Tracey Moffatt’s still photography and independent filmmaking deftly negotiates and interrogates the complex interfaces of colonialism, patriarchy, sexuality, and ethnicity through a multifaceted lens that reflects the cultural amalgam of her identity as artist, woman, Aboriginal and Australian. While Moffatt’s film art has been variously interpreted through indigenous, feminist, and postcolonial perspectives, such pigeonholing belies the way in which her works deny a unified subjectivity and coherent reality

In assuming a more postmodern inclination, her avant-garde style, which relies heavily upon collage, fragmentation and dislocation fashions open-ended and ambiguous narratives. These challenge and invert audience expectations, thus inviting further speculation. Dynamically synthesising the personal, socio-cultural, historical and political, Moffatt’s camera aesthetically exposes the dominant discourses of history and contemporaniety to scrutiny. However, rather than rectifying past lies by offering an authentic ‘truth’, Moffatt engages in a cinematic dialogue that straddles past and present, real and imaginary, coloniser and colonised, to produce a surfeit of meaning; an excess of ‘truth’, which refuses to be delimited by monolithic frameworks of thinking . As will be argued in this paper, her short films Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy are exemplars of these notions in portraying polymorphous spaces of cultural production. Here truth, reality and subjectivity are refracted along multiple pathways that confront and subvert the cultural deceptions posed by essentialist representations of difference founded upon gender, race, class and place. Universal themes of loss, dispossession, alienation, marginalisation and forced assimilation are poignantly interwoven into her artistic creations. In doing so, Moffatt utilises the artifice of film and fiction to envision a ‘history-in-process’, that moreover, transcends the local context of its genesis to issues of global relevance.

As Jackson (1994:236) suggests, Moffatt ‘opens herself up with technology’ and interrogates the self. Clearly evoked in Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries, such interrogation is predicated upon motifs that implicate her own personal history while cross-cutting into and exploring the broader arenas of interracial relationships, postcolonialism, gender ideology, and capitalism. Nice Coloured Girls relates the survival strategies of three urban Aboriginal girls who utilise their sexual capital by luring a ‘Captain’ (sugar daddy) and encouraging him to become senselessly drunk before stealing his money. As Moffatt admits, this accurately depicts her teenage years when she and her sisters participated in similar activities (Rutherford 1988:152). The overt tenor of this narrative is one of ironic vindication that inverts the power differentials inherent within a paternalistic, neocolonial, and capitalist system through empowering the marginalised at a micro-level. In stark contrast, Night Cries is wrenchingly emotive, capturing the tensions and frustrations of a mother-daughter relationship juxtaposed against evocations of childhood nightmare. Against the backdrop of a surreal desert setting, the film portrays a middle-aged Aboriginal daughter tending her aging and infirmed white foster-mother. Night Cries realises Moffatt’s personal background of being fostered into a white family (Murray 1990:22). The narrative construction of both films is thus imbued with a psychological intensity that emerges from within the troubled interface of black and white cultures.

Moffatt, however, resists imposing a didactic and dogmatic realism upon this volatile arena of cultural intersection. The avant-garde complexion of Nice Coloured Girls andNight Cries challenges a unified reading through a resident ambiguity. This is effected by a sense of surrealism and dislocation that as Murray (1990:21) comments issues from the explicit artificiality that invests the filmic images. Overt stylisation bequeaths this sense of artificialism (Martin 1995:25). Night Cries conveys a denial of naturalism through the heightened impression of primary colour dominating the backdrop scenery that recalls Namatjira’s landscape paintings of Central Australia. In Greenstein’s (2001:31) dramatic language, Moffatt sets the ‘duplicity of violence between Aboriginal and White Australia in lurid reds, yellows, browns and blues’. Likewise, disembodied images and voices that permeate Nice Coloured Girls oppose a coherent sense of realism. Moreover, fragmented narratives underscore the surreal atmosphere through shifting discontinuities between past and present, real and imaginary. Nice Coloured Girls elicits a recurring pendulous movement between urban present and colonial past in both sound and image. Betraying such temporal disjunction, the home in Night Criesprovides a ‘colourful yet ghostly’ (Lambert 2005) backdrop to displaced images of 1950s Aboriginal singer Jimmy Little and traumatised childhood memories of the daughter that punctuate the central narrative. Hence, as Martin (1995:25) argues, Moffatt’s use of fragmentation and discontinuous scenography delivers an open and ambiguous narrative.

An insistent postmodern pulse thus inflects Moffatt’s filmmaking. A core premise of postmodern cinema is the retreat from univocal narrative closure through fragmentation, the dissolution of rigidly fixed signifiers, and a loosening of binary opposition that infuses a pluralistic dimension (Hill & Every 1998:101). The underlying philosophical assumption of postmodernism – the rejection of universalism or metanarratives therefore ‘releases difference from the tidy shackles of modernism (Hill & Every 1998:104). For Hill & Every, this means postmodern cinema unfetters difference, according previously marginalised others an intense visibility that mutates old binaries ‘towards a more exaggerated, almost parodic, existence or are displaced through the production of new forms of otherness’ (1998:104-5). These strategies forge identities that embody fragmented subjectivities. Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries enshrine these ideas via non-linear narratives that engender such fragmented subjective positions.

Entreating a reflexive view of identity, Moffatt thus creates, in Martin’s (1995:26) terms, a ‘hybrid self’ that emerges from intersections of Aboriginality, Western urban culture, gender ideology, and colonial antecedents. This notion of hybridisation explicitly resonates in Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries. Indeed Martin (1995:25) situates this within the ‘episteme of radically muddled identity’ that informs identity politics with regard to difference and otherness, particularly sexuality and race. While Aboriginal issues permeate the narratives, Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries navigate cultural terrains that resist essentialist polarities of black versus white culture. Rather, through cinematic technology, this electronic space, as Payne (1994:318) advocates, renders visible the ‘uneasy, fraught and contradictory cultural spaces’. The subjects inhabiting these spaces are not fixed archetypal identities according to Moffatt’s filmic portrayals. As Payne (1994:319) argues, Moffatt’s work invokes a sensibility that negotiates the ‘multi-dimensional spaces of cultural presence’ thereby questioning notions of a unified subject.

As such, Moffatt negates and overturns the stereotypical and essentialist representations that, as Jennings (1993:14) argues, commonly inform white reconstruction of indigenous culture. Western discourse and representation frequently imputes the idea of a coherent ‘Aboriginality’ that overlooks diversity within Aboriginal culture. As cultural theorists, Edward Said and Foucault argued, Western discourse categorises and thereby homogenises ‘others’ from a supremacist viewpoint that privileges Western knowledge and cultural assumptions (Hall 1997:259-61). Representations, including revisionist histories, generally situate Aborigines within a structuralist paradigm of binary oppositions such as domination/subordination, exploiter/exploited, and aggressor/victim. A significant problem emerging from such discourse is that minority groups, be they Aboriginal, women, or economically disadvantaged, are denied agency and voice. As Jennings (1993:70) asserts, this treats Aborigines as anonymous or invisible. Historically, cinematic representations, particularly up until the 1970s, have tended to reinforce this in objectifying and making exotic indigenous stereotypes as either kitsch museum attractions of ethnographic interest that forms part of Australia’s ‘native’ heritage, or ‘Noble Savages’ predisposed to laziness, unreliability, mystical and spiritual longings, tracking, or buffoonery (Leigh 1988:79,85). These representations implant Aborigines firmly in the bush, symbolising their subordinate and inferior position in terms of Western ‘civilisation’.

Nice Coloured Girls undercuts such representations via positioning marginal subjects within an urban milieu of cultural contest and interaction that is empowering rather than subjugating. Moffatt not only avoids stereotype, but in postmodern style, parodies and plays with dominant representations. The voice-over reading from William Bradley’s journal extract (A Voyage to New South Wales, 29 January 1788), which leads us into the film, highlights the colonial view of Aboriginal women as ‘shy maids’ or ‘wanton strumpets’. Moffatt’s characters upstage the colonial discourse through assuming these traits as a form of social armoury. As French (1992) contends, victim status is imposed upon the white male by the Aboriginal girls who invert their exploited position to that of exploiters. Night Cries similarly contests dominant representations. Jayamanne (1993:76-78) suggests that while Jimmy Little ostensibly embodies cultural assimilation, his ambiguous inclusion in Night Cries reconfigures him as a signifier of cultural ambivalence that positions the appropriation of white culture as a survival strategy for indigenous culture. Moreover, the tortuous relationship between Aboriginal daughter and white foster-mother points to more than a history of white dominion over black, but rather articulates the outcome of what McLean (1998:147) refers to as a shared cultural heritage that has shaped ‘a genealogy for contemporary Aboriginality’.

These notions work to eclipse prevailing interpretations of our colonial past that locate indigenous and non-indigenous in a binary relationship of difference. Such a structuralist perspective discursively positions Aboriginality as an idealistic entity threatened by colonial and neocolonial practices that reduces recourse to either surrender or resistance to Western domination. Conversely, as McLean (1998:147) argues, Moffatt’s work derails essentialist conceptions of aboriginal and non-aboriginal identities, forging a ‘new cross-cultural space’. McLean elaborates this point advocating that the technique of offsetting contemporary situations with historical elements cultivates a ‘hybrid history’ that ‘displaces the clear vistas of essentialist ideologies with flaring memories, ghosts, histories’ (1998:147-8). Thus as Mellencamp (1995:184) intimates, Moffatt’s films enshrine hybridisation as history that undermines romantic notions of cultural authenticity unadulterated by foreign contaminants. The idealistic conception of any culture or society as an impervious or closed system is implausible given the reality, as Morley & Robins (1995:129-30) argue:

… every culture has, in fact, ingested foreign elements from exogenous sources, with the various elements gradually becoming ‘naturalized’ within it.

Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries cogently enshrine this sentiment highlighting the struggle and tension that infuses spaces of cultural interface. As Barker (1999:42) elucidates, intersections of imported artefact and local meaning are sites of ideological contestation in which the dialectic of competing discourses cultivates amalgam forms of culture. Identity is therefore not situated within discrete cultural paradigms but is polymorphous – the outcome of ongoing historical processes of hybridisation or creolisation as diverse cultures interact. Accordingly, Moffatt offers a profound negation of the palatable political rhetoric of multiculturalism. Although multicultural discourse attempts to repudiate Eurocentrism and cultural hegemony of Western powers, the problem as perceived by Butler & Thomas (2001:23), is that it implicitly upholds the idea of cultural relativism and irreconcilable difference between cultures. Moffatt explicitly distances herself from this limiting perspective. That she refuses the status of ‘Aboriginal artist’ in preference for ‘artist’ (Murray 1990:21) is concomitant with the hybrid identities and history she creates in her films. As McLean (1998:148) eloquently proposes, Moffatt constructs fractured images that echo:

… reflected otherednesses, creating an Australia of multi-centred identities which is something more than its constituent parts.

It is this dynamic synergy of identity and history – which invests Nice Coloured Girls andNight Cries – that acknowledges a continuing negotiation and reinterpretation of subjective positions. This premise is clearly explicated in Hall’s theory of cultural representation. Hall (1989:68) argues that rather than positing identity as historical fact, it should be seen as a production, never complete and therefore always in process. Cultural identity, Hall (1989:70) poses, comes from history but also belongs to the future; it therefore undergoes constant reconfiguration and transformation. Hence, it is as much about ‘being’ as ‘becoming’. This resonates in Moffatt’s films, which Mellencamp (1995:175) argues, encapsulate the idea of ‘present-becoming’. The montage technique Moffatt adopts in Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries inserts the past into the present, waxing and waning, but metamorphosing each time it reappears. History for Moffatt is as Mellencamp (1995:184) comments, ‘reincarnated, recollected, its spirit given new life as living memory’. Such dialogue with the past is ongoing but as Hall (1989:72) maintains, it is no longer factual since it is constructed through memory, myth, and narrative. Thus, as Moffatt declares, she is not concerned with capturing reality but rather in creating it (Rutherford 1988:155).

The vision is one that leads to something that is to be constructed from the past and present. And in doing so, fragmented identities are reformulated, appropriating strength, power, and authority from the historical and contemporary subjectivities imposed upon them. From a female perspective, Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries transport colonial history forward into the present, rearticulating the past within a framework of present-day struggle for survival (Mellencamp 1995:180). Foregrounding the ‘mutual struggle of women for independence’ (Mellencamp 1995:180), the narratives portray an historical continuity through matrilineal connections of grandmothers, mothers and daughters. Images of colonial settlement paintings, voice-over colonial readings, and haunting ancestral visions of an Aboriginal mother-figure, recontextualise the contemporary circumstances of the indigenous women in Nice Coloured Girls. The links with past memories, both colonial and ancestral, inform and empower their urban existence; their identities have emerged from cross-cultural interplay of colonial and indigenous elements. Sentiments and memories of loss, alienation, dispossession, and sexual objectification are overlain by the capacity to author their own existence and challenge constructions of them as oppressed and passive. As Kaplan (in French 1992) notes, the spray painting and smashing of the colonial landscape prints instigates a powerful metaphor that rejects the way in which colonial representations have framed Aboriginal culture.

Night Cries similarly invokes a colonial subtext, albeit less explicitly than Nice Coloured Girls. Ephemeral snatches of childhood memories and old photographs allude to the assimilation and forced adoption of Aboriginal children into white families. But the wider history of colonialism is subtly but potently reinvented – distilled through the personal lens of the white mother-Aboriginal daughter relationship. Lajer-Burcharth (1998:42) underlines the significance of this relationship through the dual pathos of losing both white and Aboriginal mother, which simultaneously bestows cultural, psychic, individual and collective dimensions of loss. This sense of estrangement is reinforced and amplified via the discontinuity of past revisiting the present. Such estrangement, which is informed by personal experience, personifies Moffatt, according to Lajer-Burcharth (1998:43-4), as an alien viewer in her own territory or a stranger within that works to:

… not only shun the othering gaze of the outsider but also refuse being situated as a privileged insider who can spin a politically and culturally “correct” tale of Australia, to recoil from being pigeonholed as an “ethnic artist”.

Consonant with her avowals of being an artist rather than an Aboriginal artist, Moffatt distances herself from localised black-white political readings of Nice Coloured Girls andNight Cries (Murray 1990:22). Clearly, these films portray issues specific to Aboriginal identity that reference the filmmaker’s indigenous origins and, as French (1992) notes, her active part in Aboriginal politics. Hence, on one level, they express notions of the dynamic resilience, persistence and vitality of Aboriginal culture. As Jennings (1993:17) contends in her analysis of Nice Coloured Girls, the continuity of Aboriginality is celebrated while acknowledging ongoing negotiation with white culture. Nevertheless, Moffatt considers her films in terms of global issues of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism from a woman’s perspective (Rutherford 1988:155). Albeit emerging from the social, cultural, and historical context of personal experience, these films nevertheless inscribe an identity and political statement of global relevance. As Butler & Thomas (2001:24, 31) assert, the generality of concerns portrayed by Moffatt reveal more about the human condition than specifically about race. This points to an underlying sentiment of universal justice that travels the realms of race, gender, class, age, and infirmity.

Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries therefore interrogate situations that question assumptions not only within, but also beyond the specificity of postcolonial Australia. Moffatt crystallises themes such as racism, cross-cultural interaction, political hegemony, and marginalisation that transcend national borders. As Travis (2000:550) comments, while Moffatt’s work is definitively Australian the issues raised reach to a transnational context concerning life on the periphery that penetrates into the heart of the colonial project and realises alienation as a central condition of social malaise. The paradoxical irony presented here, is that the apparent postmodern topography of Moffatt’s films – fragmentation, pastiche, irony, parody and ambiguous meaning, which reject meta-narratives is curiously underlain by strains of modernist social theory. Durkheim theorised that as modern capitalist societies become more complex and specialised, individuals are atomised and suffer social alienation or anomie (Durkheim 1985:55-7). That Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries poignantly inheres this sentiment does not constrain audience reception to a singular universal meaning, but rather forms the basis from which meanings and identities are formulated from within postcolonial contexts that are multidimensional. McLean provides some insight here in his argument that identity is pasted together from postcolonial fragments to construct a symbolic realm. McLean (citing Carter 1998:147) contends that:

… in ‘postcolonial’ societies ‘collage is the normal mode of constructing meaning’, and it is a collage in which the fragments are seized upon ‘not at the expense of the whole but in its absence.

McLean’s point is that meaning is constructed from within loss. As can be seen the imperative of loss is integral to the narratives of Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries in which dispossession, estrangement, and dislocation from land, heritage, and family, are critical to meaning formation. Such meaning construction thus works to foster a ‘cross-cultural’ imagination (Harris in McLean 1998:147).

The notion of ‘cross-cultural’ imagination is announced in Moffatt’s statement that her work ‘may feature brown faces but it could be anybody’s story’ (quoted in Mellancamp 1995:180). This reiterates that the subjectivities constructed through Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries can be extrapolated to a global stage. Martin (1998:22, 26) refers to this intersection between specific and non-specific contexts as the ability to ‘globally travel to a shared imagined land’; a universal drama of socialisation. Appadurai’s theory of global landscapes provides further insight. Appadurai (1996:22-3) proposed that the mobility of people, ideas and images through global technologies such as film and media, constructs a diasporic public sphere in a landscape of ‘collective imagination’. As Appadurai explains, this sphere is not a unitary construct, but it encapsulates the vicissitudes and disjunctures of global-local interplays that interact and overlap. This is constituted by a repertoire of collective imaginations embracing multidimensions such as ethnicity, religion, gender, and politics. The discourse of human rights, racial democracy, and women’s issues that invest Moffatt’s films thus transcend national boundaries to form, in Appadurai’s (1996:23) terminology, a ‘postnational’ political order. It is in this cross-cultural and transnational space that the collective imagination makes visible social injustices and struggles for democratic rights. Hence, as Mellencamp (1995:175) advocates, Moffatt forges a new model of history, politics and subjectivity for transnational women of all origins.

In relation to Moffatt’s films, these ideas are eloquently embodied within a utopian vision of freedom that underlies the universal aesthetic of art. Butler & Thomas (2001:26-31) propose this radical stance in their analysis of Moffatt’s film and photography. They challenge traditional canons of the aesthetic of beauty, defining art as transcending history. Art, Butler & Thomas (2001:31) argue, defies the reality of relative cultural ignorance of the viewer and plays on the audience, demanding something more that:

… exceeds or cuts across the real social and cultural limitations which condition its reception … something singular perhaps takes place – in the face of, and in the midst of, history, cultural difference and postcolonialism.

Interpreted as such, although beauty emerges from an historical context it goes beyond this to a future that telescopes the moment of artistic avant-garde; it does not destroy taste and judgement but rather tests the status quo in the quest to forge another more accepting universal to come (Butler & Thomas 2001:31). Moffatt’s aspiration to create reality and re-envision history therefore discloses an aesthetic domain of potentiality that is founded upon a universal ideal of freedom and humanitarianism.

From an idiosyncratic perspective, Moffatt thus exploits the democratising potential of technology in her art films. Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries elicit a politics and identity of hybridisation that seeks to syncretise local and global concerns. The leitmotif of Aboriginal characters in these films confers a political dimension, which because of Moffatt’s background, could be read explicitly as a statement of Aboriginal politics regarding land rights and indigenous autonomy. However, Moffatt’s works are multi-layered and contest such a reductionist reading. Rather, notions of cultural interaction and hybridisation that negotiate the interface between settler nation and indigenous inhabitants are offered. Through the lens of the camera, Moffatt in McLean’s (1998:148) terms, ‘holds up the mirror of coloniality’ to invert the dominant gaze and suggest that the other is looking at us. But perhaps it would be more germane to pose that the mirror is two way – we hold each other in a reflexive and thus informative gaze located in an intercultural space. This does not deny the reality of hegemonic relations. Rather it cultivates potentialities of empowerment through subverting and inverting paternalistic and unidirectional vistas of colonial history. Challenging notions of statis, the domains of cultural production, identity, and history are not fixed but undergo constant transformation – remade, rethought, and reconfigured in and through the ongoing struggle that exists in the multiple interfaces of cultural diversity. In this manner, Moffatt exceeds the demand for authenticity and essential truth in melding multiple ‘realities’ and subjectivities with the artifices provided by cinematic technology – an ephemeral pastiche of dream, memory, and imaginings – that constructs a hyper-reality composed of postcolonial fragments. Rejecting the canons of traditional narrative and documentary realism in the quest for such aesthetic freedom, Moffatt indeed acknowledges that her work ‘has always wanted to be fantastical, probably more like magical realism’ (Stretton 2005:284). Moffatt’s films thus bespeak a reflexivity of identity and politics, defining an aesthetic project of self-assertion and empowerment that is always in the process of something more – one that is ‘now’ and ‘yet-to-be’.



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1989 Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, Writer/Director: Tracey Moffatt, Producer: Penny McDonald. Ronin Films (distributor), Civic Square ACT, short film, 17mins.

1987 Nice Coloured Girls, Writer/Director/Producer: Tracey Moffatt. Women’s Film Fund and Australian Film Commission, Australia, short film, 16mins.