Installation view of Christian Thompson’s <em>Burdi Burdi (Fire Fire)</em> on display as part of the <em>Melbourne Now</em> exhibition at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne from 24 March – 20 August 2023. Image: Sean Fennessy

Christian Thompson AO

Christian Thompson
(b. 1978, Gawler, South Australia. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Dr Christian Thompson AO is a Bidjara/Chinese-Australian contemporary artist whose work explores identity and history. Formally trained as a sculptor, Thompson’s practice spans photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound. Burdi Burdi (Fire Fire), 2021, is from Thompson’s series New Gold Mountain, which explores his first-generation southern-Chinese gold-rush heritage. Underpinned by his idea that to sing even one word of his Bidjara language means it cannot be described as extinct, Thompson uses the art context as a site to archive and present the practice of spoken language within the broader culture, occupying a rare and powerful space. Acquired by the NGV for Melbourne Now, the four-channel sound installation concerns the threat to, and loss of, First Nations languages. Visitors to the vibrant red room on the second level of the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia become immersed in the sounds of Thompson singing in his father’s native Bidjara language, now officially classified as severely endangered. 

Underscoring his singing is a combination of synth-heavy instrumentation, breath and spoken word. As well as exploring Thompson’s experiences of the Bidjara language, Burdi Burdi (Fire Fire) is a tender, personal case for the revitalisation of First Nations languages, bringing forward 60,000 years of narrative and experiences embedded in the lilting textures and rhythms of Thompson’s voice and the language of what Thompson describes as ‘pre-invasion Australia’.

Thompson’s work has been exhibited all over the world across his more than two-decade career. In 2010 he made history as the first Aboriginal Australian to be admitted to Oxford University. A research affiliate at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Thompson holds a PhD (Fine Art) from Trinity College, University of Oxford, as well as degrees in theatre, sculpture and fine art. His work is held in major collections including the Museum of Contemporary Art and Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria; Queensland Art Gallery and the University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane; and the Aboriginal Art Museum, Utrecht. A major survey exhibition of Thompson’s work, Christian Thompson: Ritual Intimacy toured nationally between 2017 and 2019. In 2018 Thompson was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his service to the visual arts.