Christian Thompson is a fantastic artist from Melbourne, Australia, who I’ve been lucky enough to make acquaintance with at the University of Oxford. Christian is just finishing his doctorate in fine art at Oxford as the inaugural Charlie Perkins scholar, and is one of the first Aboriginal Australians to ever study at the renowned university. (You can read more about his fascinating research in this recent Guardian article.) I’ve been meaning to write a post about Christian’s work ever since I saw his excellent recent show We Bury Our Own at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, but for this post I want to focus on one of his earlier series, Emotional Striptease (2003).
Christian made Emotional Striptease in 2003, reacting to historical cultural artefacts in the Melbourne Museum. Photographing young people in the Aboriginal community posed with artefacts like boomerangs and parrying shields, Thompson challenges the historical aesthetic of 19th century studio portraiture, questioning its role in constructing the visual identity of Aboriginal people in modern Australia. Wearing black Victorian garb that is more sculptural armature than costume, Thompson’s models pose against the backdrop of the modern museum (an un-natural history museum, perhaps?). Positioned in front of the symbolic cultural landscape of Melbourne, they embody a blend of cultural and historical influences which contribute to the on-going visual representation of their bodies.
Thompson fundamentally questions the role of Aboriginal body in the creation of Australian cultural identity, as created by the artefacts and images collected by cultural institutions: objects which are more often integrated into museum collections as aesthetic representations rather than self-created expressions of one’s lived experience. Stripping down the Aboriginal body as a form of exoticism, the anachronism of the costumes create a bizarre counterpoint to expected museum representations. He is not necessarily completely dismissive of these cultural practices but, instead, his work envisions a hybrid aesthetic which erodes the hierarchy of “Western” over “Indigenous” art forms.
For a relatively young artist, Christian’s work has already made an obvious impact on the conceptual and visual themes of other Australian artists, as he has started to emerge as a powerful new voice in both the Australian and international art scene. In particular, I think the work of fellow Australian artist Michael Cook draws a hell of a lot of “inspiration” from Thompson, to the point of seeming to simply re-iterate a lot of the territory Thompson already covers. However, to me, Cook’s work comes across more as a fashion aesthetic than critical viewpoint: there is a very fine line between challenging the fetishizing aesthetic of 19th century studio photography and merely repeating it.
It is the slight absurdity that runs through Thompson’s body of work, which helps it to retain this critical edge. (Some of my other favourites from his ouevre include the series Blaks Palace (2002), Australian Graffiti (2008), and We Bury Our Own(2012)). His provocative images can’t easily be codefied or read as straightforward narratives of either cultural celebration or oppression; they are not visual one-liners which comfortably fit into pre-existing art world slots. They are complex, sometimes contradictory, and often surreal images which challenge the traditions of visual representation. Christian is, undoubtedly, an artist to watch.
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things: