Tracey Moffatt and Hayley Millar-Baker

Any exhibition that includes Tracey Moffatt’s image making comes with a fanfare, and her collaborative show with photographer Hayley Millar-Baker, at Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, called ‘The truth of what occurred remains’, is no exception.

Art collector Reg Richardson began collecting Moffatt’s works in the 1990s and today is known to have amassed the largest body of her work – 112 pieces. His inaugural purchase was the suite of twenty-five black and white photolithographs shot in and around Broken Hill that comprise the series Up in the Sky. Richardson, who was born in Broken Hill, was attracted to the derelict buildings depicted in the images, the corrugated iron fences of the old 1800s mining town. For Moffatt the works were more about depicting an outback place anywhere, one inhabited by desperation and emptiness. She said to Richardson, ‘The town is supposed to be nowheresville’ and it is that town and surrounds in Up in the Sky that goes on exhibition thanks to Richardson’s generous loan.

What makes this exhibition particularly engaging is that Moffatt’s images, created in 1997, will be re-contextualised, exhibited with the photography of an emerging artist. Moffatt has a stellar reputation for her work in photography, film and video. The Indigenous artist represented Australia at the fifty-seventh Venice Biennale in 2017. She has held literally hundreds of shows, exhibiting extensively in high-profile institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A comprehensive retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney and that then travelled to the Hasselblad Centre in Gothenberg, Sweden.

Millar-Baker, also Indigenous, has a trajectory that is modest by comparison, though still impressive. It includes a recent exhibition in Primavera 2018 at the MCA and representation in quality collections such as the State Library of Victoria. That Moffatt was keen to exhibit with the emerging artist suggests an opportunity for her to awaken new audiences to her established practice and, through that process, to mentor upcoming photographers. The corollary to this is that fresh dialogues can evolve about the representation of Country and Aboriginal people in image making, ones that had early traction in the 1980s in such publications as Photofile, when Moffatt first began exhibiting her work.

The two photographers have very different ways of making the art on exhibition, Moffatt shooting on location and Millar-Baker applying digital technologies to layer, cut and reposition imagery.

Millar-Baker has long admired the scenarios played out in Moffatt’s image making. She however suggests that the narrative within her own work, drawn from her grandfather’s archive and family albums, takes precedence over the physical outcome. ‘I try to tell stories that, in the case of A Series of Unwarranted Events, the four works I’m exhibiting at Broken Hill, is a very strict, heavy and factual narrative, but the outcome has resulted in empty ambiguous landscapes with a hint of Aboriginal traces.’ This landscape is that of the artist’s country where the Gunditjmara people of Western Victoria experienced violent European invasion. ‘The works portray a once touched landscape stripped bare of its original occupants, something that any person, anywhere in the world can understand – the act of genocide.’

While Millar-Baker’s landscape is about the absent presence of people, the silence of the landscape, Moffatt’s is about exposing people, individuals struggling in a colonised world, a world invaded and settled. Her images pivot on the human body, the ways people inhabit the landscape.

The open-endedness in the images from the Up in the Sky series and their subject matter, examining race, violence and the Stolen Generation, is far from the glamour often inhabiting Moffatt’s image making yet its consistent cinematic, theatrical pulse creates a compelling and mesmeric visual undercurrent. Moffatt’s subjects such as nuns grabbing at a baby and a child on a bed alone in a stark white nappy, possess the veracity of photojournalism. Such images have an urgency but the landscape surrounding possesses something of the stillness of a ruined wasteland.

By bringing the two collections of photographs together curator Tara Callaghan suggests that it magnifies the content of both artists’ practices, making for a nuanced, luminous and dramatic exhibition. ‘Aboriginality is significant to Moffatt’s and Millar-Baker’s image making and the exhibition’s title, ‘The truth of what occurred remains’, draws attention to the connections in narrative content.’

That content and the veracity with which both Moffatt and Millar-Baker grapple with their material enables a consideration of the ways the photographs are perceived at the time of making and, in this point in history, beckons further questioning of Aboriginality and representation in image making.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019  

The truth of what occurred remains: Tracey Moffatt & Hayley Millar-Baker
28 November 2019 – 23 February 2020
Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, NSW

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