Searching for Wanamuchoo: Researching and returning Aboriginal photographs from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

A public lecture by Christopher Morton, sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Studies (UWA) (27 August 2013)

Christopher Morton

Wanamuchoo was an Aboriginal man brought by a police trooper to Adelaide for trial in March 1893 for the murder of another Aboriginal man in Innamincka, some 850 miles away. After trial, he was photographed at the City Watchhouse. According to a local newspaper account, his confusion was such that ‘when confronted by the camera he appeared to think that it was some awful instrument of the white man’s vengeance’.

A print of this photograph was sent by an Adelaide resident, John Bagot, in November of that year, to the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Some years later the Curator mounted the print with a number of others from South Australia, and added the information that Wanamuchoo had been ‘hanged for the murder of a shepherd’. However, it is clear from contemporary reports that he was in fact considered insane at trial and sent to the City Asylum, where he seems to have survived a further eleven years, dying there in March 1903.

The case of Wanamuchoo caused a lively debate in the press of the day on the topic of the applicability of English law to Aboriginal cases such as this, and its themes of dislocation, mistranslation and separation continue to resonate for many Aboriginal people to this day. This lecture will show how the current international research project Globalisation, Photography and Race: the Circulation and Return of Aboriginal Photographs in Europe, led by Jane Lydon at the University of Western Australia, has been exploring visual histories held in remote photograph collections such as Oxford, the ways in which it has attempted to reconnect the images to relevant indigenous communities today, and the research and curatorial issues that have emerge

Found at http://www.ias.uwa.edu.au/lectures/morton

Listen to his UWA lecture HERE

Future Fellow committed to using pictorial past to shape our future – Article for the Australian Research Council

Image: Lynnette Wanganeen with Dr Chris Morton and copy of an 1867 photograph of her ancestor. Image courtesy: Pauline Cockrill and History SA.

Image: Lynnette Wanganeen with Dr Chris Morton and copy of an 1867 photograph of her ancestor. Image courtesy: Pauline Cockrill and History SA.

Family portraits are valued items that give us a unique snapshot of a moment in time and through those image memories that can be cherished for years to come. Such images can also become an important historical record.

But not everyone in the community has access to such images and there may be pieces of one’s past that are unknown due to a loss of photographs, which also becomes a gap in the historical records.

Trying to obtain images from previous generations can be difficult, but one researcher is doing all she can to use the past to change the future.

Professor Jane Lydon, an ARC Future Fellow and the new Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia, wants to establish visual history as a key aspect of Australian and Indigenous historiography.

Professor Lydon is using her Fellowship to reverse the previous flow of a significant heritage resource of Indigenous Australians to European collections, and to make those precious documents available to the communities, relatives and descendants of the Aboriginal people in the photographs.

“To do this we need to return those images—which are often in museum collections held overseas in Europe, having been collected by European explorers from the mid-nineteenth century—to Australia and to the descendants of the people in the photographs,” Professor Lydon said.

“Today they are very much valued as family portraits, they also document a colonial past that isn’t otherwise available through documented images, and they document cultural heritage and cultural traditions that may not have been remembered or recorded in other ways.”

Professor Lydon has had great success with her research under her Future Fellowship.

In December 2012 Professor Lydon published The Flash of Recognition: Photography and the Emergence of Indigenous Rights. The book presents a new way of looking at the relations between Aboriginal people and settler society in the past through visual imagery.

“What I’ve argued in that book is that images were an important way of campaigning on behalf of Aboriginal people, both up until the 1930s as used by white activists and then from the 1930s on as used very much by Aboriginal people themselves to argue for their rights,” Professor Lydon said.

“The book puts forward an innovative argument and brought together a lot of these images for the first time.”
This dedication to her research field was recently rewarded at the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards where Professor Lydon won the history book category.

It’s not the only one of Professor Lydon’s books to receive high recognition. Fantastic Dreaming: The archaeology of an Aboriginal mission (AltaMira, 2009), won the Australian Archaeological Association’s John Mulvaney Book Award in 2010.

She is now working on a new book looking at how photographs have played a role in shaping ideas of what it means to be human.

The book will be international in its scope, but will be framed through the lens of race relations in Australia and the way that Aboriginal people have been represented by photographers and have represented themselves.

Her research will also be developed further by a six-month visiting fellowship to Cambridge University this year, enabled by her Future Fellowship.

Another achievement has been the collating of a database that brings together images from four overseas collections in the UK, Netherlands and France. This will be an important resource to establish which images held overseas relate to which communities here in Australia. It will also serve as an important tool for returning those images.

This collaborative work has led to strong links with the renowned Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. In August last year Dr Christopher Morton, Curator of Photograph and Manuscript Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, who is working with Professor Lydon on her research project, visited Australia presenting a public lecture Searching for Wanamuchoo—Researching and returning Aboriginal photographs from the Pitt Rivers Museum.

This lecture highlighted the importance of Professor Lydon’s research project in exploring visual histories held in remote photograph collections such as Oxford, the ways in which it has attempted to reconnect the images to relevant indigenous communities today, and the research and curatorial issues that have emerged.

While in Australia, Dr Morton was fortunate to be introduced to a descendant of one of the early Aboriginal portraits in the Museum’s collection. The portrait in question is of James Wanganeen, an Aboriginal member of Poonindie Mission in Port Lincoln, South Australia, and his descendent is Lynnette Wanganeen (James’s great great great granddaughter).

Dr Morton was delighted to be able to present Lynnette with a print of this portrait, as well as one of James with his third wife, Mary Jane.

“The presentation of the copy of the PRM portrait was a very emotional moment for Lynnette, who felt a close bond to James despite the generational distance,” Dr Morton said.

“She spoke of the importance of seeing James and having a copy of his portrait, and for me it was a transformational moment also, in that I had known this portrait for many years, pasted onto a mount with maybe twenty or more other portraits.

“James was placed there in about 1931 by Henry Balfour in a box containing hundreds of historical portraits of Aboriginal people. Reunited with his family, the portrait in Oxford takes on a new meaning, and begins a new life with family in South Australia.”

It is these precious moments that make Professor Lydon’s research even more rewarding and she has a very clear picture of what she wants to achieve in the future.

“In a broad sense I’m hoping that a research outcome of my Future Fellowship will be establishing visual history as an important field of research and visual archives and photographs as an important heritage resource, particularly for Indigenous communities.

“I want to help the Australian public to become more conscious of the legacies of the past in the present. I’m hoping the books will also have an impact on Australian history and heritage.

“We all want to be acknowledged for our intellectual contribution to research, but I’d also like to be thought of as someone who tried very hard to mentor and collaborate with Indigenous people.

“I’d like to draw more Aboriginal people into academia and bring them into the field as researchers of their own past and their own heritage,” Professor Lydon said.

For more information please contact Professor Jane Lydon.

Article found at http://www.arc.gov.au/news-media/news/future-fellow-committed-using-pictorial-past-shape-our-future

The Return of Photographs – what does it mean for Aboriginal people?

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“Portrait of young Aboriginal man called James Wanganeen (1836–1871) in European coat, waistcoat, shirt and necktie. Plain studio background. James Wanganeen was a catechist or lay preacher at Poonindie mission.” Pitt Rivers Museum; Accession # 1998.249.33.9

 The process of returning historical photographic collections to Aboriginal communities today is a complicated process. This is why it is fundamental that the process of returning photographic materials is handled in a culturally appropriate manner. Having personally worked with Indigenous visual and audio archival collections previously and been involved with the returing of photographs to communities – some of which contained culturally sensitive materials, it is important to fully understand the significance these compilations represent for Indigenous peoples.

It is often said that a photograph can speak a thousand words, but for Indigenous peoples these archival images represent so much more. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.

By recording our histories within oral traditions, Indigenous peoples were able to keep alive the memories of love ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the archival record. Having said that however, with greater access to relevant visual collections, our Indigenous peoples and communities today are able to amalgamate the visual image with their oral stories and histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now.

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“Group of five senior Noongar men wearing European trousers, with ornate white paint on their bodies, faces, arms and legs. Left to right: Joobaitch, Woolber, Monnop, Dool and Genbursong.” Circa 1900; Source: Henry Balfour. Accession #1998.172.34.3

Many collections today are welcomed by the majority of Aboriginal peoples who see these records as evidence of their survival and strength, not as depictions of a ‘dying race’ or the colonised. What is more important to community members is the people, places of significance and country that can be found within these images. The photographic archive is a powerful source of information for Aboriginal peoples. In each image we see where we’ve been and in turn what we’ve become. They are ‘living’ proof that Aboriginal people are survivors and that our culture has survived through tremendous adversity.

The importance of the photographic archive?

Visual repatriation is, in many ways, about finding a present for historical photographs, realizing their potential to seed a number of narratives through which to make sense of the past in the present and make it fulfill the needs of the present.

(Elizabeth Edwards)
***

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“Group of Aboriginal women and children. The children are sitting, while the older women are standing. The women are all wearing long-sleeved long dresses or long skirts and blouses. There are trees in the background.” Photo originated in Daisy Bates Collection. Accession #14325

 Traditionally, Aboriginal people recorded their history orally and were able to keep alive the memories of loved ones and the knowledge of country without the necessity of the written word or archival record. Since colonisation however, people’s oral histories in many places have become fragmented. With access to relevant photographic collections, Indigenous people/communities today are able to amalgamate the archival image with their oral histories. As a result, the concept of time becomes somewhat blurred whereby the past, present and future co-exist in the here and now. Not only do they depict images of people’s ancestors, their country and places of significance, but they become ‘living entities’ in their own right – able to remove themselves from the spectrum of time and the Western concept of ‘the past’ and place themselves within the ‘here and now’.

In the past, Indigenous interaction with Institutions like museums and state government run libraries and departments have been limited and one sided. In many cases Indigenous peoples had become the object and subject of archival collections –collected and archived through the eyes of the non-Indigenous outsider. However, with greater access to resources that allow Aboriginal communities greater agency, the process of reconciling aspects of the past can begin. With Aboriginal peoples now looking back at these institutions through the looking glass (so to speak), the relationship between institutions and Aboriginal people can be based upon a more equal footing.

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“Group of Aboriginal women and children. The children are sitting, while the older women are standing. The women are all wearing long-sleeved long dresses or long skirts and blouses. There are trees in the background.” Photo originated in Daisy Bates Collection. Accession #1998.249.12.3

Finally, with access to these images, we as Indigenous people are able to come full circle – what was then has become the now. For many today, finding and receiving images of one’s ancestors may be the only link people have to their pasts. It is especially relevant for members of the Stolen Generations who were forcibly removed from their families and cultural heritage. Thus, they are able to begin a healing process and find – for want of a better term – an ‘end in the beginning’. It is also rewarding to be a part of a process that can also bring so much joy to many Indigenous families and communities who are able to view images of their ancestors long since departed. What was once a research tool used to “study” Aboriginal peoples, the photographic archive has now become an amazing window into our pasts.

Julius Ferdinand Berini: charlatan or valued collector?

Dr Chris Morton, project partner

This is a story about one of the most colourful characters to emerge from the research process as part of this project. The story centres on the mysterious figure of Julius Ferdinand Berini, a Swiss or German immigrant to Australia in the early 1860s, and whose significance has been completely overlooked in histories of early photography collecting in Australia.

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Australien’, Table 3 from C. Dammann’s Anthropologisch-ethnologisches Album, 1873-6, which contains imagery mostly supplied by Berini, including one purportedly of a man from Warrego, Queensland (centre row, left), but is clearly a Zulu from South Africa. Radcliffe Science Library, University of Oxford.

The importance of Berini emerged during my conversations with a German colleague Thomas Theye, who has spent many years studying the work of the German studio photographers Carl and Frederick Dammann, and in particular their magnum opus Anthropologisch-ethnologisches Album which was published in folio format between 1873 and 1876. The Album contains 50 folios containing hundreds of photographs of peoples from around the world, all copied from originals collected by the Dammann studio, or sent to it by the Berlin anthropology society who initiated the project.

Now, whilst the details of the Dammann publication are fairly well known, little research has so far been done on the sources (collectors) and photographers themselves, whose work was copied by the Dammann studio in Hamburg in the mid 1870s.

The Pitt Rivers Museum is probably the best archive of Dammann material in the world since it bought the residue of the project from the estate of Frederick Dammann in 1901, including many of the copy negatives and loose prints.

In the summer of 2011 as the project was getting underway, Thomas Theye and I paid a visit to the British Museum to examine early Australian photographs held there. In one album there were a number of Dammann copies, and 18 of them had the name ‘Dr Berini’ noted on the reverse, making Berini Dammann’s most significant source of early Australian imagery. But just who was Dr Berini, and what was his significance? One important photograph also leapt out, being a studio portrait of a white man surrounded by a number of indigenous men. On the back was Dammann’s usual studio printed design, along with another stamp ‘Julius Berini MD PHD’. Did this portrait show the mysterious Dr Berini?

 

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Portrait of Julius Ferdinand Berini with five indigenous men, taken in Brisbane, probably in 1868. British Museum collection (oc-a3-33)

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Back of the portrait of JF Berini, showing his stamp

A further clue came when Thomas Theye and I went through the Australian Dammann copies at the Pitt Rivers Museum. On the reverse of a carte-de-visite portrait showing ‘King Tidy’ of Brisbane was a cropped note in German, which reads roughly in English:

King (Chief), living not far from Brisbane, Australia, who although in an entirely savage condition was a patron and friend to the natural scientist Dr Berini on several occasions. He gave Berini particularly a secure escort on his way to areas never before explored or entered by a white man.

It is unclear who wrote this inscription, but it may be that that it was whoever sent this print to Dammann for copying, perhaps someone at the Berlin Anthropology Society, so that he would have the relevant information to publish alongside it.

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Portrait of ‘King Tidy’ of Brisbane, c. 1868, collected by JF Berini. Pitt Rivers Museum (1998.307.387)

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Text pasted on the reverse of the portrait of ‘King Tidy’

In early 2012 I began to see what I could find out about the mysterious Dr Berini. The first piece of evidence came in the form of an 1868 article entitled ‘Ein deutscher gruss von Australien her’ in the magazine Die Gartenlaube. The article starts by recounting an accident that befell Berini and his wife in March of that year when their dog savagely attacked them. It then continues to reprint a rambling letter to the magazine that Berini had sent in January 1868 in which he discusses the indigenous men in the group portrait, which is also reproduced in engraved form.

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Engraving based on the photographic portrait of Berini, as published in Die Gartenlaube in 1868

Turning to the amazing resource of digitized Australian newspapers, an extraordinary and intriguing picture emerged. The first mention I found was in Grafton, NSW, in 1864, where a letter was sent to the editor of the Clarence and Richmond Examiner by one C. Zimmler, who was a chemist and druggist, complaining about Berini claiming the qualification MD when he is more than likely not qualified at all. This is a theme that continues. In 1865, in the same newspaper, a letter of resignation from the Grafton hospital was published from Berini and another man, citing rumours against them. Possibly as a result of this, Berini moved to Brisbane in November 1865 and advertised himself as a physician and surgeon, based at Kangaroo Point. A picture of a man charging heavy fees for services that have at best mixed results then emerges, and Berini pursues non-payers through the Brisbane courts. In 1868 comes the exciting incident of the dog attack. The Clarence Examiner reports that one evening Berini’s mastiff was let off his leash and set upon him, inflicting 23 deep wounds, and a further seven wounds on his wife Caroline who tried to help.

Berini’s attempts to extract money from his evidently unsatisfied patients seems to have precipitated a decision to leave Brisbane in 1869. The Brisbane Courier of 31 May carries the notice ‘Leaving Brisbane tomorrow, I wish to say to all my friends and enemies (if I have any) a hearty GOOD BYE. J.F.Berini MD. Advance Queensland!’ Berini’s departure from Brisbane provides a latest date for when the photographs he supplied Dammann from Queensland could have been taken, many of which have in any case been identified as the work of such studios as Daniel Marquis.

Berini settles in mid 1869 in the German town of Hahndorf near Adelaide in South Australia, and a note in the South Australian Register in August relates that it had recently been reported in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner that Berini and his wife had decided to leave Queensland due to the dog attack and their declining health, preferring the ‘salubrious and bracing air of South Australia, where Dr Berini contemplates following his favourite studies of the ‘Flora and Fauna’ of Australia’. This is presumably where his interest in the Indigenous population came in, and why he collected Aboriginal photographs.

Soon after this Berini begins to sue people for non-payment in the Adelaide courts, and in one case against a Mr Frame in 1871 he actually admits to not being a qualified doctor, which was printed in the report in the South Australian Register. The following month, sensing the damage to his reputation, Berini publishes an explanation in the newspaper, stating that ‘he wishes to explain that the reason he occupies such a position is that the Medical Board refuses to recognize Swiss diplomas. He received the degrees of Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Zurich, in which he studied for seven years.’ Conveniently, the originals of his certificates were not available, having for some reason been sent by Berini to London ‘for approval of the medical authorities there’.

It appears that the damage to Berini’s reputation in South Australia was as bad as it was in Brisbane however, since we next read in October 1871 in The Argus, Melbourne, that Berini is seeking an appointment there as a resident medical officer at the Alfred Hospital. His application letter states that although he has not yet been admitted as a legally qualified doctor in Victoria, he expects to be shortly, and asks for an apartment and a servant at the cost of the hospital. His application is deemed ineligible.

In August 1872 a sensational report in the Evening Journal (Adelaide) states that the discredited Berini has visited Europe, where he had entertained audiences with tales of travel in

‘Borneo, New Guinea and Fiji accompanied by a suite of five natives of Australia, three Mongols and two Malays; that he had several encounters with the natives of those islands, in which he received spear and tomahawk wounds; and that he had succeeded in making wonderful discoveries of and scientific observations of a highly interesting nature. His miraculous stories appear to have found belief at London and Berlin, for according to the latest accounts he has been received with enthusiasm. Those who have known Berini in this colony are well aware that he never visited those islands, nor ever had a ‘dark suite.’ Several authoritative accounts have been sent by the last mail to England and Germany, which will speedily stop the little game of that pseudo-explorer.’

It is clear that Berini was using his collection of Australian photographs as evidence of his exploits to his credulous audiences in Europe. The group portrait of Berini with five indigenous men surrounding him was, as we know, taken in Brisbane in 1868, probably at the Daniel Marquis studio. It is highly unlikely that Berini knew the Aboriginal men in the picture personally, despite what he says in the article in Die Gartenlaube and much more likely that the studio arranged it all for Berini. And surely the tales of spear wounds from natives are the wounds from his dog, inflicted on a hot night at home in Brisbane, rather than in Borneo or Fiji.

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‘Hirsute types met by Dr Berini in Borneo’ – 3 portraits collected by Berini, probably in South Australia in the late 1860s. Pitt Rivers Museum (1998.229.11.9-11)

It was presumably during his documented visit to Berlin in 1872, where he presumably lectured to members of the anthropological community, that Berini’s photographs were eagerly requested by the Berlin Anthropology Society for their project to disseminate ethnographic images through publication, by the Dammann studio in Hamburg. Evidence that Berini used his photographs to back up his claims of adventurous travel can be found in some of the documentation passed on to Dammann with the photographs. Under three portraits in the Pitt Rivers Museum that were copied by Dammann is the caption ‘Hirsute types met by Dr Berini in Borneo’. It seems reasonably clear to me however that these men are likely to be from South Australia, and certainly not from Borneo. Nonetheless, Berini’s purported scientific qualifications and the statement that he had actually met them there presumably lent weight, not to mention the fact that in 1872 very few people in Europe had ever seen an indigenous person from either place.

Our final piece of information about the fate of Dr Berini comes in a short note some years later, in 1881, in The Argus (Melbourne), where it is reported that a man called Berini had recently been imprisoned in Switzerland for forgery, and during his trial he had produced a certificate purportedly from the Medical Board of Victoria, although there was ‘no such name appearing on the board’s register’. Berini’s trail then runs cold, at least for now, leaving behind a fascinating story of forgery, quackery, legal wrangles, tall tales and savage dogs.

Whilst it seems obvious that Berini was a charlatan, it is also clear that he had a genuine interest in the natural history of Australia and some aspects of Aboriginal culture. And as a result of his photographs having been copied by Dammann in Germany in the mid 1870s, Berini should now justly be considered as one of the most significant collectors and disseminators of early Australian Aboriginal photography to Europe.

Christian Thompson at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Dr Chris Morton, project partner

When the project began in 2011, indigenous artist Christian Thompson was invited by project partner Dr Chris Morton at the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, to collaborate. In particular, Christian was invited to engage with the museum’s historic collection of photographs from Australia and make a new body of work that the museum would exhibit.

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Christian Thompson looking at archival photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, June 2011

The resulting exhibition, We Bury Our Own , opened in Oxford and Melbourne in June 2012 to critical acclaim, and subsequently travelled internationally. This essay discusses some of the themes in the work and its connection to the museum archive.

Over the course of a year, Christian made several research visits to view photographs of Aboriginal people at the Pitt Rivers Museum, mostly dating to the late nineteenth century. The collection itself was built up after the museum’s foundation in 1884 as an anthropological research resource, and the museum’s first Curator, Henry Balfour, used his extensive contacts in Australia, such as close colleague and friend Baldwin Spencer, to build up the archive.

The experience of working with the collection was emotional one for Christian, and for the museum was an innovative collaboration from which we learned a great deal. Although not explicitly quoted in the work made as a result of this engagement, both the experience of looking at the historical images, the modes of representation they carry, and the painful histories they hold, can be understood as lying at the heart of the work. As Christian mentions in the film that he commissioned from Michael Walter to contextualize the work, he turned down my offer of looking through the museum’s collection digitally, and instead preferred to spend time with the original material in the museum, experiencing the way they exist archivally rather than at one remove.

Rather than directly invoking or re-presenting historic imagery, as is evident in the work of other artists such as Brook Andrew (who has also worked extensively with archives), Christian chose to take the history of photographic representation of Aboriginal people as a starting point for the ‘spiritual repatriation’ (see below) of the archive through the redemptive process of self-portraiture. Importantly, this process has not involved drawing on those historical markers of identity which are so prevalent in ethnographic imagery, but rather his own fluid and evolving transcultural identity, as well as biographical markers of another recent identity, that of an Oxford student in formal dress.

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Studio portrait of a man from South Australia, circa 1860. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1998.249.33.2)

I remember us talking at great length about many of the museum’s photographs, but some stick in my memory as having provoked more of a response from Christian than others. One of them is a portrait of a South Australian indigenous man with a heavily scarified chest, wrapped around the waist by a skin cloak. His hair is parted, and combed down the sides of his head, curling out slightly. The other shows three men (possibly including the same man to right), all with scarifications and body paint, their hair again combed in nineteenth-century fashion. These portraits in the collection had a particular resonance for Christian, and can be felt in the resulting work.

Studio portrait of three men from South Australia, circa 1860. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1998.249.33.5)

Studio portrait of three men from South Australia, circa 1860. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1998.249.33.5)

Although archival imagery is an inspiration for Christian generally, he is also inspired by the materiality and composition of a wide variety of images from many different reference points such as contemporary fashion, film, and music. It is this playful blending of genres that not only makes his approach distinctive, it also resonates historically with the blending of scientific and popular genres in the archival imagery with which he engaged during the project.

One of the main points of reference to the historical archive in the work is the use of the more scientific end of nineteenth-century ‘ethnographic’ portraiture; head-and-shoulders, full-face, looking directly into the camera, as in the work of policeman Paul Foelsche of Darwin in the 1870s.

4.	Portrait of a Waggite man called Nabbang, 1879. Paul Foelsche, Darwin. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1998.249.19.10)

Portrait of a Waggite man called Nabbang, 1879. Paul Foelsche, Darwin. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford (1998.249.19.10)

As mentioned, one of the most interesting aspects of the collaboration was the exploration of what Christian called the ‘spiritual repatriation’ of the archive through art. Of course, the physical repatriation of Aboriginal human remains is also a process with deep spiritual signicance and resonance to those communities involved in receiving them. But 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.

Christian Thompson, Desert Melon (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

Christian Thompson, Desert Melon (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

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, and so hold significant spiritual and emotive qualities. It is this creative tension, between the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place, and yet as a reproducible and dynamic historical resource, that lies at the heart of Christian’s concept of the exhibition space as a spiritual zone.

Christian Thompson, Lamenting the Flowers (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

Christian Thompson, Lamenting the Flowers (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

The scientific scrutiny of the colonial lens is dramatically inverted in We Bury Our Own however, with the indigenous appropriation of the means of representation through the self-portrait, as well as the inversion of a key marker of cultural identity – dress. By wearing Oxford academic dress in the portraits, Christian makes a powerful statement about historical and political processes of identity formation within contemporary Aboriginal communities. As one of the first two Aboriginal students at the University of Oxford, the reference to Oxford in the work is full of historical resonance. Charlie Perkins himself, after all, was the first Aboriginal person to become a university graduate, from the University of Sydney in 1965.

Christian Thompson, Forgiveness of Land (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

Christian Thompson, Forgiveness of Land (from We Bury Our Own, 2012)

As a significant body of new work by an indigenous artist engaging with a European collection, We Bury Our Own is a major outcome of this project. It even made the cover of the publication Anthropology Today! As the project website is published, and the historic images are made available to indigenous communities, many more creative engagements, appropriations, conversation and repatriations will hopefully take place.