News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intrigue in Thompson’s powerful gaze

Christian Thompson, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

The spaces of John Curtin Gallery have been transformed by ‘Ritual Intimacy’, an exhibition surveying the last 15 years of Bidjara artist Christian Thompson’s career.

Originally curated by Hettie Perkins and Charlotte Day for Monash University Museum of Art, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ has been installed within an intricate floor plan of distinct rooms and resting areas designed to encourage contemplation of Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice.

It’s a dense show with the potential to be discombobulating, but the exhibition design and accompanying room sheet successfully showcase Thompson’s rich practice and the context behind his selected works. Spanning photography, sound, video and performance, these works reveal thematic links and trace the artist’s interests in language, song, ancestry, and living cultural traditions. The exhibition is also be accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on Thompson’s career and work.

Projected onto one wall is ‘Heat’ (2010), a three-channel video featuring the granddaughters of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. Each woman stares straight ahead as air from an unseen source whips their hair around their faces. Intended by Thompson to evoke the feeling of being on desert country, the footage imparts a sense of resilience as the women remain stoic while being buffered by outside forces.

On the opposing wall are five prints from Thompson’s iconic photographic series ‘Australian Graffiti’ (2007), which are stylish self-portraits of the artist adorned with cuttings of native flora; a low-slung crown of banksia flowers, a jaunty garland of grey gum leaves. While his eyes are obscured, Thompson’s posture hints that he can see from under the shadows of his foliage. Forming tensions between strength and fragility, masculinity and glamour, these works reflect on a corporeal connection to the Australian landscape, and the power of the gaze.

The artist’s exploration of identity and representation continues in the Northern Gallery, a large room of stunning C-type prints relating to Thompson’s experiences working with the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Australian photographic collection in Oxford.

In works from the series ‘We Bury our Own’ (2012), Thompson has staged personal reinterpretations of the ‘essence’ of selected photographs from this collection, using costume and symbols to invoke hidden meanings and unseen practices. These works re-inject museological specimens with an intimacy, subjectivity, and uncertainty of meaning, contesting the authority of ethnographic collecting. Thompson terms this process ‘spiritual repatriation’ – a concept that is particularly relevant with the increasing global pressure on museums to repatriate their collections.

Thompson’s challenge to the legacies of colonialism is more explicit in works such as the series ‘Museum of Others’ (2016), in which the eyes of famous ‘dead white males’ (an explorer, an artist, an anthropologist) have been removed and replaced with the artist’s own. Viewing such an evocative array of prints is made even more powerful by the atmospheric leakage of overlapping songs from other nearby works in the show.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ is a rich exhibition in which it is worth lingering to soak up the aesthetic pleasure of this collection of thought-provoking and vital works.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ runs until 21 July.

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