Monday, 16 July 2012

We Bury our Own, an exhibition of work by Christian Thompson

Christian Thompson, an indigenous Australian artist currently studying for a DPhil at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, has a small exhibition at the city’s Pitt Rivers Museum. It comprises eight large C-type prints plus a 2-minute video installation, artworks made as a result of his intensive study of the museum’s Australian photographic collection. Despite their formal simplicity, the artist’s ethnicity prompts a variety of responses by the white European to his responses, constituting a thought-provoking loop.

The photographs consist of self-portraits, and in each the inscrutable face is obscured to a greater or lesser extent. It is an oblique comment on the Australian Aboriginal experience, as he has eschewed traditional graphic styles and dress. Given these notable absences, the images achieve their depth only with knowledge of the artist’s background. He is shown in formal western clothing, indicating that while he holds on to his tribal heritage (which must be the “We” of the exhibition’s title) in some manner, he has been ready to adopt at least the outward trappings of his new, if temporary, home. Yet the parodic Oxford student formality, crisp white shirt and white bow tie, is a dry comment on the fustiness of hidebound western civilisation compared to the spiritual freedom of nomadic life.

Covering the eyes is a nod to the idea that they are the window to the soul, and by occluding them, the viewer is denied the opportunity to see into Thompson’s, while he simultaneously refuses to gaze at the representatives of his people’s oppressors. His hidden features symbolise the apparent invisibility of Aborigines historically, yet at the same time, while superficially offering himself up as an ethnographic subject, in taking charge of his presentation he is denying the ability to objectify him. Byrecovering ownership, he has transformed anthropometric scrutiny into art.

There is also a sense of the belief that a photographer is able to steal the subject’s soul, as Aboriginal bodies were once stolen, and that opportunity is now denied. Coming back to European myth, flowers on the eyes evoke coins placed on those of corpses, and the still features suggest the post-mortem photographs that were once popular in Western culture, the effect enhanced by the funereally black jacket and white shirt. Thompson seems dressed for death, yet his optimistic project is to disinter values buried in the archives, and help them to live again, not to weep over them.

The photographs circle round these issues, challenging the viewer to examine his or her attitude to imperialism and the effect it has on those imperialised. The bluntest expression, both in title and content, is Invaded Dreams, in which a model of the Mary Rose, a Union Jack anachronistically flying from the mainmast, conveys, none too subtly, both a sense of colonisation and the fragility of conquest. Similarly, in Down Under World, the most direct reference to Australia of all the titles, and emphasising the European frame of reference (it’s only Down Under if you are here), Thompson is formally dressed but with crystals on his head and over his eyes, ambiguously conveying a sense of healing, but also alluding to disputes over land and mineral rights. He looks rather like a barrister wearing a crystalline wig, throwing up legalistic interpretations of human and property rights.

Gender issues are raised, but always interweaved with wider issues of exploitation and identity. In Forgiveness of Land he is wearing a headscarf, the one glimpse of traditional Aboriginal art, and the viewer half expects to see curlers peeping out. The title poses the questions – whose land, whose forgiveness, and forgiveness for what? If the land is feminine, is Thompson drawing a parallel between the ill-treatment of the soil by whites, and the ill-treatment of Aborigine women by men of all colours? In Lamenting the Flowers the artist has butterflies over his eyes, the print black and white apart from the colour popping of bright blood-red flowers in his hair, his face lent an air of vulnerability by a net veil. The title again refers to the land, the butterflies signify fragility, the flowers and veil femininity, and the veil also mourning. Three Sisters shows him covered with flowers in even greater abundance, three red candles bright in the otherwise monochrome print. The title references a fabricated ‘Aboriginal’ myth, which highlights the issue of cultural authenticity. Desert Melon, the image on the front of the exhibition leaflet, combines black jacket and white bow tie with yellow coin-shaped flowers concealing his eyes, and a paper hat with a picture of a tree: natural and artificial, life and death, complementing each other.

The other photographs are more resistant to interpretation, at least perhaps outside traditional belief systems. Energy Matter shows Thompson standing with his hands over his eyes, backs facing out, black dots on both in a circular pattern, possibly representing unity and integration. Danger Will Come shows only a pair of hands holding a frame, with a flowery border, in which what look like stars, at least sparkly somethings (perhaps the crystals again) can be seen. The video installation, featuring a topless startled-looking and startlingly blue-eyed man singing a repetitive song about family and loss, while hypnotic and poignant, feels out of place alongside the hermetic purity of the photographs.

Unlike physical remains, which are unique, and for which the struggle over ownership is as much about a refusal to be ignored as about regaining relics of ancestors, photographs can exist in multiple copies, held by the creator, or curator, but available to be licensed to anyone. Many photographic collections are being ‘returned’ to indigenous populations in Australia, but the beauty of the photograph is that someone’s gain does not entail another’s loss. Even in the context of the Pitt Rivers Museum, though, the photographs are more than objects of dispassionate study. These beautifully produced images are dreamtime made manifest, and the rather stark corridor, where the loos are sited, becomes a place of meditation and peace. Rich in meaning, they transcend the sterility of grievance and guilt in their embracing of European technology to reflect on the Aboriginal experience. Thompson, with his joint Bidjara and English heritage, seems comfortable in both spheres, ready to move on from the injustices of the past to imagine a better future.

The photographs and video installation are on display in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Long Gallery, on the ground floor, from 26 June 2012 until 3 January 2013. The exhibition is open 10–4.30 Tuesday to Sunday; 12–4.30 Monday. Admission is free.