her work at landmarks from the Venice Biennale to New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Dia Art Foundation; her short film Night Cries (1989) and feature Bedevil (1993) premiered at Cannes. On the home front, a retrospective of her work at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2003 trumped attendance records; the following year her breakthrough photography series Something More (1989) was sold at auction for $227,050, making them Australia’s most valuable photographs to go under the hammer.

Still, after 12 years abroad, residing in the heart of New York’s gallery district, Spirited represents something of a homecoming. Moffatt created this body of work after relocating back to Australia four years ago. What’s more, the series returns to the landscapes of both her ancestors and her childhood, in suburban Brisbane. The Moffatt siblings grew up in working-class Mount Gravatt East with an Irish-Australian foster mother; their Aboriginal birth mother would visit occasionally, but Moffatt has said in the past, “She wasn’t one for looking after kids.” Returning to these personal landscapes feels like something of a statement: Moffatt’s early period dealt explicitly with the politics of a divided heritage, but she’s since spent the intervening decades struggling to shake the mantle of black female artist.

Perhaps it’s because of her conflicted relationship with her birthplace that, in Australia at least, qualifiers such as Wright’s “arguably” always seem to accompany descriptions of Moffatt’s career. “I wanted to be read as an artist,” she says, “and I could only do it by getting out of this country; by not being confined to the basement of an art museum where they’re showing Aboriginal art.” She’s referring to her escape to New York in 1998. “I wanted my work up there with Rothko – not that I have been.”

Moffatt tells me this over lunch at GOMA Restaurant, where all of the dishes are inspired by artworks in the gallery’s collection. Moffatt has barely finished her train of thought when the waitress brings our dessert. Traditional custard has been trussed up to look like a dot painting: infused with wattle seed, spray-painted with Daintree chocolate, dabbed with fresh vanilla curd. Moffatt has insisted we share one after spying someone eating it as we came in.

The waitress explains the design. “As you can see that rippling is reminiscent of the Australian outback. You’re really lucky,” she says, pointing out a tiny imperfection in the chocolate’s surface. Apparently this is rare. “I had a lady come in who said that it reminds her of a little native animal who’s just jumped across the plate.”

Moffatt isn’t shy about tucking in. “Oh my God, it’s so fun to eat,” she exclaims. “Wow, they really invent here, don’t they?” With a sense of humour that’s just as dry in person as it is in her art, this is one of many times during our conversation that I can’t tell if she’s taking the piss. It’s only later I remember the scene in Bedevil where the women serve “bush cuisine” such as snake terrine with a walnut vinaigrette.

“Let’s divide it. That’s your half,” Moffatt says, carving a line across the chocolate topography with her spoon. “Go for it.”

Read more at The Saturday Paper.

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