Chris­tian Thomp­son

Redefin­ing in­dige­nous art

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

AMAN walks into a room. He wears a hoodie low over his face, gang­land style. The sound of a harsh, com­put­erised, recorded voice fills the room: ‘‘ Abo­rig­i­nal stars, Abo­rig­i­nal art, Abo­rig­i­nal porn stars, Abo­rig­i­nal cam­era, Abo­rig­i­nal cat, Abo­rig­i­nal dog, Abo­rig­i­nal cock, Abo­rig­i­nal prob­lem, Abo­rig­i­nal Ni­cole Kid­man, Abo­rig­i­nal brother, Abo­rig­i­nal el­der, Abo­rig­i­nal baby, Abo­rig­i­nal Madonna, Abo­rig­i­nal iPod, Abo­rig­i­nal cause, Abo­rig­i­nal Obama Barack, Abo­rig­i­nal fu­ture, Abo­rig­i­nal glit­ter, Abo­rig­i­nal doll . . .’’ and so it goes on. The au­di­ence shifts un­com­fort­ably.

Then, as un­ex­pect­edly as it starts, the voice stops. The artist pushes the hoodie from his face, un­does the zip­per and re­moves it. Un­derneath there is an­other hoodie. And an­other. Wel­come to the open­ing scene of Tree

of Knowl­edge, a live per­for­mance piece by trail­blaz­ing con­tem­po­rary artist Chris­tian Thomp­son.

Thomp­son is Bid­jara, from cen­tral western Queens­land. He shuns tra­di­tional art prac­tices and in­stead con­tin­u­ally re­fash­ions his body as his per­form­ing de­vice. In Tree of Knowl­edge, he sings in lan­guage, dances and em­ploys evoca­tive dia­logue. In oth­ers, he uses fan­tas­ti­cal cos­tumes and dis­guises, de­rived from land­scape, his­tory and cul­tural tra­di­tion, to con­struct lay­ers of themes and mean­ings in his il­lu­sory works. His aim is to sur­prise, amuse, chal­lenge and con­front his au­di­ence with the com­plex­i­ties of iden­tity.

Thomp­son cre­ated the 45-minute piece de­scribed above in 2009 at the Am­s­ter­dam School of Arts (DasArts), where he com­pleted a cov­eted in­ter­na­tional res­i­dency. It gave him a mas­ter of theatre and acted as an in­ter­na­tional launch pad for his ground­break­ing work.

In the past two years, he has ex­hib­ited in group shows in Spain, Ger­many, The Nether­lands, South Korea, Canada, Bri­tain, the US and Aus­tralia, at gal­leries from the Andy Warhol Mu­seum in Pitts­burgh and the Abo­rig­i­nal Art Mu­seum in Utrecht to Can­berra’s National Gallery of Aus­tralia. His pho­to­graphic self-por­traits and video work are ac­quired na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally by im­por­tant pri­vate and pub­lic col­lec­tions.

In Septem­ber, he will hold his de­but show in Lon­don’s Con­vent Gar­den; he will be part of an ex­ten­sive Aus­tralian land­scape show to be held at the Royal Acad­emy and will de­liver the pres­ti­gious an­nual Arthur Boyd lec­ture on Aus­tralian art. Lo­cally, his dis­tinc­tive work is on view at Syd­ney’s Anna Schwartz Gallery, Car­riage­works, as part of the De­bil De­bil:

Aus­tralian Ghosts ex­hi­bi­tion, and in the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art’s tour­ing show

The Wan­der­ing. Next month, his work will also

fea­ture in My Coun­try, I Still Call Aus­tralia

Home, a ma­jor show of con­tem­po­rary in­dige­nous works at Bris­bane’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art.

As well, Thomp­son is one of the first in­dige­nous Aus­tralians to study at Ox­ford Univer­sity. Awarded one of the in­au­gu­ral Charles Perkins schol­ar­ships in 2010, he aims to com­plete a doc­tor­ate in fine art later this year.

Given his many com­mit­ments, it is per­haps some­thing of a coup for the Art Gallery of NSW that Thomp­son has agreed to a sin­gle per­form

ance of Tree of Knowl­edge this month as part of the Anne Landa award for dig­i­tal and new me­dia, and the en­su­ing ex­hi­bi­tion The Space

Be­tween Us. He orig­i­nally un­veiled the work at the Ade­laide Bi­en­nale of Aus­tralian Art, Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, in 2010. He has per­formed it only a few times since at Mod­ern Art Ox­ford. A fi­nal­ist in this year’s Anne Landa award for his im­mer­sive au­dio work Heal­ing Cir­cle, Thomp­son ar­rives home next week for the ex­hi­bi­tion’s open­ing. He spoke to Re­view in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Ox­ford.

‘‘ My for­mal train­ing is in sculp­ture and tex­tiles but there has al­ways been a de­sire to get close to real time,’’ he says. ‘‘ Pho­tog­ra­phy, and lat­terly video and live per­for­mance, seemed like a very con­ve­nient way of doc­u­ment­ing and demon­strat­ing the per­for­ma­tive na­ture of my sculp­tures. I tend to build im­ages, rather than take pho­tos or videos, and I use my body as an ar­ma­ture to do that.

‘‘ I def­i­nitely see the world through the eyes of my mixed her­itage, and while I think of my­self as a con­tem­po­rary artist first, I am con­stantly remix­ing and re­con­fig­ur­ing the world through my lived ex­pe­ri­ences. So my back­ground is a very im­por­tant part of that.’’

A fine art grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of South­ern Queens­land and the Royal Melbourne In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Thomp­son came to artis­tic no­tice in 2002 for his pho­to­graphic se­ries Blaks Palace . It fea­tures prom­i­nent in­dige­nous Aus­tralians such as Mar­cia Lang­ton en­tan­gled in vastly over­sized knit­ted jumpers.

Emo­tional Strip­tease fol­lowed in 2003. It was a re­work­ing of colo­nial pho­to­graphs of in­dige­nous peo­ples, and de­picted strik­ing young Abo­rig­ines, in­clud­ing Thomp­son, in ves­tiges of Vic­to­rian colo­nial dress, armed with tra­di­tional hunt­ing weapons. Aus­tralian Graf­fiti (2008), an­other pho­to­graphic work, fea­tured self-por­traits of Thomp­son, in re­gal pose and adorned with head­pieces of na­tive flora. Two of th­ese works, Black Gum 1 & 2, de­pict Thomp­son in a black hoodie, his face cam­ou­flaged by wat­tle blos­som; they were bought by Cate Blanchett and An­drew Up­ton for their col­lec­tion. Oth­ers were ac­quired by the NGA and The Nether­lands’ Abo­rig­i­nal Art Mu­seum.

‘‘ Of­ten in the past I felt com­pelled to do a work in re­sponse to some news ar­ti­cle or con­flict I had,’’ he says. ‘‘ Both my videos Desert Slip­pers and The Sixth Mile in 2006 were works I did with my fa­ther and broth­ers and nephew around the time there was a lot of Abo­rig­i­nal man bash­ing in the me­dia. Al­co­holism, wife beat­ing and pe­dophilia in com­mu­ni­ties and sen­sa­tional head­lines ev­ery day; that just wasn’t the ex­pe­ri­ence I had had. So those works were a kind of re­sponse, and I thought rather than re­spond­ing with anger, I will re­spond with love.’’

In Jan­uary, for the first time in 450 years, Trin­ity Col­lege, Ox­ford, re­moved the an­cient paint­ings in its din­ing room and re­placed them with a sur­vey show of Thomp­son’s work. It in­cluded pieces from We Bury Our Own, his lat­est se­ries of pho­to­graphic self-por­traits.

The work was con­ceived when Thomp­son vis­ited the ar­chive of his­toric pho­tos of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple held at the Pitt Rivers Mu­seum in Ox­ford. We Bury Our Own ex­plores the is­sues of spir­i­tual repa­tri­a­tion, iden­tity and cul­tural hy­brid­ity — all mat­ters close to Thomp­son’s heart.

Thomp­son was born in Gawler, South Aus­tralia, in 1978; his mother, Bar­bara, is of Bri­tish con­vict and free set­tler de­scent; his fa­ther, Gary, a Bid­jara man from Bar­cal­dine, was a war­rant of­fi­cer in the RAAF. By the time he was 15, Thomp­son had lived in SA, the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, NSW and Queens­land.

‘‘ When my par­ents mar­ried in the 1970s, in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage was still quite ta­boo, but we have al­ways been part of the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity wher­ever we moved,’’ he says. ‘‘ My mother al­ways said, ‘ You are Abo­rig­i­nal and you should be very proud of that.’ So I had

a lot of sup­port from my par­ents in terms of ne­go­ti­at­ing that col­li­sion of dif­fer­ent cul­tures.’’

Come school hol­i­days, Thomp­son’s par­ents would drive Thomp­son and his three broth­ers the 13 hours to Bar­cal­dine, lo­cated in Queens­land’s desert hin­ter­land, where the sand be­comes red earth.

‘‘ Be­ing a mil­i­tary kid is not easy, be­cause for kids up­root­ing your­self ev­ery two to four years is hard. But it didn’t mat­ter where Dad was posted, come Christ­mas and Easter we would drive back out home to Bar­cal­dine and spend the hol­i­days with my grand­mother, great aunts and cousins.

‘‘ I think be­cause Dad’s fam­ily was so far away and we went back ev­ery year, and a lot of our tra­di­tional ide­olo­gies are still very in­tact, I grew up with a very strong sense of our cul­ture and I al­ways saw the world from that point of view. Bar­cal­dine is still very much my spir­i­tual home, no mat­ter where I am in the world to­day.’’

Al­though he vis­its reg­u­larly, Thomp­son says leav­ing Aus­tralia has al­lowed his art to flour­ish. ‘‘ When I lived in Aus­tralia I felt very re­flec­tive ... that ev­ery time I made an art­work it was re­ac­tionary, and I knew that wasn’t a healthy state for a creative per­son. Liv­ing here I feel I can see Aus­tralia more ob­jec­tively, be­cause I think for most Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, you are born into a very stig­ma­tised, politi­cised iden­tity. Now I feel like I make work be­cause I am com­pelled to do it.

‘‘ I grew up hav­ing a sense of col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity and a con­scious­ness of other Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, and al­though it was some­thing I nat­u­rally took on, I now feel a con­nec­tion to my own creative process that is not tainted by be­ing in a highly politi­cised kind of en­vi­ron­ment.’’

Hetti Perkins, a long-time friend and men­tor, daugh­ter of Charles Perkins and res­i­dent cu­ra­tor at the Ban­garra Dance Theatre, de­scribes Thomp­son as a ‘‘ pre­co­cious tal­ent’’. As a school­boy, Thomp­son wrote to her for ca­reer ad­vice. At the time she was se­nior cu­ra­tor of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lander art at the AGNSW. ‘‘ My Dad gave a talk to the stu­dents at Chris­tian’s school in Queens­land, and Chris­tian had no trou­ble go­ing up to Dad af­ter­wards and in­tro­duc­ing him­self. It was pretty pre­scient to do that at such a young age. It was a good in­di­ca­tion of what was to come.’’

Re­flect­ing on this child­hood meet­ing with Charles Perkins, who died in 2000, Thomp­son says: ‘‘ I haven’t told any­one this but I said to Mr Perkins, ‘ It’s easy for peo­ple who fit the stereo­type, but what about peo­ple like me who are in-betweens?’ He replied, ‘ It doesn’t mat­ter what’s on the out­side. What mat­ters is what is in here.’ And he ges­tured to his heart.

‘‘ I had come from liv­ing in NSW, where I was like a nov­elty to other kids, to Queens­land, where it was very seg­re­gated and deeply racist, so that mo­ment was life-chang­ing to me. To be told that by Char­lie Perkins, who was so revered and so very loved, and to think all th­ese years later I would be here hold­ing this schol­ar­ship at Ox­ford in his name — I feel that ex­pe­ri­ence has driven me here, to make him and the rest of my com­mu­nity proud.

‘‘ And to send a mes­sage home that there is a place for us here, in th­ese great spa­ces, to do great things.

‘‘ When an­other Abo­rig­i­nal kid from the most re­mote part of Aus­tralia can come to Ox­ford and can see my work on the walls and be com­forted by that, then I will know my job has been done.’’

Left, Chris­tian Thomp­son; be­low, Thomp­son’s Three Sis­ters (2012)

Top, Desert Melon (2012); and

above, Howl for Your Trou­bles (2011) by Chris­tian Thomp­son

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.