Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy

In a recent trip to Sydney, I went to the Christian Thompson exhibition Ritual Intimacy at the UNSW Gallery. Thompson describes his work as ‘auto-ethnographic’. He features (indeed, is the primary focus of) almost every image (and performance piece) in the exhibition, which explores dimensions of identity and relationship with community, culture and language. As part of his PhD studies at the University of Oxford (he was one of the first two Aboriginal Australians to be admitted in the history of the university) he engaged with a collection of nineteenth century images of Aboriginal people held in the ethnographic collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. As Marina Warner observes in the exhibition catalogue ‘images of non-Western people were collected as ‘specimens’ rather than as fine art objects or portraits of individuals, and were therefore not assigned to the photography archives at the National Portrait Gallery or the Victoria and Albert Museum’ (Warner, 2017, pp. 64-5). From this, Thompson produced a series of images entitled We Bury Our Own. Wary of re-appropriating, and re-vivifying, the troubling, and fundamentally racist, images, he adopted an approach of ‘spiritual repatriation’, in which he engages with and responds to the artifacts and images held by the museum, without reproducing them. For the Week One task, I chose to re-make the image Danger Will Come, a response by Thompson to a daguerreotype of an Aboriginal man from the 1860s. I have incorporated the current exhibition catalogue showing a plate of Danger Will Come in my image. The re-making, I hope (as best I can in a hotel room), highlights the ironic and paradoxical circulation of contemporary images in the gallery system, and the consequent danger(s) of colonial re-appropriation. In relation to the global images theme of the first week, we have three layers of global image: the initial (unseen by us) objectifying anthropological trophy image, bringing news from distant lands, its spiritual repatriation by an Aboriginal Australian (global) contemporary artist and its pedagogic re-making in a task for an online (international) higher degree programme. There are a number of themes to explore further in the development of my own practice. In relation to my MA project, the relationship of Aboriginal people to the land is clearly important to understand, particularly if I am to explore ‘edgelands’ and ‘non-places’ in Australia as part of this work. More broadly, there are issues relating to auto-ethnography, identity, community and experience to explore, and the fundamental challenge to western conceptions posed by indigenous forms of knowledge.

Christian Thompson, We Bury Our Own [Exhibition], Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 26th June 2012 – 17th February 2013, (last accessed 5.6.18)

Christian Thompson, Ritual Intimacy [Exhibition], Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 27th April-8th July 2017, Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane, 20th July-23rd September 2017, UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 4th May-28th July 2018.

Warner, M. (2017), ‘Magical Aesthetics’, in Christian Thompson et al, Ritual Intimacy, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne pp. 63-76.