Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy

MUMA Christian Thompson, Black Gum 1 and 3, 2008The first major survey exhibition of the work of one of Australia’s leading and most intriguing contemporary artists, Monash University Museum of Art presents Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy, currently on display until 8 July 2017.

Thompson works across photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound, interweaving themes of identity, race and history with his lived experience. His work is held in the collections of major state and national art museums in Australia and internationally.

Thompson made history as one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to be accepted into the University of Oxford as a Charlie Perkins Scholar, where he completed his Doctorate of Philosophy (Fine Art) in 2016. Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy opens as the artist looks forward to the graduation ceremony in July, when he will be conferred his degree.

Featuring a major new commission created for this exhibition, Ritual Intimacy will survey Thompson’s diverse practice, spanning fifteen years. The specially commissioned installation will be an ambitious multi-channel composition, developing the sonic experimentation that is a signature of Thompson’s work. Incorporating Bidjara language, it will invite viewers into an immersive space of wall-to-wall imagery and sound. The new multichannel work will develop musical ideas Thompson has previously explored.

“Bidjara is officially an endangered language but my work is motivated by the simple yet profound idea that if even one word of an endangered language is spoken it continues to be a living language,” says Thompson. “It will be a much more ambitious iteration of a song in Bidjara.”

“At one stage I’m singing on one screen and then other versions of me appear singing the melodies. I really see it as an opportunity to do something that’s more complex musically, more textured sonically – I also want it to be more intricate with my use of language.”

Curated by MUMA director Charlotte Day and guest curator Hetti Perkins, Ritual Intimacy explores the unique perspective and breadth of Thompson’s practice from the fashioning of identity through to his ongoing interest in Indigenous language as the expression of cultural survival.

“Christian’s exhibition traces a particularly productive period of research and development, from early well known works such as the Australian Graffiti series to more recent experiments with language in sound and song works,” says Day.

A long-time curatorial collaborator with Thompson, Perkins is the writer and presenter of art + soul – the ABC’s acclaimed television series about contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Thompson was accepted to Oxford University on an inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholarship, set up to honour Hetti Perkins’ famous father – a leader, activist and the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from university.

Perkins says the MUMA exhibition is well-earned recognition for Thompson’s work, which she featured in the second series of art + soul. “Christian has spent periods of his adult life, as a practicing artist, away from home, but there is a common thread in his work, and it’s this connection to home or Country,” says Perkins.

“In terms of the rituals or rites of the exhibition title, he is constantly reiterating that connection to home – through words, through performance, through his art, through ideas and writing.”

Alongside performance and ritual, Thompson’s concept of ‘spiritual repatriation’ is central to his work. Working with the Australian collection at famed ethnographic storehouse the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, the artist was offered copies of colonial photographs of Aboriginal people but preferred not to work this way.

Instead, he chose to spend significant periods of time with these ancestral images, absorbing their “aura” in order to then make his own artistic response that did not reproduce those original problematic images: “At the heart of my practice is a concern with aura: what it is, how it can be photographed and how it can be repatriated,” said Thompson.

Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy
Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield East
Exhibition continues to 8 July 2017
Free admission

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Image: Christian Thompson, Black Gum 1 and 3 (from the series Australian Graffiti), 2008. Image courtesy of the artist, Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne, and Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin.