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How do artists use ‘reverse ethnography’ to reflect identity within post-colonialist objectivity?

Published on 19th November 2017

How do artists use ‘reverse ethnography’ to reflect identity within post-colonialist objectivity?

In this essay, I will discuss and argue how performing the ‘other’ can explore the notions surrounding post-colonialism whilst evoking institutional critique; manipulation of the colonial gaze; and how this comes out of signified meaning within culture. By looking at four artists and their nominated works, I will explore reverse ethnography as a concept to perform the ‘other’. These are Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Two Undiscovered Americans, 1992-94; Angela Tiatia’s Heels & Walking the Wall, 2014; Get to Work’s (a.l.o.t.o) a league of their own, 2017. Through this question, I will also explore how Tracy Moffatt has repeatedly questioned the definitions of how to portray the ‘other’ by being aware of post-structuralist objectivity.[1] She plays with Australian- Indigenous motifs in the post-colonial era to construct fantasy realities. Hal Foster explores the idea of the artist re-interpreting the ethnographic material and states: “the anthropology understands cultures differently... its projection onto other cultures is as textualist as it is aestheticist.”[2] Foster uses text as an example here for disrupting the discursive paradigms to challenge ethnographic authority, but if you swap textualist for the iconological motifs that runs clearly through all the artists work you can see new dialogues for their contextual ambitions. This ethnographic art model serves Foucault’s systems of knowledge that are always formed by power interpretations.[3] Therefore, the artists playing in the metaphysical notion of objectivity are never pure or interest-free, the colonial gaze can be set up and used as a framework of challenging the perceptions and exceptions of the heteronomy of art.

Borrowing from existing ethnographic material is an essential method within the act of performing the ‘other,’ as well as how the artwork is documented. The ‘hacking’ of signified meaning within artworks from cross-disciplines, such as colonial forms of repression and photography’s role within it, creates unique artworks that create a message through existing signifiers of this political practice. The role of the artists then becomes one of social activism, blending and remixing to create works whereby the aesthetics are generated from meaning and influence. Foster also brings institutional critique into the argument as “the quasi-anthropological role set up for the artist can promote a presuming as much as questioning of ethnographic authority.”[4] Artists who produce and reproduce images through digital media can create work that acts as an evasion to the social normative images and thus, an extension of institutional critique.[5]

Stuart Hall from The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies introduces the roles of encoders and decoders, the artists are playing with the shared codes and systems that culture sets up for. Hall argues that the audience is just as important as the creator as they come away with multiple meanings that may be influenced by various subcultures.[6] Art that is created in a postcolonial culture will be loaded with signs that that already have a pre-existing signified meaning to our society. Cultural theorists interpret artwork through two different viewpoints: from the encoders, i.e. the creators; and the decoders, i.e. the audiences. Yet, in the case of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, the result of the artworks is entirely depended on the audience. They rely on the white audience to perform to the colonial history they know: the coloniser. This style of bringing the audience’s reaction into the art piece evokes a Nicolas Bourriaud feel of relational aesthetics.[7] The ‘relational’ artwork sets up encounters between people in which meaning and experience is elaborated collectively or inter-subjectively rather than through individual contemplation of art objects. Yet, whilst active participation, anti-elitist, and a more democratic aspect is explored in terms of breaking down the power of the artist and audience; a rhetoric of democracy, ethical fairness, and social connectedness which is the glue of relational aesthetics is not.

Fusco and Gomez-Pena explore the colonial body as a non-identity between enacted performances, and thus as Foucault suggests, may always create a novel meaning and a fixed ideal sense.[8] In Two Undiscovered Americans, 1992-94, Fusco provides a framework in which they “assumed the stereotypical role of the domesticated savage.”[9] The gaze is being challenged as Fusco states: “many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of the colonizer, only to find themselves uncomfortable with the implications of the game.”[10] Fusco and Gomez-Pena are presenting a history that too many find easy to forget and not only that but now the colonisers role is available for the common person. This interaction is important for the artwork as the artists are reviewing culture, by performing the ‘other.’

The artist can confront the viewer with their perceptions of the colonial past and how this plays into the representation of the colonised body in art by playing with the history of eroticisation, hyper-sexualisation, and dehumanisation. In the artworks used throughout this essay, the artists flip the control that the ethnographical documenters had, evoking “reverse ethnography” which Coco Fusco calls for to discuss ahistorical notions and their tendencies towards literal and moral interpretation.[11] These artists use film and performance to put the spot light on the colonised, yet they are re-interrupting the dominating gaze. The messages are theirs; the stories we are being told are theirs, yet we question whether this is the truth or just a construct of history that highlights the colonial gaze. The emergence of the easily availability of cameras has enabled the coloniser to capture anything and anyone in the domains of public space. However, the coloniser’s gaze has shifted and retracted to create a paradigm where the artist plays the role of the coloniser and colonised. Fusco’s proposed framework is one that rejects the colonial fantasy of the ‘primitives’; disrupts the European sense of self that is created within the colonial context; that plays into the ‘discover’ theme that reinforces sets of identity (such as in America and Australia – Australia Day being a key example of constructed ‘discover’ identity); and converts the displays of living fantasy into one which puts the coloniser on display. Fusco asks: ”perhaps the ultimate goal of performance…is to decolonize out bodies and make these decolonizing mechanisms.”[12]

An example of artists disrupting the concepts of the ‘other’, and thereby challenging authority through a reverse ethnographic role, are Angela Tiatia and Get to Work. These artists play on the notions of re-interpreting, rather than a reenactment. By re-purposing the concept and giving it new meaning, ownership is challenged. As we see with Tiatia’s Heels & Walking the Wall, 2014 and Get to Work’s (a.l.o.t.o) a league of their own, 2017, repetition is the key to revealing the aspects of colonial control over the colonised body. In (a.l.o.t.o) a league of their own, Get to Work appear on larger than life sport-trading cards. The characters interact with sports, standing with dominant stances, avoiding or commanding the gaze of the audience. The cards are repeated three times with each of the members of the collective. They are challenging the ideas of masculinity and the black body being commodified in sport by wearing sports clothes and interactive with tennis, volley and footballs which fly into the shot continuing the narrative. The green screen background has placed them in a tropical setting, amplifying their otherness and the commodity of the black body to be culturally categorised in Australia. They also play with language to disrupt our perceptions of what is “ORGINAL” and “AUTHENTIC.” These words dazzle on the silver badge at the top of the cards, questioning what we see as we know, that it’s art and the meaning is being manipulated for us. Each one of us seeing what we want to see, ignoring what works and what doesn’t for our linear of truth and fiction. The method of categorisation within sports reflects back onto the role of the ethnographer. The tropical background reiterates this as ethnographic photographs would place indigenous people with a fake background of nature. The collective use multimedia that engages the audience, letting the context and concepts sink in as we question the artwork.

Just as Get to Work play with the repetition of athletic movements and thus, creating a motif that works with signified symbols of strength, success, and exploitation, Angela Tiatia’s Heels & Walking the Wall, 2014 (from the series An Inventory of Gestures series) deploys markers of sexual availability through brief endurance exercises. Again, exercise and repetition are at play but Tiatia uses her cultural motifs to challenge the audiences’ gaze by repeating the specific movements that a dancer would adopt in Siva Samoa.[13] In Heels, Tiatia reveals a Samoan leg malu that details her genealogy and thereby, plays with the connotations of tribal tattoos in culture. Her tattoo, along with her legs in high heels, becomes the object of the post-colonial and feminist gaze playing with the signified constructs of her Samoan female agency. In Walking the Wall, Tiatia repeats representations of the ethnic and the feminine, yet her whole body is featured returning the gaze with “the physical entanglement of the body.”[14] Performance, and its re- contextualised historic representation offer a channel of exposing the problematic ideals upon which Western understanding of Pacific cultural practice. By using her own body, she confronts the stereotypes placed on the Pacific female body. Tiatia’s gaze is dominating, reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia, 1863 or Fiona Foley’s Badtjala Women (two sets of beads), 1995 and thus, places herself -the artist- as both the colonised and the coloniser.[15]

From the four examples of artworks I’ve discussed, we can see how successfully artists play with the ideas that Foster discusses from ethnographic art that are “preemptively auto-primitivist and wryly anti-categorical.”[16] Tracey Moffatt is an example of an artist who plays not only plays on the parody of primitivism and a reversal of ethnographic roles in her artwork but re-continues this as her motif throughout her whole art practice in a range of ways. Her work, in the words of Foster: “disturbs a dominant culture that depends of strict stereotypes, lines of authority, and humanist reanimations and museological resurrections of many sorts.”[17] Moffatt does this most clearly in her representation of women in her photographs and films, the unconventional female characters question the post-colonial gaze as they are not depicted as delicate, frail or passive rather tough and independent.[18] Tracey Moffatt’s Artist at work, 1997, clearly depicts the strong female, the artist, and plays the common ethnographer image all in one.

In conversation with Coco Fusco, Moffatt discusses how her narratives turn twisted and play with irony, that can work into the form of a cliché.[19] Yet, what happens in Moffatt’s work is entirely up to our perceptions, and thus, allows us to take the view point of the ethnographer and their colonising methods of categorisation.  Fusco sees symbols within Moffatt’s work that resemble Australian motifs “such as rural poverty, and interracial unions.” However, Moffatt denies the audience anything concrete that affirms a true linear by saying: “The reading's got to come from the viewer. The minute I say what the narrative is, I really believe it's the end of an art work. I never say what it is.” [20] She refuses to allow her stand point from being anything other that this is just a reflection of what she’s seen from her working-class background growing up.[21]

Moffatt continues this theme to her movies by reframing the colonised body. In the film bedevil, 1993, we see the representation of the ‘other’ in “layered multicultural history of racialized identities and the shared ghosts that connect them all.”[22] It’s clear that not only, as Gerry Turcotte argues, that the Aboriginal place is always in negotiation but these factors that come up in Moffatt’s work are to be shared across cultures. By mapping out fictions in outback Australia, the conclusion often comes to one of Aboriginal story telling. Yet, Moffatt says: “I’m interested in saying things about black Australia but I’m interested in saying them in a different way filmically”.[23] In her works show spectrality and cultural intervention coming together to act as resistance filmmaking.

Moffatt continues the theme of portraying the ‘other’ in this way with her photo series Scarred for Life, 1994. In this collection she mirrors the style of Life magazine, using images and words to describe the sets she creates. Moffatt exploits the poststructuralist objectivity already in place, the one in which the audience doesn’t want to imagine what is happening in the images, yet she tells us anyway. Moffatt used photolithography method, one used by early newspapers and magazines, to print these works. Thus, invites the audience to reflect on newspapers and magazines that do claim to tell the truth but also to add “ephemeral effect” alluding to a memory or forgotten past.[24] The text that goes along side the eerie images continues this theme, true stories told to Moffatt that she restructures to retell the pain and restless energy at the heart of suburban life.[25] It’s hard to focus on what we really can see which renders the background and foreground to familiar iconography. People we may know, or houses we’ve been too; however, the text breaks our line of thought and makes the audience cast their minds to their own tragic story. Moffatt uses the mundane to highlight the feelings of inadequacy that may, as she suggests with the title, scar you for life. These environments are set up to portray dramatic tension and play on the symbols that set up the objectivity that an audience member may recognise. Through this and the experience of knowing that these images are ‘art’, rather than ethnography images, we question their truth. The social ‘other’ creates anxiety for the audience as her repetition of the family home places the audience into the narrative. By being aware of the poststructuralist objectivity that being a female Aboriginal artist places her within she rejects the ideals and classifications. Robert Nelson for The Age argues that “Moffatt's works are unified by a cold and manipulative air, cryptically toying with malice and psychological damage.”[26] Her artwork employs irony to convey the evils of the world, such as her “anthology of filmic female murders, in which gun-slinging women carry out their threat to shoot their psychopathic male assailants.”[27] Moffatt is in complete control of her image, employing reverse ethnography and historic and methodological techniques to confront the audience.

To conclude, by looking at artists who manipulate the concept of a ‘post-colonial era’ whilst being aware of post-structuralist objectivity we result with reverse ethnography. A world is open that uses wit and humour along with their versions of reality, which scare and humble the audience member to think about society and culture (both past and present) with a more critical eye. The artists who employ this technique use what is happening in the world as context for their art, yet the interpretation from the audience becomes the key to their concept. Stuart Hall’s coders and decoders becomes a line to cross, the one who sets the meaning comes from the audience rather than the artist, breaking the constructs of ethnography as we once knew it.[28] Authenticity is challenged along with the perpetual gaze.[29] Yet, importantly these artists do not use “black pain as material” to “speak for the community” rather offer a personal reflection that acts as a mirror to the audience to consider their own view point and position within the debates.[30]


"Angela Tiatia" The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue). Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art. Brisbane. 2015. pp. 258

Cathcart, M. “Tracey Moffatt Interview.” Arts Today. ABC Radio National. Sydney. July 31, 2000

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du reel. 2002

Fink, Hannah. "Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia." AGNSW collection record - Tracey Moffatt. Art Gallery of New South Wales. 2014

Foster, Hal. ‘The Artist as Ethnographer,’ The Return of the Real. Cambridge. Mass. & London: The MIT Press. 1996. pp. 171-203

Foucault, Michel.The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon. 1984

Fusco, Coco. “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till.” Hyperallergic. March 27, 2017 https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/

Fosco, Coco and Moffatt, Tracey. “Tracey Moffatt.” BOMB. Issue 64. July 1,1998. pp. 44-51

Fusco, Coco. “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” TDR (1988-). Vol:38. April 1, 1994. pp 143-167

Hall, Stuart. “David Scott.” BOMB. Issue 90. Winter 2005


Hall, Stuart. Encoding and decoding in the television discourse. Birmingham West Midlands: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. University of Birmingham. 1973

Johnson, Anna. “Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña.” BOMB. Issue 42. Winter, 1993


Keehan, Reuben. “Back to the slaughterhouse. Mortality and desire in APT8.” The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue). Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art. Brisbane. 2015

McDougall, Ruth. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue). Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art. Brisbane. 2015. pp. 92

Nelson, Robert. "Tracey Moffatt – Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney." The Age. Fairfax Media. January 14, 2004

Turcotte, Gerry. Spectrality in Indigenous Women's Cinema: Tracey Moffatt and Beck Cole. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Vol 43(1). March 1, 2008. pp. 7-21

[1] The post-colonial era is readily accepted by scholars to be after the 1960s, however, colonialism isn’t over for many cultures and the exploitation of native people and land still continues today. Yet, for the sake of the essay I will use post-colonialism as a term to describe the era of art making in the last 30-40 years, rather than suggesting we are “post” “colonial.”

[2] Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer,’ The Return of the Real, Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press, 1996, pp.199

[3] Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon. 1984

[4] Foster, op. cit. pp.197

[5] ibid

[6] Stuart Hall, Encoding and decoding in the television discourse. Birmingham West Midlands: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1973

[7] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002.

[8] Foucault, op. cit.

[9] Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” TDR (1988-), Vol:38, Apr 01, 1994. pp 143-167

[10] ibid pp.153

[11] ibid pp.143

[12] ibid

[13] “Angela Tiatia” The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015 pp. 258

[14] Reuben Keehan, “Back to the slaughterhouse. Mortality and desire in APT8” The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015. pp. 58

[15] Ruth McDougall, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Exhibition Catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2015 pp. 92

[16] Foster, op. cit. pp. 199

[17] ibid

[18] Coco Fosco and Tracey Moffatt, “Tracey Moffatt” BOMB, 1 July 1998, Issue 64, pp. 44-51

[19] ibid

[20] ibid

[21] ibid pp. 49

[22] Gerry Turcotte, Spectrality in Indigenous Women's Cinema: Tracey Moffatt and Beck Cole, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 43(1), March 1, 2008 pp.13

[23] ibid

[24] Tracey Moffatt interviewed by M Cathcart, 'Arts Today', ABC Radio National, Sydney, July 31, 2000

[25] Hannah Fink, "Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia" AGNSW collection record - Tracey Moffatt, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2014

[26] Robert Nelson, "Tracey Moffatt – Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney" The Age, Fairfax Media, January 14, 2004

[27] ibid

[28] Stuart Hall, “David Scott” BOMB, Issue 90, Winter 2005

[29] Anna Johnson, “Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña” BOMB, Issue 42, Winter, 1993

[30] Coco Fusco, “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till” Hyperallergic, March 27, 2017.