If you visit Christian Thompson’s Ritual Intimacy exhibition at MUMA expecting something camp, frothy, cheeky, kitsch (as I did), prepare to be surprised and humbled faster than you can even think the words, “What’s this then…”
Ritual Intimacy is part of a series by Monash University Museum of Art that explores the work of influential artists across their practice, over time. Christian’s contribution as a Bidjara artist from central west Queensland comprises snapshots of his work over fifteen years in sculpture, photography, video, performance and sound in an intellectually rigorous exploration of identity, sexuality, gender, colonisation and memory. Aboriginal land and language are entwined throughout, in a seamless symbiosis that transcends notions of cultural hybridity or the lazy juxtapositions of traditional and modern that seem to characterise so much contemporary Aboriginal arts practice.
Be prepared for soothing sounds with a hidden slap, deceptive beauty, Aussie icons seductively disrupted. A lilting lullaby in Aboriginal language that is really about drowning, then Bidjara shockingly sung in operatic European voices, then more language about bees engineered ingeniously on the algorithms of swarms in a susurration that makes you taste the sugar bag (native honey). A video loop of Christian and his father ritually exchanging body scent and language in an act of cultural intimacy is a defining moment in the exhibition. Occasional homosexual themes draw on a rich history of counter-cultures and movements ignored by history, somehow seamlessly aligned with Indigenous historical struggle. To dismiss this as merely “camp” is to dishonour the weight of intellect behind the work of a Bidjara man who has recently completed his PhD at Oxford.
Yarning with Christian at the opening of the exhibition last night, he asserted to me that his work is intended to “engage rather than enrage”. He described the covering of his face and body with costumes and objects in self-portraits as a kind of armour, a protective covering. But his work has deeper, more subversive layers than his claims of reconciliation and self-defence suggest – his armour is a weapon and his engagement with the audience is more martial than it appears on the surface. You rarely see his eyes, but when you do they are avian, predatory as he returns the white gaze through wigs, native flora and colonial portraits with holes cut in the sockets of invasion’s patriarchs, as if to say, “I literally see through you, Captain Cook!”
Christian is a bowerbird. The male of that species builds a complex display of sticks surrounded by shiny, found objects to attract a mate. He preens his brilliant blue-black feathers until they shine and dances around his treasures in a ritual of intimacy that imbues the objects with magic and power. In the old days those objects were stones, shells, feathers and seeds, while today they are glass, plastic, fabric, ceramics (and maybe a sequin or two) pilfered from urban houses and backyards. The materials may be different, but the dance, song and ritual remain the same. Christian embodies a continuity of connection to spirit, language, ceremony and culture that cannot be erased by the pandemic of western material culture, which he embraces intimately while ritually subverting it.
Yirramboi runs until May 14. Check out our list of highlights.