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Dressed in a black hoodie with his face concealed by a spray of red bottle brush flowers, the artist poses from three angles in the manner of a police mug shot. Christian Thompson’s Black Gum 1 – 3, from the Australian graffiti series, is now held in the National Gallery of Australia—and rightly so, for the way it demonstrates Michelangelo’s injunction that a powerful artwork must combine opposing forces. Since the rise of hip-hop and leisure wear in the seventies, the black hoodie has increasingly become associated with criminal activity. Through the juxtaposition of the Callistemon with ‘crimewear’, the artist deftly frames two key aspects of the plight imposed upon Indigenous people in Australia: the appallingly high rates of incarceration and the destruction of sacred land.
Co-curated by Hetti Perkins and Charlotte Day, the survey exhibition Ritual Intimacy reveals how thoroughly Thompson has explored self-portraiture through photography and video. There is an endearing, but nonetheless absurdist posturing at play in his work that takes cues from glamour photography and competitive singing programs, such as Australian Idol. The artist is upfront about this declaration for glamour; the very first work we encounter at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) is the exuberant Untitled #6 from the King Billy series. Here, Thompson models a pastel-coloured suit emblazoned with the pattern of a dot painting. Commissioned by the Dutch, and made in China, the suit is an example of the ruthless pillaging of Indigenous culture that the artist insistently subverts.
Thompson’s eyes reveal a pronounced tension between concealment and revelation. In many of the photographs, his eyes are obscured; by flowers, butterflies, crystals, clothing, hands, or jewelry. Marina Warner explains that, ‘he is charging his image with presence; such shape-shifting unsettles ascribed labels and keeps his self, body and soul fluid, mysterious and elusive’.1 In the video works, including the recently commissioned Berceuse (2017), Thompson’s gaze is steadfast, even arresting. Such variations in eye contact might be explained by the following observation: that whilst photography is reserved for the mining of more outlandish selves, the artist presents his ‘everyday self’ in video format. Or as Freud might explain it: the photography stems from the artist’s fantasy-oriented id, whilst the videos are drawn from the artist’s ego; a self that is modified by the external world.
Thompson’s heritage lies with the Bidjara People of mid-western Queensland. For the artist, this country begins with the bottle trees planted by his great-grandfather in the main street of Tambo. From the useful didactic material accompanying the exhibition, we learn that Thompson’s great-grandfather (in defiance of laws preventing Indigenous land ownership at the time) acquired land further west near Barcaldine, and in this way created a haven for his family. But Thompson makes the point that these works need not be seen through the lens of Indigenous culture to be understood or enjoyed.2 When we realise that, as a child of the air force, much of his life was spent moving, the endlessly revolving costumes resonate strongly with a peripatetic background. Cindy Sherman emerges as a crucial influence.
There are strong connections between Thompson and other artists from Queensland too. The series Lost Together, a meditation on the attempt to connect with nature and personal history, presents the artist in a bush setting dressed in drag. The suggestion of self at a distance from heritage chimes strongly with the Jawoyn artist Troy-Anthony Baylis. Baylis describes how his drag personae share the strategy of queering ‘to unsettle the ways that Aboriginality is constructed as pure and untainted by the complexity of sexuality, mixed ethnographies, mixed geographies and mixed appearances’.3
It comes as no surprise that Thompson’s early studies were in sculpture and textiles: clothing is regularly manipulated, and at times stretched, to create illusory patterns. Included in the catalogue, Untitled #7 from the King Billy series, sees his face entirely obscured by the (aforementioned) dot-patterned leisure wear. Thompson is crowned, and when the patterns on the fabric form a kind of alien mask, one cannot help but think of Luke Roberts’s Pope Alice project. Roberts, who co-incidentally also hails from mid-western Queensland, has been instrumental in the representation of outback Queensland within the context of Australian contemporary art.
More recently, Thompson’s exploration of identity has extended to the revival of the extinct Bidjara language. Along the MUMA corridor, Perspex domes enclose acoustic works: in one example, ‘muna’ (translated as bee) is repeated to create an onomatopoeic hum. And in the recently commissioned Berceuse, Thompson sings a dramatic love song (about betrayal) in the Bidjara language.
When we think back to Michelangelo’s dictum of opposites, perhaps what we see in Thompson is not so much a conflation of opposing forces, but the idea that contrary states can exist at the same time. Whether in his life as an artist, as a campaigner for extinct languages, or as a mentor to young Indigenous Australians, one can only wish him well.
Christian Thompson, Untitled #7 (from the series King Billy), 2010. Courtesy the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.
Christian Thompson, Hannah’s Diary (from the series Lost together), 2009. Courtesy the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.
Christian Thompson, Black gum 3 (from the series Australian graffiti), 2008. Courtesy the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.
Christian Thompson, Untitled #6 (from the series King Billy) 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.
1. Marina Warner ‘Magical Aesthetics’, Ritual Intimacy, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2017, p.63.
2. See www.christianthompson.net/single-post/2014/11/13/Christian-Thompson-interview
3. ‘Troy-Anthony Baylis: Artist Profile’, Artlink, June 2012. See https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/3793/queerly-speaking/