Rewind: Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky

Tracey Moffatt, Up in the Sky, 1997. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky
Naomi Cass

I can’t remember exactly why I didn’t see Tracy Moffat’s Up in the sky when it showed in early 1999. What was I doing that was so important—in the last year of that century—that I should miss this unsettling series? Made in 1997, the year the Bringing Them Home report was released, mid-way in her quest to become an artist of international standing, and at a time when she eschewed being labeled an Aboriginal artist, Up in the sky was puzzling and challenging.

The series reveals to me now the trailblazing diligence Moffatt took in weaving references to film, art history and popular culture, yet Up in the sky remains confounding. Whatever can be asserted about the series can also be denied.

For example, black and white, sometimes sepia toned, the 21 works impersonate gritty documentary photography, but photographic prints they are not, these are toned photo-lithographs, their indexicality to the world too far removed for documentary. Grittiness extends to their narrative leanings (the works are numbered), but the series falls short of any classic narrative structure and the story remains opaque.  Indeed I have since come to know individual works from the series, not realising their narrative context. Unlike earlier series, these are photographed in real landscape yet this landscape has been pressed into a staged drama with non actors. Menacing because the drama resists understanding and conclusion.

If ‘black and white’ can be a euphemism for clarity, here it is not. While the subject of the series seems to concern race relations, I can’t actually tell who is black and who is white, except for the chorus of nuns, who remind me of the elderly nun caught in Mervyn Bishop’s classic press photograph (incidentally, the child she clutches is not Aboriginal). Things here are sexy, threatening and haunted. Perhaps this is because the story of Australian history is fundamentally disturbing and widely denied.

Photo / History, installation view, ACCA, 1998. Courtesy ACCA Archive

Now seventeen years after the Bringing Them Home report—Tracey is an artist of international standing, and one who continues to eschew being labeled an Aboriginal artist—I can say Up in the sky was too important to miss. Visiting this exhibition for the first time I wonder what can be photographed in the wake of the monstrous policy of removing children from their mothers. 

Tracey Moffatt and Margaret Dawson: Photo / History
25 November 1998 – 31 January 1999

In 1999 Naomi Cass was working with the Grainger Museum at The University of Melbourne and mothering two young daughters. She is currently Director of the Centre for Contemporary of Photography, Melbourne.