Christian Bumbarra Thompson

Anita Angel

Christian Bumbarra Thompson

Christian Bumbarra Thompson

On a balmy dry season Parap Market morning in August, Brenda L Croft (photographic artist and Senior Curator, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, NGA) opened Emotional Striptease and reaffirmed Christian Bumbarra Thompson’s status as one of the youngest and brightest ‘blak’ stars to emerge from the Boomalli ‘mother-ship’ into the galaxy of successful Indigenous photomedia artists including Destiny Deacon, Fiona Foley, Leah King-Smith, Tracey Moffatt, Darren Siwes, and, I would add, Croft herself.

From a Darwin perspective, both the timing and subject matter of the show were significant. Emotional Striptease coincided with the 20th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award–long dominated by contemporary Indigenous art from remote communities throughout the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In the current ‘future shock’ climate of new media art, work from these regions may be regarded as ‘traditional’—in style, medium and content—but historically its claims to country are as politically powerful as the most confronting work from the cutting edge of the metropolis. Concerned with the interplay of meaning between objects, space and history, and Western culture’s (mis)representation of Indigenous Australians, Emotional Striptease is a provocative rebuttal to any institutionally-prescribed notions or categories of ‘blakness.’ It highlighted a contemporary Indigenous art practice which has not, until recently, received the local institutional recognition and public exposure it deserves–and unequivocally demands.

A Bidjara man of the Kunja Nation (southwest Queensland), Bumbarra Thompson was born in Gawler, South Australia, in 1978. He is also of German Jewish heritage. His art school training was in sculpture and installation. He spurns art historical classification: “my work, like myself, is in a constant state of flux.” Study in Melbourne, where he resides, has had an obvious influence on the ideological underpinning of his art and the cosmopolitan rubric of his catalogue essays.

At 24HRArt, Bumbarra Thompson ‘performed’ his Emotional Striptease in an installation comprising 7 large-scale, hyper-real colour photographs, each depicting a young Indigenous man or woman (including himself), variously robed in chic Melbourne’s trademark black or in a variety of costume props reminiscent of Victorian stage dramas or historical paintings. In a series of carefully choreographed poses and hand gestures, each figure holds an exquisitely incised and ochred Aboriginal artefact—a parrying shield, fighting club, woomera or boomerang. Like Caravaggio, the artist has chosen ‘models’ from his own world: friends and colleagues living and working in Melbourne. Set against the architectonic backgrounds of Melbourne’s key ‘cultural spaces’ (Federation Square, the Melbourne Museum, ACCA), the figure-in-landscape compositions collectively create a new Melbourne—one that reclaims that city as a reconstructed site of ‘blak’ urban identity. Three larger photographs, depicting close-ups of architectural façades, comprise the theatre ‘wings’ of a highly charged mise en scène.

Although tilting at the 19th century studio practice of ‘capturing’ Indigenous subjects in picturesque landscape dioramas and the ‘scientific’ role of photography in colonial ethnography, the iconography of Emotional Striptease contains echoes of other, earlier sources, principally art historical. One female figure bears a parrying shield, her white-gloved hand resting above the abdominal swell of her black hooped skirt. She stares back at the viewer with the dignified stillness and ritual solemnity of Piero della Francesca’s frescoed ‘urban’ Madonnas. Of all the male portraits, the most powerful image is of Bumbarra Thompson himself. His eyes seek the viewer’s with the intensity of one of El Greco’s ruffled-collared courtiers, fists clenched around a hooked, ‘number 7’ fighting boomerang, bare arms raised against a black/red façade–the traditional colours of revolution and resistance. Like a ‘blak’ avenging angel, wielding a potent artefact from the archival past, he annunciates an unmistakable message of self-determination for the present and future: boomalli–to strike, or make a mark.

Emotional Striptease, Christian Bumbarra Thompson, 24HRArt Northern Territory Centre for Contemporary Art, Parap, Aug 16-Sept 6

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 40

© Anita Angel; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2003
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