The Age: Indigenous artists tap soul of their homelands
July 4, 2014
Indigenous artists tap soul of their homelands
Queensland-born indigenous artist Christian Thompson’s connection to the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins and his art curator daughter Hetti Perkins seems fated, somehow.
Their paths have crossed in various and unexpected ways throughout Thompson’s life. And it’s through the Perkins family that he is now at one of the world’s most esteemed educational institutions, Oxford University.
As a boy, Thompson met Perkins senior when he visited his school. ‘‘That was the most kind of obscure school in regional Queensland, so it was an unlikely place to have met him,’’ says Thompson of the man who was a driving force behind the freedom rides in New South Wales and the yes vote in the 1967 referendum to include Aboriginal Australians in the census.
In his teens, Thompson developed a connection with Hetti, a curator and writer. He wrote to her, asking her for advice about how to become an artist. From that initial correspondence developed a mentorship that continues today.
‘‘I was doing my undergraduate uni in Queensland and there weren't really many resources on contemporary Aboriginal art at all, there was really no material there,’’ Thompson says, speaking by phone from England this week.
‘‘I started writing to Hetti…we had correspondence by snail mail when I was about 16, asking for information about artists and how to get started.’’
Now Thompson, 36, is studying his master's at Oxford as one of the first recipients of a scholarship in Charles Perkins’ name (Perkins was the first indigenous Australian to graduate from Sydney University).
And he and Hetti have been brought together again, returning to his home town of Barcaldine in central Queensland, for the second series of her ABC TV program art + soul. Thompson is one of a number of indigenous artists – including filmmaker Warwick Thornton and visual artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Esme Timbery and Julie Gough – from around Australia who take Perkins into their communities and inside their art practice in the series.
‘‘It was very sweet because he...met dad, which was really lovely,’’ says Perkins of Thompson. ‘‘Christian, he’s quite the precocious person. It’s really wonderful, so there’s a really nice serendipity or synergy there.’’
The series is an attempt at conveying the depth of talent among indigenous artists in Australia, says Perkins, the former indigenous curator at the Art Gallery of NSW.
‘‘We’re really trying to mix it up a bit and show the kind of diversity that we have in this country.’’
The series also demonstrates the connections between younger and older indigenous artists, and those in both urban and remote communities, as well as the importance of a sense of place in their work, she says. ‘‘I think it does come through very strongly," Perkins says. "Obviously all artists are very cognisant of their environment and respond to it or not. With indigenous artists it is so important a part of their identity it becomes a very salient element of their work.’’
Thompson, who appears in the third episode, explains his process, the influence of his family and their ancestral lands on his work, and how he creates his art.
His works range from video to performance art and photography. In his more recent pieces he has painted his body and face and worn coloured contact lenses before photographing himself, almost depicting himself as a changeling or shape shifter.
Thompson, who has been living, working and studying in Europe for the past seven years, says his scholarship to Oxford was ‘‘kind of accidental’’ and unexpected.
‘‘I was doing a master's at the Amsterdam School of Art and then after I finished I didn’t really know where I was going or what I was going to do.
‘‘I knew that there had been a [Charles Perkins] foundation set up and I think I just Googled it and I think it was that year that they had announced that scholarship program.
‘‘My friends said I should at least put in an application. I had a phone interview. I wasn’t really planning on doing any more study, as the master's in theatre, that was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.’’
Since winning the scholarship, his time at Oxford has been divided between a practice-led dissertation and studio work. His major project there responds to historical items from the Pitt Rivers Museum, part of the university’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, which houses archaeological and ethnographic objects, including those from Australia.
‘‘The exhibition I had at the Pitt Rivers Museum was kind of my major project and the dissertation is the theoretical ... Something I’ve observed in [my] photos is this strong kind of ceremonial aspect, men’s ceremonies especially, this aspect of reinvention, reincarnation and metamorphosis, to the ancestral, creative spirits, an inherent aspect of traditional life.
‘‘I thought that was something that I could bring into contemporary expression of who I am as a person in the world.
‘‘I guess they are quite theatrical,’’ he says of his recent works. ‘‘The idea of artifice is something I was interested in, in terms of trying to not so much focus on representing myself, trying to get as far away from myself as possible and at the same time getting very close to who I am through that.’’
Returning to Barcaldine to film with Perkins, and running into relatives at almost every step, reminded him of how much he missed his family and homelands, and took him straight back to the ‘‘magical’’ place where he spent much of his childhood.
‘‘I guess it’s the beauty of distance and that the way that you remember somewhere is through the prism of your own imagination and your memory. In terms of my own work, I sort of delve into my memories, but it’s also connected very much to my lived experience in the moment, at different times, in different places. I let things percolate and manifest over a period of time. There are still things that I visit in my work now that I was thinking about in high school or as a child.
‘‘It was just so nice to take Hetti to Barcaldine. She’d never actually been there. To me it was really lovely to go back. It had been so long since I’d been back that I think that I realised in that moment how homesick I really was, not just on a spiritual kind of level. I felt like my soul had really been yearning [for] that time, that place where I grew up.’’