It’s a warm Monday morning on the grounds of Trinity College, and the scene is postcard Oxford: limestone buildings, manicured grass, a tower with a gilded clock. My guide is Christian Thompson, an artist and doctoral student born in South Australia’s Gawler.
“The gardens are lovely at this time of year. Those are the living quarters, like little mansions,” he says, leading the way along the gravel path. He nods to a white-haired figure, the college president. “And there’s Sir Ivor.” On to the chapel and dining hall: “Gotta love a faux-marble wash.”
In one sense Thompson, 34, is an Oxford kind of guy. He likes a button-down shirt as much as a bon mot. But he’s also a Bidjara man, descending on his father’s side from the Kunja people of central western Queensland. Until two years ago, when Thompson and Paul Gray, from Sydney, arrived, there had never been an Aboriginal Australian student in any Oxford college.
Thompson and Gray were the inaugural Charlie Perkins scholars, funded by a trust honouring the late Sydney University graduate. The body has financial backing from the Australian and British governments, among others.
The cohort has since grown. This September, three new Perkins scholars enrolled at British universities – two at Oxford, one at Cambridge. With Rebecca Richards, who in 2010 became the first Aboriginal Rhodes scholar, that makes five Aboriginal students in the city of dreaming spires.
“I imagined it would be like Brideshead Revisited,” Thompson says. “That or the film The Naked Civil Servant.” He shifts into an English accent to mimic John Hurt’s version of Quentin Crisp. “Don’t you understand? There’s a world full of Aboriginals out there.”
When I ask what made him want to come here, he leads me away from the croquet lawns of Trinity and past the copper-domed Rhodes House to another monument of colonial-era Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum. It’s a renowned repository of anthropological loot, with an Australian collection that runs to some 16,000 items. Thompson first heard of it years ago, particularly its photographic trove: “About eight large binders full of images of Aboriginal people. By well-known photographers and relative amateurs. Large plate-glass negatives and smaller images. A lot of central desert Aranda people, a lot from Victoria and Queensland.”
The receptionist says hello to Christian as we go through the back entrance. Thompson’s has become a familiar face. When he first arrived, he spent many months poring over the collections.
“It was quite an emotional experience because you’re looking at photographs of people who often have no name. There’s very little information about the community that they’re from.” Many of the images featured in First Australians, the landmark SBS documentary series from 2008. When Thompson recognised one male elder as the likely relative of a friend, he used Facebook to introduce his friend to the museum’s photography curator. The past is not really past, Thompson says. “The collections are still very much a part of these communities.”
The museum also hosts his response, a photographic series that forms part of his doctoral output. His exhibition is in a long gallery off the main museum hall. Thompson’s career as an artist began in the 1990s, and a number of major museums hold his work. This series consists of lavish C-type prints, nearly all self-portraits, although his presence seems secondary to the various objects surrounding him in each shot: flowers, crystals, votive candles, a painted frame, a model of a four-masted British warship.
What you do not see are the old Pitt Rivers photos. Thompson disclaims the right to redisplay them without biographical information. “What I’m giving,” he explains, “is a contemporary indigenous response to these materials.” The point, in his words, is “spiritual repatriation”. Hence the show’s title, ‘We Bury Our Own’. It comes with a gorgeous soundscape, a recording of the Australian opera singer Jeremy Vinogradov performing in the Bidjara language.
Moving on to the museum’s main hall, Thompson begins to browse, wandering from case to crammed glass case. Among his favourite exhibits are a cross-hatched message stick, made from acacia – “which is actually from my country, the heart of where my father’s from” – and a display on English witchcraft.
Its charms include a ‘witches’ ladder’ (made of rope and cock feathers and meant for use in stealing milk or causing deaths), a pair of dried mole’s feet (“like little hands”) for curing toothaches and, from Oxfordshire itself, an impaled slug for dispatching warts. “I love the fact that England has its own mythology, a folkloric belief that isn’t [from] that long ago really.”
And that ends the tour. The next day, Thompson and his exhibition are off to Singapore, then it’s on to the US. Once back in Oxford, he’ll create another show that will, in another first, displace the hoary oil portraits in Trinity’s dining hall. And of course there is the other part of his doctoral output, his thesis.
In this, Perkins scholars are no different from other students. “Once you’re inside the institution,” Thompson says, “no concessions are made. No one’s going to cut you any slack. There’s a lot of pressure put on us, not only to get through but to perform at the highest level.”
Socially, he’s found that people can be “closed”, or competitive with knowledge. “It’s hard to build a sense of community. It took me about a year to build a group of friends I wanted to hang out with.” At the same time he can rattle off a list of people who have been “super supportive”, and there are many things, impaled slugs aside, he loves about Oxford. “There’s no culture of philistinism. It’s very accepting of the role of art in the university.”
On Broad Street, Trinity’s tall front gates are in view. Thompson smiles and says goodbye. “It’s been really nice to speak fluent Australian.”
Jo Lennan is a writer based in Sydney. She contributes to TIME, the Economist and Intelligent Life.