Down Under World: Christian Thompson at the Pitt Rivers Museum

An emerging history of transcultural engagements in recent years is evident in the growing number of projects by Australian Indigenous artists working with collections held by British cultural institutions. From Judy Watson’s research at the British, Horniman and Science museums in the 1990s, to Daniel Boyd’s residency with the Natural History Museum and projects by Brook Andrew and Julie Gough at the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, these Australian Indigenous artists have negotiated complex histories of colonial collecting practices, contemporary modes of museum display, issues of cultural ownership and repatriation, as well as the role of the artist as a new kind of researcher and interpreter of archives and cultural heritage. 

Christian Thompson’s body of work with the Australian photographic collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford places the figure of the artist quite literally (as mediator and medium) at the centre of things. Rather than repeat problematic representations or displays of archival materials, Thompson has said that he did “not want to want to reify the politics of those objects.” Such politics of display might include addressing the historical veneration of photographers in museum exhibitions, by highlighting multiple authorship and agency, and further consideration of whether it is culturally appropriate to families and communities to incorporate images of their ancestors in new artworks. In response, Thompson photographs himself, adorned with a variety of props and costumes, as a kind of stand-in for the archive and his experiences researching and responding to it.

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