ARTISTS Pati Solomona Tyrell, Christian Thompson CURATOR Robert Leonard
Working across performance, photography, and video, Pati Solomona Tyrell and Christian Thompson channel historical spirits and consequences through masquerade.
Tyrell is a founding member of Auckland's Fafswag collective, whose members proudly celebrate their LGBTQ Pacific-Islander identities. Photographing himself and his circle in their performance guises, his work traverses the documentary and the directorial.
Traditionally, some Pacific Island cultures recognised a wider spectrum of genders. In pre-Christian Samoa, there were fa’afafine and fa'atama. Sequenced as a journey through the Pacific Islands, Tyrell's video Fāgogo (2016) counters colonisation by re-attributing oracle status to the gender-fluid shapeshifting spirits he and his collaborators embody. (Fāgogo is a traditional form of Samoan theatrical storytelling.)
Oracles also includes Fafswag: The Interactive Documentary (2018), made with Taika Waititi’s production company Piki. Interweaving fantasy and reality, it takes the form of a video game, where you can pick an Auckland location, choose two dancers, and witness their vogue battle. After you pick your winner, you can play a short documentary on them.
Melbourne artist Christian Thompson is of Aboriginal Bidjara and European heritage. He describes his work as 'auto-ethnography' and ‘spiritual repatriation’. His photos show him framed and ornamented with suggestive allegorical and talismanic objects reflecting his complex background: native flora, rocks and crystals, candles, model ship, map. Are these accoutrements and attributes expressing him or erasing him, subsuming him or becoming him? Although he features in much of his work, he resists calling it self portraiture, which, he says, would imply 'that it's about capturing some element of my own self-representation, and that's not really the case … It's more that I'm an armature to build ideas on top of’.
Much of Thompson's work deals with the legacy of colonialism. In his black-and-white photo series Museum of Others (2016), his features are masked by portraits of famous British colonial-period figures (James Cook, John Ruskin, Augustus Pitt Rivers, and Walter Baldwin Spencer), but he looks back at us through their cut-out eyeholes, perhaps trumping these stern emissaries of empire. In his Enchantments (2018), Thompson appears as an androgynous otherworldly spirit, with luridly dyed and tousled hair, and wearing a period night shirt, holding tiny masks of now-obscure Victorian-period German colonists of Australia, again with excised eyes. The works are addressed not to us, but are 'letters' to them.
Oracles also includes Thompson's haunting three-screen video installation, Berceuse (2017), whose French title means lullaby. The artist sings in his native language, Bidjara, which is now considered extinct. Thompson says he wants people to ‘experience the innate lyricism of language’.