Christian Thompson, the Australian artist taking over London’s streets: ‘I can be my own worst critic’

Thompson has worked with Marina Abramović, been among the first Aboriginal students at Oxford – and is now the first artist on display in Soho’s new Photography Quarter

As prime minister Kevin Rudd was delivering his apology to the Stolen Generations, on 12 February 2008, First Nations artist Christian Thompson was queueing at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, headed for his new home in Europe. There, over the next decade, he would be mentored by the famed performance artist Marina Abramović, complete a masters degree at the Amsterdam School of the Arts and be among the first Indigenous Australians to attend Oxford University in its 900-year history.

“It was an emotional day,” Thompson says. “When I left Australia, I left with the feeling OK, everything’s now sorted, everyone’s good. Go off and do what you need to do. And then, when I got back a decade later, everything had changed.”

Christian Thompson AO, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014
Christian Thompson’s Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne

Speaking from his second home, Melbourne – Europe and the UK are his primary base these days – Thompson will be watching closely as the new Australian government negotiates the expected ushering in of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which has languished in the halls of parliament house for the past five years.

“It will be very interesting to see how this conversation develops,” he says. “Seeing our country move forward in this way, I think it’s incredibly important. It’s one thing to have a strong economy, but if you’re culturally barren, then what’s it all about?”

Of Bidjara heritage on his father’s side, the photographer, sculptor and performance artist has used his art to challenge questions of race, identity, gender and belonging over the past two decades. Now he has just opened his largest solo exhibition yet, Being Human Human Being, in his adopted city of London.

Christian Thompson: Being Human Human Being, the first exhibition in the Soho Photography Quarter.
Christian Thompson: Being Human Human Being, the first exhibition in London’s Soho Photography Quarter. Photograph: Luke Hayes/The Photographers’ Gallery

The show stretches across the streets and alleyways of Soho, marking the beginning of what will become a permanent cultural space in London, rotating free contemporary photography exhibitions twice a year. That the Photographers’ Gallery selected an Indigenous Australian artist to open such a significant new art precinct is unprecedented.

Thompson says the exhibition is not a retrospective (“it’s kind of like a survey-ish”), but it certainly contains a wide cross-section of his output from the past decade, including works from his series King Billy (2010), Polari (2014), Equinox (2018) and his ongoing Flower Walls project. He is, he says, “really excited to see how this exhibition will operate in that space, that totally urban landscape of the UK but obviously with a lot of really strong Australian references”.

Thompson’s work in the Photographers’ Gallery launches Soho Photography Quarter.
Thompson’s work in the Soho Photography Quarter … strong Australian references in an urban UK landscape. Photograph: Luke Hayes/The Photographers’ Gallery

Since leaving Australia on the national apology day 14 years ago, Thompson has secured solid footing on an international scale. When he became one of the inaugural recipients of the Charlie Perkins scholarship, he swapped Amsterdam for Oxford, completing a doctorate in fine arts. Thompson and Wiradjuri academic Paul Gray became the first Aboriginal Australians to be admitted into Oxford University.

Thompson, who remains a research affiliate at the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, recalls his time in the hallowed halls of British academia as a giant learning curve that brought with it enormous pressure.

“There was so much emphasis on us, a real spotlight put on us, for at least the first two years of our candidacy there,” he says. “They were challenging years, because I can be my own worst critic. And when you are at Oxford, there’s this kind of aspiration towards excellence that underpins everything. It can be incredibly intimidating at times. There were times when I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had anxiety attacks.”

Untitled #7, from Thompson’s King Billy series, 2010.
Untitled #7, from Thompson’s King Billy series, 2010. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne

Now in his 40s, Thompson says he has learned to be more emotionally lenient with himself and enjoy the journey of art making. “You get to be more reflective, I guess you get more wisdom – well, not a lot …” he jokes. “When I look back on my practice, certain works have come to take on very different meanings that I wouldn’t have realised without the gift of hindsight.”

This became evident as he worked on the Being Human Human Being show: when his King Billy and Polari series were created, seminal social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo had yet to emerge.

“Art moves the conversation forward culturally,” Thompson says. And seeing society reflected back at you through art, he says, is probably the greatest privilege an artist can hope for.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How an Indigenous Australian artist ‘astonished’ a giant of American art
Sol LeWitt never met Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who began painting in her 80s, but he was blown away by her work. A new AGNSW show celebrates their unlikely link

Kelly Burke

25, Aug, 2022 @5:30 PM

Article image
Bangarra’s Stephen Page and artist Destiny Deacon win $50,000 lifetime achievement awards
Choreographer and dancer wins $50,000 Red Ochre lifetime achievement award alongside fellow recipient, visual artist Destiny Deacon

Kelly Burke

27, May, 2022 @11:03 AM

Article image
Archie Moore becomes second solo Aboriginal artist to represent Australia at Venice Biennale
Kamilaroi/Bigambul artist uses smell to evoke memory and explores racism and national identity through flags

Sian Cain and Kelly Burke

08, Feb, 2023 @1:10 AM

Article image
Hadley’s art prize 2022: Tuppy Ngintja Goodwin wins Australia’s richest landscape prize
The senior Pitjantjatjara artist is the first woman to win the $100,000 award since its inception in 2017

Kelly Burke

22, Jul, 2022 @2:08 AM

Article image
Australian government unveils plan to support Aboriginal artists and guard against fake works
Artist collective welcomes extra funding but says new initiatives do nothing about unscrupulous dealers effectively holding vulnerable artists hostage

Kelly Burke

21, Oct, 2021 @4:25 AM

Article image
‘The money’s handed out through a white filter’: First Nations performing arts fight for recognition
New research shows a growing audience for Indigenous theatre and dance – but some performers are reportedly homeless and barely any companies are secure

Steve Dow

28, Aug, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
‘The government has listened’: Australia’s peak bodies praise $300m federal arts policy
Launched by Anthony Albanese at Melbourne live music pub the Espy, the policy offers welcome support for the beleaguered industry

Kelly Burke

30, Jan, 2023 @4:57 AM

Article image
‘The carved trees have a spirit’: Kamilaroi fight to repatriate sacred 800-year-old trunks
Students from Collarenebri in north-west NSW mount global effort to track down sacred carved trees sawed off in the 1940s

Kelly Burke

11, Dec, 2021 @7:00 PM

Article image
Music, literature and First Nations at the forefront of a $300m boost to the arts, Labor to announce
Albanese government’s new Revive program an attempt to reverse declines to the arts sector but financial details not expected until May budget

Kelly Burke

29, Jan, 2023 @11:30 AM

Article image
'Something magical': mother-daughter artist duo on reviving the lost art of weaving
For Ngugi/Quandamooka women Sonja and Elisa Jane Carmichael, their works are a link to millennia-old traditions

Jane Howard

19, Oct, 2020 @2:44 AM