Until July 8, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) is exhibiting Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy, the first survey of work by one of Australia’s most intriguing contemporary artists. The exhibition is co-curated by Hetti Perkins and myself. Alongside her long-standing curatorial relationship with Christian, Hetti is also the presenter of art + soul, the ABC’s series on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and she featured Thompson in the second series. Three of her daughters even feature in one of Christian’s works in MUMA’s exhibition.
2017 is a huge year for Christian: as well as the MUMA show he is about to be awarded his doctorate from the University of Oxford, as one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to graduate from that historic and hallowed institution. At ACMI later this year he will also present work created for the inaugural Mordant Family VR Commission, an $80,000 award encouraging artists to experiment with virtual reality.
As can be seen throughout his works in Ritual Intimacy, Christian Thompson maintains an undeniable closeness to and respect and reverence for his family heritage and country, the lands surrounding what is now known as Barcaldine in central west Queensland.
Much of his work springs from a very personal and intimate relationship to this place. He relishes the role of being a custodian of his family’s stories and history, and sharing these cultural traditions, rituals and spiritualism with a wider audience.
Increasingly, he has incorporated the Bidjara language into his work, driven by the strong belief that if even one word of an officially ‘endangered’ language is spoken, it continues to be a living language. He honours and uses the Bidjara language in Bercuese, a deeply moving three-channel video work MUMA commissioned for Ritual Intimacy, and it is to be the focus of his work for ACMI too.
In Bercuese, Christian begins by addressing the camera directly, as he often does in his videos and photography, confidently returning the gaze. He sings a lullaby in Bidjara, but in this piece his face splits into a number of focused parts – eyes and mouth – and then transforms into a silhouette. The silhouette connects us to a pre-photographic representation of the subject, to longer histories and stretches of time: the subject only ever partially known or knowable. This contrasts with the continuing lull of Christian’s voice, which returns us to the present, to a moment of shared intimacy.
When co-curator Hetti Perkins and I first began developing the exhibition with Christian, we were keen to look at how his Australian background informs his work and how his increasing periods of time spent outside Australia – most specifically through performance studies in the Netherlands at Das Arts and his PhD at the University of Oxford – have impacted on his thinking, skill set and resulting works.
Christian’s work, most famously in photographic series such as the Australian Grafitti series of 2007 where he masks his face behind native flora, shares his proud sense of Aboriginal identity. Importantly, however, the concept of identity is never expressed as one dimensional, fixed or limited in his practice. Indeed, recognising the many influences and layers of experience through which the self is constructed is a central concern of his practice and a quality that most distinguishes it. From the intimate gestures between father and son in The Sixth Mile, 2006, to his more flamboyant personas, such as the green man in 'Untitled #6' (from the series King Billy) of 2010 or 'Ellipse' (from the series Polari) from 2014, a complexity is achieved in which domestic life, pop culture, Indigenous knowledge and language, ritual and art-making coalesce and challenge prevailing stereotypes, particularly around gender, sexuality and race.
While some of Christian’s works are steeped in his own rich internal world of thoughts and feelings, other significant references and associations relate his practice to the external world of contemporary politics and the continuing impact of colonisation. In Australia, where the systematic silencing of Indigenous languages and voices was legislated through white assimilationist policies, returning and reanimating ancestral languages becomes a powerful force, as does the attention to mind, body and spirit, which can be sorely lacking in much mainstream Australian culture.
During his sojourn at Oxford University, Christian worked closely with the anthropological collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum, renegotiating the spoils of imperialism. In works such as the series We bury our own, 2012, his process of “spiritual repatriation” avoids re-appropriating these troubled artefacts. The history of the European coloniser – and his gaze – is addressed more specifically in Museum of others, 2016, in which Christian’s eyes peer back at us through the face-masks of influential explorers, archaeologists and scientists.
While Christian engages with histories and their consequences, which can weigh heavily, at the same time there is a quixotic, even flirtatious quality to his work – something that can only be described as quintessentially Christian. We are beguiled by his elaborate masquerades and simple yet beautiful songs in Bidjara, by his experiments with different media and cultural practices – learning Morris dancing for one work and engaging a baroque opera singer for another. There is a bravado and openness to his practice that draws us in and contributes to the uniqueness of the voice he projects.
Christian is such an exciting artist and I am definitely looking forward to seeing Bayi Gardiya (Singing Desert), his proposed work at ACMI.