Christian Bumbarra Thompson creates art expressive of a continuing relationship to his people, country and culture. Subtle and sometimes more explicit references to the land and heritage of his community, the Bidjara people of the Kunja Nation from south-west Queensland, present themselves in the artist’s multidisciplinary practice.
His photographic series Gates of Tambo 2004 refers in its title to two bottle trees (‘the gates of Tambo’), planted by Thompson’s great-uncle outside the town of Tambo, north-west of Brisbane. Thompson’s photographs afford viewers insight in ways that a young Indigenous Australian artist positions and defines himself within the world, and the various art worlds, in the early twenty-first century. Through impersonations of, variously, Indigenous artists Rusty Peters, Tracey Moffatt and the Woman from Peppimenarti, plus Andy Warhol, Thompson deconstructs the amalgam making up his identity.
In this work the artist underlines that he sees himself as both the young man behind a laptop in Melbourne, with a keen interest in 1980s fashion and pop culture, and the Aboriginal artist in remote Australia documenting his country and traditions. The ease with which Thompson transforms into the other Indigenous practitioners challenges us to question the distinction made between Indigenous peoples living in different parts of Australia. The Gates of Tambo photographs also initiate an intergenerational dialogue between Thompson and the individuals whose characters he assumes. Exploring the ways in which his art relates to works made by well-established practitioners such as Peters and Moffatt, this younger artist pays homage to those who inspire him and also firmly situates his practice within recent Indigenous art histories. At the same time the image of Andy Warhol, celebrated international symbol of pop art, forms the key to Thompson’s desire for himself and other Aboriginal artists to be part of global discourses on art making.
His digital video Desert Slippers 2006 continues Thompson’s mapping of identities and relationships with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people – the things that shape him as an artist – but in a more intimate manner. The title comes from a cactus that has always played an important role in Bidjara society: the desert slipper. In the video the artist and his father, speaking Bidjara, perform a greeting ceremony with their bodies turned towards each other. The two men are engrossed in repetitively acting out the same gestures. This work describes a recent shift in Thompson’s practice towards a more personal approach, using family members to document Bidjara ceremonies and rituals in a visual language
accessible to large audiences.
The artist is acutely aware that in the past Indigenous peoples have been coerced into disclosing aspects of themselves and their culture for European scientific and ethnographic study, and in Desert Slippers he does not reveal the meaning of the words exchanged between him and his father. Thus our attention is drawn to what is unspoken: the intimacy and ritual nature of communication between a father and son, teacher and student, older and younger man. This video is part of a larger project to create a family archive, begun by Thompson after becoming an uncle to his brother’s children, when he re-evaluated his responsibilities as a Bidjara man.
Whilst exploring his Indigenous heritage, Thompson’s work engages with topics that affect and move both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, transcending cultural boundaries. Desert Slippers not only invites us into a private space, allowing unique insights into the contemporary nature of Indigenous ceremonies and processes of enculturation, but also speaks about universal human experience. Irrespective of our cultural background, family rituals such as this Bidjara greeting have universal resonance. And the complexity of relationships and communication between fathers and sons, which is communicated in the work, is also fundamental to humankind. This merging of the culturally specific and universal leaves a lasting impression in Christian Thompson’s art.
 Christian Bumbarra Thompson, interview by Marianne Riphagen, 23 May 2006.