Engaging the Artist and Embracing the Source Community at the Pitt Rivers Museum
We Bury Our Own, Christian Thompson, Pitt Rivers Museum 26 June 2012-6 January 2013
The Pitt Rivers Museum is currently showing We Bury Our Own, a photographic exhibition by leading contemporary Aboriginal artist Christian Thompson. The eight large photographic portraits and a video installation on display were made specifically in response to the Museum's historic photograph collection from Australia.
Christian Thompson is an inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholar and one of the first Aboriginal Australians to be accepted to Oxford University, studying for a doctorate in Fine Art at the Ruskin School. Charlie Perkins was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from university in Sydney in 1965.
Chris Morton, Curator of Photography and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, invites the artist to develop a body of work that would be inspired by and in dialogue with the Museum's Australian photograph collection.
Energy Matter © Pitt River Museum
The Spiritual Significance of Images
Christian Thompson described the project as involving the ‘spiritual repatriation’ of the archive.
Chris Morton explained that “the physical repatriation of Aboriginal human remains is a process with deep spiritual significance and resonance to those communities involved in receiving them. In the case of archives – and in particular photographs – those ancestors held in the images remain in the storerooms of remote institutions even after copies have been returned or shared online. The reproducibility of the photographic image means that the surface information it holds can easily be shared, especially in the digital age. But the images of ancestors, as ethnographic studies around the world now show us, are more than the chemical traces of light on a surface – they have a direct and spiritual connection to the person photographed.”
The question Thompson asked himself was whether art was able to “perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?” You can read Thompson’s full statement here.
It is the creative tension between the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place, and yet as a reproducible, recordable, and dynamic historical resource that lies at the heart of Thompson’s concept of the exhibition space as a spiritual zone.
Globalization, Photography and Race
The Pitt Rivers’ project emerged from the wider context of an international research project led by Dr Jane Lydon of Monash University, and in which the Pitt Rivers is involved, Globalization, Photography and Race: the circulation and return of Aboriginal photographs in Europe. The project looks at the global circulation of photographs of Australian Aboriginal people that began in the 1840s, their role in forming modern views regarding race and history, the significance of colonial photography to indigenous communities, and through international collaboration photographs currently housed in key European collections (including Oxford’s) were returned to descendants.
As a significant body of new work by an indigenous Australian artist engaging with a European collection, We Bury Our Own is a major outcome of the project.
Engaging the Artist and Embracing the Source Community
This evocative exhibition was challenging territory which called for the Museum to engage with both the artist and the source community.
Museums are increasingly encouraged to work with artists to support artistic creation and also develop new and dynamic ways of engaging audiences. The value of this interaction was discussed at a recent conference at the British Museum, Engaging the Artists Voice. Particular questions were asked about the quality and the purpose of the art these collaborations produce, with Peter Heslip from Arts Council England asking if it just lead to the creation of ‘lots of mediocre art?’
In the case of We Bury Our Own, the exhibition provides genuine artistic and cultural value, not only since Thompson is already an established artist with a high profile in Australia, but also for the collection’s source community.
Aboriginal writer and curator Michael Aird argues that one of the biggest responsibilities of museums and archives today is to make collections available to aboriginal communities, despite the anxieties of curators about the best ways to go about this.
Chris Morton hopes that Thompson’s new work shows that “Aboriginal artists and curators are moving into an exciting new phase of creative engagement with their visual history, one that moves the debate on from the politics of race and injustice, towards multiple, complex, and hybrid identities in the present and in the future”.
Christian Thompson working in the archive © Pitt Rivers Museum