Christian Thompson is an Australian born London-based contemporary artist whose work explores notions of identity, cultural hybridity, and history; often referring to the relationships between these concepts and the environment. Formally trained as a sculptor, Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice engages mediums such as photography, video, sculpture, performance, and sound. His work focuses on the exploration of identity, sexuality, gender, race, and memory. In his live performances and conceptual anti-portraits he inhabits a range of personas achieved through handcrafted costumes and carefully orchestrated poses and backdrops.
In 2010 Thompson, a Bidjara man, made history when he became the first Aboriginal Australian to be admitted into the University of Oxford in its 900-year history. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy (Fine Art), Trinity College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom; Master of Theatre, Amsterdam School of Arts, Das Arts, The Netherlands; Masters of Fine Art (Sculpture) RMIT University and Honours (Sculpture) RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia; and a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. In 2015 performance artist Marina Abramovic mentored him.
His works are held in major international and national collections. Thompson has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally.
You’ve just finished your thesis at Oxford University, where you were the first Indigenous person to be accepted in their 90-year history. Tell me about that experience?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (laughs). I graduate in a couple of months but I feel like I’m only just unwinding from it. It’s like living in an alternate reality for 5 years and then coming back to the real world again. It was incredibly intense academically, emotionally, creatively; you just lived and breathed that for five years.
For me the best part about it was the challenge of being there. I knew that I always wanted to do my PhD – I didn’t necessarily think I would end up at Oxford and I think it has really enriched my work in the sense that my theoretical dissertation was really looking at the history of artists who’ve worked with museums; from Duchamp to Warhol to Hans Hacker to Andrea Fraser to James Luna and then I arrived at Fred Wilson’s work Mining The Museum at the Maryland historical society as a benchmark for museum collaboration. And then I demonstrated how my exhibition added to that lineage of artists but extended upon it as well. It was a great moment to take pause and reinvigorate my practice intellectually.
Today is National Sorry Day. Having lived overseas for such a long time now has that given you a new perspective on Aboriginal reconciliation? From your point of view what would you like to see in terms of government action?
There is the beauty of distance and in fact in London there isn’t this sense of a politicised or stigmatised lens on my identity, I’m just a regular person going about my day to day things and following my impulses as a human being and not as an Aboriginal person. I do think that things have changed. I think the change the date campaign is really building momentum. I just see this younger generation like my friends’ kids who are in their 20s and they are kind of unapologetic about who they are and their culture, identity and background. I see that strength and I think it’s taken so many generations to have these sassy little hip things and it’s cool to see that it’s changing. I grew up in QLD and it was incredibly racist place and you were always sort of targeted for being aboriginal and being proud of who you were. No one afforded you any sort of privileges or special treatment because your mum was white. I was always actively discriminated against because my father was black and that’s a highly politicised identity, I really think I’ve seen the culture shift and change and it’s coming from a groundswell and I think this younger generation they are just so much more enlightened and empathetic.
The statistics about Aboriginal people are still really outrageous and there are a lot of opportunities that are being missed. I think people shouldn’t have to compromise their beliefs and their connection to country to able to have a fair shot at being an engaged and valuable part of society.
For example, I think that renewable energy would be an amazing opportunity to create economic infrastructure in communities where people can still get an amazing education in a technologically advanced area and actually have a purpose and a vocation without comprising their culture, identity, values and language to move into the city which is not appealing. These ideas just simply aren’t embraced or implemented because of a lack vision and a lack of foresight.
Did you always want to be an artist growing up and have you got other creative people in your family?
My grandfather is a painter and one of my cousins is a painter and my mother did ceramics when we were little, so there are a lot of creative types on both sides of my family. Whether I wanted to be an artist or not – not really. I didn’t really know that was a job that you could do. I was always quite creative and my mother always said if I had a pen and paper I was always quite happy. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I was taken aside by two of my teachers and they said ‘we really think you could have a career as an artist and you’ve really got what it takes’. And then when I finally went to university, I was to-ing and fro-ing between fine art or theatre. I had an audition for the theatre department and I thought it was not really my scene. I felt that art was more flexible as it would allow me to pursue my theatre interests within the broader scope of my practice and I think a lot of my work is very performative – everything in my work has a performative action in it in, there’s music, there’s acting and there’s costume.
I heard that you were trained as an opera singer is that correct?
I’ve done some opera training at a basic level, yes (laughs). I have a Masters in Theatre from the Amsterdam School of Art
You are clearly really drawn to music, is that something that still presents itself in your work?
Yes, we just did a show at Monash with three channel video installation called Berceau which is an old French word which means cradle song. It’s an immersive sound environment where I’m singing in my native tongue. The Mordant commission which I’m doing at ACMI very much draws on music as well, it’s basically like a virtual film clip. You’ll be in this world where you’ll hear my voice kind of emanating around you inside this landscape of my childhood.
Your exhibition We Bury Our Own, which was exhibited at Harvard, Oxford and various galleries throughout Australia was developed in response to the Pitt Rivers Museum’s historic photograph collection from Australia, including many images of Aboriginal people. You often talk about the work being a ‘spiritual repatriation’. What do you mean by this?
When I think about what my role is as an artist and how is my approach different from say a historian or an anthropologist, for me I felt as though I was a conduit for the collection and transferring that aura and releasing the figures from that kind of historical entrapment and channelling that into something that was new that was dynamic and connected to my own experiences as an Aboriginal person living today. I wanted to create a space that was a window into the past and historical practices, but one that very much was connected to the lived experience of people today. People often forget that when looking at historical photos of Aboriginal people – that they were actually real people who had families, communities and languages. I also wanted the work to be a window into a different kind of future. That term seemed to capture what my agenda was.
Tell me about the work presented in the current exhibition ‘Lake Dolly’ at Michael Reid Gallery?
The series is titled Lake Dolly which is named after the creek where my grandfather grew up just outside of western Queensland. It’s really a kind of extension upon the last series I did which is called Museum Of Others where I wear masks of different colonial figures such as Captain Cook, Norman Tindale and John Ruskin. In those works, I cut out the eyes out of those colonial figures and I’m wearing them. I was really interested in inverting that idea to sort of replace the eyes with these landscapes as a metaphor for my internal emotional terrain and personal journeys. The headdresses are loosely inspired by Sephardic Jewish headdresses as my ancestry traces back to Spain, so I looked at sourced images and I took them to a florist in Melbourne who I’ve worked with for more than 10 years and these were the designs we came up with. The flowers are all Australian natives. I guess over the years I’ve been trying to bring my art making and my life together so I’m always trying to capture backgrounds; whenever I travel I always take my camera with me and it’s a way of sort of documenting where I’ve been between the production of one body of work and the next body of work.
My work is auto-ethnographic, so it’s really about a process of sort of trying to research and connecting that to my own autobiography and then bringing together broader socio-political meanings and understandings. That’s kind of the trajectory of my work. But then I’m also interested in the juxtaposition of the masculine with the fragile beauty of the natural world and the symbiosis between man and nature. I like to put images out there that are subversive that rupture the zeitgeist images, and that present an alternative view of my aboriginal masculinity and also my indigeneity. I’m interested in images which sort of sit outside the binary oppositions that we are often presented in the western ideal of masculinity.