If you can manage to brave hordes of school groups running around drawing dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum, work your way through the various displays of stuffed birds and old bones into the Pitt Rivers, and then turn off into a corridor where the toilets are, it would still be easy to miss ‘We Bury Our Own’, a series of photographs by one of the first Aboriginal Australians to be accepted to Oxford University, Christian Thompson.
These photographs seem to sit rather uncomfortably amongst the museum’s other archeological exhibits. It is only when you read that they are a response to the historical photographic collection of the Pitt Rivers that you begin to understand why there are there. Once this conundrum has unravelled, the exhibit provides an interesting diversion.
The collection is small – with only eight photographs it seems to provide more amusement to groups of schoolgirls waiting for their friends outside the loos than it does to a visiting public – but there is no doubt that the photographs are unusual.
In each self-portrait, Thompson has chosen a different way to hide parts of his face using props such as a Tudor warship or the evocative natural forms of crystals, flowers and leaves.
In the exhibition guide, Thompson says that he ‘asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Collection to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work’, revealing the spiritual background of the work. The artist also drew inspiration from, amongst other things, stories of young warriors and their tales of excruciating pain alongside incredible beauty, and even ‘visited the water by firelight’ for artistic guidance.
Indeed, the work is keyed towards the question of whether art is able to perform more of a ‘spiritual repatriation’ than a physical one, and the experiments with crystals and hidden eyes do demonstrate this obsession with the spiritual. This is then contextualised by the rather creepy, funereal attire that is sub-fusc, which Thompson wears.
Whether you believe in and want to explore the arguments behind spiritual repatriation, or merely just have 10 minutes to spare and are lurking on South Parks Road, do head for the Long Gallery at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Where else will you see sub-fusc juxtaposed against a model boat or some chunks of amethyst?