Oxford, England based Australian Indigenous contemporary artist Christian Thompson is a truly gifted individual. Not only is he an internationally renowned artist, he is also a highly respected scholar. In 2009 Thompson became the first Aboriginal Australian to be accepted into the University of Oxford in its 900 year history after receiving the inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholarship, a scholarship program established in 2009 in the memory of Dr Charlie Perkins AO, the first Australian Indigenous man to graduate from university.
Australia day 2013 marked the opening of an exciting exhibition of Thompson’s work at the Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum. Titled “We Bury Our Own,” the ground-breaking new body of work, consisting of eight large photographic self-portraits and a video installation, was made in response to the Pitt Rivers Museum’s historic photograph collection from Australia.
“I conceived the ‘We Bury Our Own’ series in 2010 after curator Christopher Morton invited me to develop a body of work that would be inspired by and in dialogue with the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum,” Thompson explains. “I knew that this project would be a fantastic platform and unique opportunity to engage with the collection and to make a vital contribution to the cultural fabric of Oxford University, to create a new gateway to consider such material.”
Thompson’s haunting series of photographic self-portraits are the culmination of a meditative and restorative journey into the inner psyche of his cultural kinfolk. Through a series of ritualistic pilgrimages influenced by the archival photos of Australia and its people in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Thompson contemplated and commemorated the lives of ancestral beings while at the same time initiated a new and empowering narrative that links the past with the present.
The portraits ask the viewer to consider the implications of the events of the past and their impact on current events. Through the combination of historically symbolic objects and references to contemporary culture, Thompson also initiates a dialogue relating to the relevance of the past to the present.
In “Down Under World,” for instance, Thompson depicts himself dressed in traditional Oxford garb, the mortarboard replaced by a spectacular gemstone crown; smaller gemstones cover his eyes. Thompson explains: “I heard a story many years ago from some old men, they told me about a ceremony where young warriors would make incisions through the flesh exposing the joints, they would insert gems between the bones to emulate the creator spirits, often enduring infection and agonizing pain or resulting in death. The story has stuck with me for many years, one that suggests immense pain fused with intoxicating beauty.”
“Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?,” Thompson asks.
Commenting on the exhibition, Christopher Morton, Curator of Photograph Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum said: “As Christian Thompson’s new work shows us, Aboriginal artists and curators are moving into an exciting new phase of creative engagement with their visual history, one that moves the debate on from the politics of race and injustice, towards multiple, complex, and hybrid identities in the present, and into the future.”
“Christian Thompson –We Bury Our Own” is on show at the Long Gallery, Pitt Rivers Museum (ground floor) until 17 February 2013.