Venice Biennale

Posted 25 Jan 18

I was 17 when I first saw the work of Tracey Moffatt.

I was the only Koorie kid in an arty school in Melbourne. My Mum had recently finished a book on female Koorie artists and their role in re-writing the politics of representation. I too wanted to write about contemporary Aboriginal art, but my teacher said the works were too political and not aesthetic enough, she liked what she called traditional Aboriginal art.

And then one day, in my year 11 Studio Art class an image from Tracey Moffatt’s Something More series appeared in a power point presentation. I can still see the room, the screen.

Tracey was in a sexy red dress; she looked so glamorous, staring into the kind of future I hadn’t yet dared to imagine.

She was confident and beautiful, she was my skin colour, she looked like the woman I hoped I would grow up to be.

I have been raised around strong female leadership. My mum helped set up some of the first refuges for victims of sexual violence and lobbied for the rights of street workers, she pulled me out of primary school to attend University classes on Aboriginal women’s histories. My Aunties are CEOs and Board Members of Aboriginal organisations. I didn’t see a glass ceiling or feel gender inequality in the workplace until I started working outside of the Aboriginal community.

But the female leadership I grew up with was different to the world of Tracey Moffatt. It was inextricably tied to community and place; it was about fighting for rights and caring for those around you. I admired this leadership but I didn’t know I could be this kind of woman while wearing a sexy red dress, while having an international career. Not until I saw the work of Tracey Moffatt.

Today I write from Venice, as I get ready to head into the gallery where I am working for one month with Tracey’s solo show My HorizonShe is the first Aboriginal woman to have a solo show at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious art event in the world. Just like Something More, My Horizon speaks to me on a personal level. It feels like Tracey has crawled into my mind and said, its ok. I feel the same fears and exhilaration, sadness and pride. I dream the same dreams and its ok.

We have welcomed over 30,000 people into the Australia pavilion and its incredible to see others, often women, more often women of colour, have the same reaction and connect Tracey’s work with their personal narratives. They leave the gallery glassy eyed and smiling, hand often resting on their chest.

I was terrified to meet Tracey. They say you should never meet your idols. What if she was mean to me? What if she was more human and less superstar? But I was, and still am, as star stuck as ever. From the background I watched, and in my own way, rode the wave of nervous excitement as she launched the biggest show of her career.

At the opening I cried for Tracey, because I have had a small taste of the pressure she feels, I cried for my people, and I cried for 17-year-old Jirra who dreamed of an international career grounded in culture but not pigeonholed by expectation.

Tracey Moffatt will always be my Beyonce and I will always strive to be that woman in the red dress.

By Jirra Lulla Harvey