A MAN walks into a room. He wears a hoodie low over his face, gangland style. The sound of a harsh, computerised, recorded voice fills the room: "Aboriginal stars, Aboriginal art, Aboriginal porn stars, Aboriginal camera, Aboriginal cat, Aboriginal dog, Aboriginal cock, Aboriginal problem, Aboriginal Nicole Kidman, Aboriginal brother, Aboriginal elder, Aboriginal baby, Aboriginal Madonna, Aboriginal iPod, Aboriginal cause, Aboriginal Obama Barack, Aboriginal future, Aboriginal glitter, Aboriginal doll ... " and so it goes on. The audience shifts uncomfortably.
Then, as unexpectedly as it starts, the voice stops. The artist pushes the hoodie from his face, undoes the zipper and removes it. Underneath there is another hoodie. And another. Welcome to the opening scene of Tree of Knowledge, a live performance piece by trailblazing contemporary artist Christian Thompson.
Thompson is Bidjara, from central western Queensland. He shuns traditional art practices and instead continually refashions his body as his performing device. In Tree of Knowledge, he sings in language, dances and employs evocative dialogue. In others, he uses fantastical costumes and disguises, derived from landscape, history and cultural tradition, to construct layers of themes and meanings in his illusory works. His aim is to surprise, amuse, challenge and confront his audience with the complexities of identity.
Thompson created the 45-minute piece described above in 2009 at the Amsterdam School of Arts (DasArts), where he completed a coveted international residency. It gave him a master of theatre and acted as an international launch pad for his groundbreaking work.
In the past two years, he has exhibited in group shows in Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, South Korea, Canada, Britain, the US and Australia, at galleries from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht to Canberra's National Gallery of Australia. His photographic self-portraits and video work are acquired nationally and internationally by important private and public collections.
In September, he will hold his debut show in London's Convent Garden; he will be part of an extensive Australian landscape show to be held at the Royal Academy and will deliver the prestigious annual Arthur Boyd lecture on Australian art. Locally, his distinctive work is on view at Sydney's Anna Schwartz Gallery, Carriageworks, as part of the Debil Debil: Australian Ghosts exhibition, and in the Museum of Contemporary Art's touring show The Wandering. Next month, his work will also feature in My Country, I Still Call Australia Home, a major show of contemporary indigenous works at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art.
As well, Thompson is one of the first indigenous Australians to study at Oxford University. Awarded one of the inaugural Charles Perkins scholarships in 2010, he aims to complete a doctorate in fine art later this year.
Given his many commitments, it is perhaps something of a coup for the Art Gallery of NSW that Thompson has agreed to a single performance of Tree of Knowledge this month as part of the Anne Landa award for digital and new media, and the ensuing exhibition The Space Between Us. He originally unveiled the work at the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, in 2010. He has performed it only a few times since at Modern Art Oxford. A finalist in this year's Anne Landa award for his immersive audio work Healing Circle, Thompson arrives home next week for the exhibition's opening. He spoke to Review in a telephone interview from Oxford.
"My formal training is in sculpture and textiles but there has always been a desire to get close to real time," he says. "Photography, and latterly video and live performance, seemed like a very convenient way of documenting and demonstrating the performative nature of my sculptures. I tend to build images, rather than take photos or videos, and I use my body as an armature to do that.
"I definitely see the world through the eyes of my mixed heritage, and while I think of myself as a contemporary artist first, I am constantly remixing and reconfiguring the world through my lived experiences. So my background is a very important part of that."
A fine art graduate of the University of Southern Queensland and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Thompson came to artistic notice in 2002 for his photographic series Blaks Palace . It features prominent indigenous Australians such as Marcia Langton entangled in vastly oversized knitted jumpers.
Emotional Striptease followed in 2003. It was a reworking of colonial photographs of indigenous peoples, and depicted striking young Aborigines, including Thompson, in vestiges of Victorian colonial dress, armed with traditional hunting weapons. Australian Graffiti (2008), another photographic work, featured self-portraits of Thompson, in regal pose and adorned with headpieces of native flora. Two of these works, Black Gum 1 & 2, depict Thompson in a black hoodie, his face camouflaged by wattle blossom; they were bought by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton for their collection. Others were acquired by the NGA and The Netherlands' Aboriginal Art Museum.
"Often in the past I felt compelled to do a work in response to some news article or conflict I had," he says. "Both my videos Desert Slippers and The Sixth Mile in 2006 were works I did with my father and brothers and nephew around the time there was a lot of Aboriginal man bashing in the media. Alcoholism, wife beating and pedophilia in communities and sensational headlines every day; that just wasn't the experience I had had. So those works were a kind of response, and I thought rather than responding with anger, I will respond with love."
In January, for the first time in 450 years, Trinity College, Oxford, removed the ancient paintings in its dining room and replaced them with a survey show of Thompson's work. It included pieces from We Bury Our Own, his latest series of photographic self-portraits.
The work was conceived when Thompson visited the archive of historic photos of Aboriginal people held at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. We Bury Our Own explores the issues of spiritual repatriation, identity and cultural hybridity - all matters close to Thompson's heart.
Thompson was born in Gawler, South Australia, in 1978; his mother, Barbara, is of British convict and free settler descent; his father, Gary, a Bidjara man from Barcaldine, was a warrant officer in the RAAF. By the time he was 15, Thompson had lived in SA, the Northern Territory, NSW and Queensland.
"When my parents married in the 1970s, interracial marriage was still quite taboo, but we have always been part of the Aboriginal community wherever we moved," he says. "My mother always said, 'You are Aboriginal and you should be very proud of that.' So I had a lot of support from my parents in terms of negotiating that collision of different cultures.
Come school holidays, Thompson's parents would drive Thompson and his three brothers the 13 hours to Barcaldine, located in Queensland's desert hinterland, where the sand becomes red earth.
"Being a military kid is not easy, because for kids uprooting yourself every two to four years is hard. But it didn't matter where Dad was posted, come Christmas and Easter we would drive back out home to Barcaldine and spend the holidays with my grandmother, great aunts and cousins.
"I think because Dad's family was so far away and we went back every year, and a lot of our traditional ideologies are still very intact, I grew up with a very strong sense of our culture and I always saw the world from that point of view. Barcaldine is still very much my spiritual home, no matter where I am in the world today."
Although he visits regularly, Thompson says leaving Australia has allowed his art to flourish. "When I lived in Australia I felt very reflective ... that every time I made an artwork it was reactionary, and I knew that wasn't a healthy state for a creative person. Living here I feel I can see Australia more objectively, because I think for most Aboriginal people, you are born into a very stigmatised, politicised identity. Now I feel like I make work because I am compelled to do it.
"I grew up having a sense of collective responsibility and a consciousness of other Aboriginal people, and although it was something I naturally took on, I now feel a connection to my own creative process that is not tainted by being in a highly politicised kind of environment."
Hetti Perkins, a long-time friend and mentor, daughter of Charles Perkins and resident curator at the Bangarra Dance Theatre, describes Thompson as a "precocious talent". As a schoolboy, Thompson wrote to her for career advice. At the time she was senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the AGNSW. "My Dad gave a talk to the students at Christian's school in Queensland, and Christian had no trouble going up to Dad afterwards and introducing himself. It was pretty prescient to do that at such a young age. It was a good indication of what was to come."
Reflecting on this childhood meeting with Charles Perkins, who died in 2000, Thompson says: "I haven't told anyone this but I said to Mr Perkins, 'It's easy for people who fit the stereotype, but what about people like me who are in-betweens?' He replied, 'It doesn't matter what's on the outside. What matters is what is in here.' And he gestured to his heart.
"I had come from living in NSW, where I was like a novelty to other kids, to Queensland, where it was very segregated and deeply racist, so that moment was life-changing to me. To be told that by Charlie Perkins, who was so revered and so very loved, and to think all these years later I would be here holding this scholarship at Oxford in his name - I feel that experience has driven me here, to make him and the rest of my community proud.
"And to send a message home that there is a place for us here, in these great spaces, to do great things.
"When another Aboriginal kid from the most remote part of Australia can come to Oxford and can see my work on the walls and be comforted by that, then I will know my job has been done."
The Space Between Us: Anne Landa Award exhibition at AGNSW, May 16 to July 28. The award winner will be announced on June 20. Christian Thompson will perform Tree of Knowledge on June 12 at 7pm. My Country: I Still Call Australia Home opens at GOMA in Brisbane on June 1.