Christian Thompson, the Australian artist who takes over the streets of London: ‘I can be my own worst critic’

APrime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the stolen generations, On February 12, 2008, First Nations artist Christian Thompson queued at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, en route to his new home in Europe. There he would be mentored for the next decade by the famous performance artist Marina Abramovićobtain a master’s degree from the Amsterdam School of the Arts and be one of 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 feeling OK, everything is settled now, everyone is good. Get out and do what you gotta do. And when I came back ten years later, everything had changed.”

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

Speaking from his second home, Melbourne – Europe and the UK are his primary bases these days – Thompson will be watching closely as the new Australian government negotiates the expected initiation of the Uluru statement from the heartwho has languished in the halls of the parliament building for the past five years.

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

The photographer, sculptor and performance artist of Bidjara heritage on his father’s side has used his art for the past two decades to challenge questions of race, identity, gender and belonging. Now he has just opened his largest solo exhibition ever, 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 at London’s Soho Photography Quarter. Photo: Luke Hayes/The Photographers’ Gallery

Spanning the streets and alleyways of Soho, the show marks the beginning of what will become a permanent cultural space in London, with rotating free contemporary photo exhibitions twice a year. It is unprecedented that the Photographers’ Gallery has chosen a native Australian artist to open such an important new arts district.

Thompson says the exhibition isn’t a retrospective (“it’s a bit like a survey-esque”), but it certainly features a broad cross-section of his work 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, “very excited to see how this exhibition will work in that space, that fully 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 landscape in the UK. Photo: Luke Hayes/The Photographers’ Gallery

Since leaving Australia on National Apology Day 14 years ago, Thompson has gained a firm foothold on an international scale. When he became one of the first recipients of the Charlie Perkins grant, he exchanged Amsterdam for Oxford and completed a doctorate in fine arts. Thompson and Wiradjuri academic Paul Gray became the first Aboriginal Australians to be admitted to Oxford University.

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

“There was so much emphasis on us, a real spotlight was put on us, for at least the first two years of our candidacy there,” he says. “These were challenging years, because I can be my own worst critic. And when you’re in Oxford, there’s this kind of pursuit of excellence that underlies 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 2010 King Billy series.
Untitled #7, from Thompson’s 2010 King Billy series. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Sarah Scout Presents, Melbourne

Now in his 40s, Thompson says he has learned to be more emotionally gentle with himself and enjoy the journey of making art. “You get more reflective, I think you get more wisdom – well, not much…” he jokes. “Looking back at my practice, certain works have taken on very different meanings that I wouldn’t have realized without the gift of hindsight.”

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

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

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