Christian Thomson: Aboriginal Hybridity

Christian Thomson is a photographic and performance artist from the central Queensland Bidjara heritage in Australia. His work plays with themes of aboriginal identity in the Australian social climate. After being awarded the Charlie Perkins Scholarship, to complete his doctorate in Fine Arts at Oxford University, he has spent much time in England. His work has been extensively exhibited in galleries around Australia and internationally. Through creatively using photography and specifically self-portraiture as a trigger, He tackles issues of colonial subjugation and complex identity politics concerning the contemporary aboriginal individual in Australia. Across his vast portfolio of work, the theme of disparity is emphasised through the beautiful and confronting nature of his portraits.

Christian Thomson: Aboriginal Hybridity
‘Desert Melon’. Photograph by Christian Thompson. 2012. (Copyright Christian Thompson)

The historic and western conceptualisation of aboriginal art from Australia seems to expect a certain primitive quality that revolves around largely abstract painting from remote communities. In a postcolonial age, where certain hybridity of culture exists in urban communities, contemporary arts practitioners have been hart at work to take back control of the cultural narrative. Using the visual language, artists have been engaging with local culture, to re-emphasise the struggles of acceptance of aboriginal art in the Australian fine art paradigm. In recent years this type of work has taken the world by storm as the world is opening up to ideas of “active decolonisation” and “inclusivity” in the arts. This reception has been further expressed by a new audience, the wider non-indigenous public who have been wholly influenced by the western art historical canon looking to engage ways to see and think about art.

Thompson has chosen to take the history of photographic representation of Aboriginal people as a starting point for the spiritual repatriation of the archive through the redemptive process of self-portraiture. His approach to photography is unique as he treats every constructed portrait as a sculpture, with an emphasis on materiality of the surface of the subject. His portraiture combines the simplicity of the subject matter with complex visual textures that bring a new dimension to our understanding of portrait photography.

Christian Thomson: Aboriginal Hybridity

‘Down Under World’. Photograph by Christian Thompson. 2012. (Copyright Christian Thompson)

In 2012, he presented a wonderful body of work for an exhibition called ‘We Bury Our Own’ which contained eight large photographic self-portraits and a video installation. Presented at the Pit Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, this exhibition served as a response to the historic colonial photographic collection from Australia. Being one the first Aboriginal Australians to be accepted to Oxford University, he saw this project as an opportunity to engage with cultural fabric of the university and the colonial roots.

In his “Artist’s Statement,” he states that he “was drawn to elements of opulence, ritual, homage, fragility, melancholy, strength and even a sense of play operating in the photographs. The simplicity of a monochrome and sepia palette, the frayed delicate edges and the cracks on the surface like a dry desert floor that reminded me of the salt plains of my own traditional lands.”

In the western canon of portraiture, representations and characteristics of artists are often conceptualised by their dress, setting and objects which emphasise their position in society.

Christian Thomson: Aboriginal Hybridity
‘Untitled’ – Yellow Kangaroo Paw, 2008 by Christian Thompson

Thomson’s self-portraits are often considered critiques of the colonial ethnographic photography that took place as a means of categorisation and classification. The historical context of the work reflects upon colonisation and the reclamation of identity however against the backdrop of the 21st century, Thompson addresses indigenous culture of today as “something hybrid, living and contemporary” – a reflection of his personal identity encompassing years of cross-culture. Using natural elements native to Australia he creates a statement about his identity being of two cultures but makes the wider point of everyone coming from a unified place -this earth.

The use of crystals also points to beliefs. The spiritual mediation of crystals in the work connects the various strands of history, culture and representation, and places the work in a new context – that of the spiritual connectivity between the museum, the archival images of ancestors, and the embodied viewer. It is this set of temporal and corporeal connections that Thompson sees as the creative process of spiritual repatriation.

Christian Thomson: Aboriginal Hybridity

Evidently, his portraiture is attempting to ‘re-navigate the western gaze’ it is also possible to read his work as a commentary on the political and economic entanglements of colonialism, liberalism and globalisation. One can argue this interpretation because by engaging with the Pitt Rivers Museum, he has brought back cultural context to a museum that has completely removed images and objects from their original cultural context. This interpretation is true as part of the broader context of marginalised communities reclaiming their culture and identity which have been distorted by colonial intervention. Christopher Morton of the Pitt Rivers Museum acknowledges this view and suggests that Thompson’s portraiture will help change the archive in terms of its foundational colonial assumptions.

Thompson said in 2015 that the impact of this series on other artists and academics had been the most rewarding thing for him in his career to date

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, The Allusions of Self Portraits

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