In one photograph, Christian Thompson's head can be just seen emerging from a fabric sheath resembling an old-fashioned gramophone horn. In another, he wears an elaborate helmet made of maps, including one of the distribution of Aboriginal language groups, cut into triangular pieces. Another piece uses British flags and flowers "kind of inspired by the punk movement and ideas of nationalism and sovereignty" that harks back to Vivienne Westwood and David Bowie. Thompson, 37, is an Indigenous artist from Barcaldine in Queensland "13 hours inland from Brisbane" as he puts it. Barcaldine to a café in London's Soho, where we now sit: it's quite a journey.
Thompson is talking about the images in his small show The Imperial Relic; he is at the heart of each one, literally as well as imaginatively. "I'm interested in ideas of submission and domination," he says. "So the trumpet headpiece is beautiful, but it also potentially muffles or silences the voice. The same thing with maps: they are purporting different kinds of historical narrative, depending who is telling the story. One is about the history of Indigenous people, one is about the history of white colonisers and then one is about the idea of charting the land and of discovery. I'm wearing it as an armature over my own body: that's part of my own history but also of Australian history."
The Imperial Relic has been made by Thompson at the behest of Australia's Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. It is the first work he has made since finishing a practice doctorate at Oxford University, which he attended with the assistance of a scholarship named for the indefatigable Indigenous activist Charles Perkins. This week he was named as one of a small group of artists chosen to work as "conductors" with performance artist Marina Abramovic in the Kaldor Public Art Project in Sydney next month, but he is anything but cocky. Actually, he keeps apologising for talking too much, despite my assurances that this is a desirable thing in interviewees.
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