When Christian Thompson was admitted to Oxford University in 2010, he had no idea that his mere presence would be groundbreaking.
“I didn’t know that there had never been an Aboriginal person admitted to Oxford; that was a complete surprise,” said Thompson, who earned a doctorate in fine art. Thompson’s first year at the university (along with fellow Aboriginal student Paul Gray, who started at the same time) was filled with “lots of meet-and-greets and press. The historical significance of us being there became a preoccupation for about 12 months,” Thompson said. Even his dining hall hosted a survey show of Thompson’s work, a noteworthy event since it marked the first time that the hall’s historic paintings had been taken off view in 450 years.
After the initial excitement ebbed, Thompson focused intently on his academics and deepened his commitment to the research methodologies behind art making. He was invited to respond to the Pitt Rivers Museum’s photographic collection, which includes an archive of colonial-era images of Indigenous Australians. Classified as “evidence,” these photos were historically associated with the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people; Thompson wanted to encounter them in new ways and pursue a sort of “spiritual repatriation,” an original concept and term coined by Thompson.
“It was really interesting to think about how the photographs could become active participants in and catalysts to forms of new cultural production and contemporary art,” Thompson said. “It was a challenge to think about how, as an artist, I was able to turn something quite dire into something positive and self-affirming.”
The outcome was a series of photographic images that Thompson titled We Bury Our Own. Thompson himself appears in each, often with his eyes or entire face obscured by iconic objects such as butterflies, flowers, and a tall ship bearing the Union Jack. Images from the series have been exhibited widely, including in Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, the current special exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums.
“I’ve been happily surprised that it’s been shown all over the world,” Thompson said of We Bury Our Own. “It surpassed my expectations.” He believes the relationship between his work and the Pitt Rivers’s collection provides an entry point for many people to connect with the art. The series also addresses a rubric of museum display, prompting consideration of the power systems inherent in museums, he said.
Unlike many of the other artists featured in Everywhen, Thompson is based abroad (in London) rather than in Australia. Yet as a member of the Bidjara people of southwest Queensland, his Indigenous point of view is integral to everything he does.
“It’s how I see the world,” Thompson said. “I speak from my own cultural perspective, and sometimes it’s more obvious in my art, sometimes it’s not as present. It just depends on how I’m feeling.”
This is indeed the case with his photographic and sculptural art. “Often what I’m trying to do is create a relationship between objects that I’m wearing on my body,” Thompson said. “There is always the sense of it being a political statement about my body as a young Aboriginal male that has resonance. It then becomes inherently politicized, but sometimes it has nothing to do with that.”
One identity that feels especially significant to Thompson is that of artist-academic. The completion of his doctoral program “altered my perception of myself and my relationship to the art world, as well as to art history,” he said.
And in a way, Thompson continues to wear his student hat. Last fall, he was mentored by performance artist Marina Abramović, during her residency in Sydney. He took part in workshops and artist conversations, and even spent time participating in Abramović’s work (which involved the monotonous task of separating rice and lentils for hours at a time).
“I really engaged in Marina’s work, and as a result I feel like I encountered the essence of her practice, which is about slowing down time and freeing ourselves from being trapped in the modern world,” Thompson said.
That sentiment, shared by many across geographic, social, ethnic, and other boundaries, continues to resonate with Thompson, and could spark future projects. “All the different moments from that experience have stuck with me,” he said.