Black Gum 2 (from Australian Graffiti series), 2008. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. Purchased Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant, 2008. On display, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, in My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, until October 7.
WHEN Christian Thompson is talking to people he often visualises bright red waratahs, banksias, gum blossoms or flannel flowers sprouting from their mouths or protruding from their shoulders.
It is this visualisation that led to one of Thompson’s best known suite of photographs, Black Gum, from his Australian Graffiti series. But while you may chuckle at the thought of seeing native flora exploding from underneath a black hoodie, the images have a deeper message, according to Bruce McLean, curator of indigenous Australian art at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
‘‘ It is quite a sinister message relating to youth culture, but in particular the black hoodie is relating to gangs, to crime and to the facelessness of Aboriginal youth, and it is a really important way to think about these images,’’ McLean says.
‘‘ The photographs are striking, with a really powerful theme that Aboriginal youth incarceration rates are the highest of any group in the world.
‘‘ It is incredible to think at a time when we are thinking about reconciliation, and about closing the gap, that more and more youth, who will become the adult population, are being jailed and turning to crime.’’
This message was backed up in a recent essay, Unfinished Business: Reducing Indigenous Incarceration, by Stuart Ross, director of Melbourne Criminological Research and Evaluation at the University of Melbourne. Ross notes that from 2000 to 2010 the indigenous imprisonment rate increased by 52 per cent, while non-indigenous rates have hardly changed.
The Black Gum series highlights all these issues, and it is on display in My Country: I Still Call Australia Home at GOMA. The exhibition showcases the diversity of contemporary Aboriginal art, and Thompson’s photographs reflect a younger generation of artists who are telling their stories in a different and captivating way.
Black Gum 2 features the artist dressed in the black hoodie, his face virtually obscured behind a spray of blossoms. The flowers refer to how Aborigines are often considered just like flora and fauna, less than human, and to how Australian culture has been infatuated with native flora and the appropriation of its motifs.
On the subject of flowers, Thompson once wrote that he ‘‘ carries the flowers with him like the most quintessential Australian symbol. I think of the flowers as a particularly Australian palette and have composed them in my mind this way.’’
While Thompson thinks of himself first as a contemporary artist, he says he sees the world through the eyes of his mixed heritage. He was born in Gawler, South Australia, in 1978; his mother has British convict and free settler heritage, while his father’s culture is Bidjara, from Barcaldine, in Queensland.
In the past two years Thompson has gained a high profile. A graduate of the University of Southern Queensland and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, he became in 2010 one of the first Aboriginal Australians to be accepted into Oxford University. He was awarded an inaugural Charles Perkins scholarship and will soon complete his doctorate.
Earlier this year, for the first time in 450 years, Trinity College, Oxford, removed all the old conservative portraits from its dining room and replaced them with a survey show of Thompson’s work.
This month, to coincide with his selection in an Australian landscape exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, he also has a debut show at the Hospital Club Gallery in Covent Garden. Thompson also will be showing new photographic work, Pagan Sun, at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Fitzroy, Melbourne, from October 23 to November 16.
Type C photograph on paper, 108cm x 110cm