Charlie Perkins Scholar at Oxford University
I grew up all over Australia. My educational journey though, began at home, ten hours inland from Brisbane in Barcaldine, where my family are from.
As a child, every Christmas my family would round up all of us kids and take us out bush in the back of the ute for a week. We would only take with us water, ﬂour and salt, everything else came from our country. Damper, witchety grubs (meant to be eaten raw but I would sauté mine in butter, my little brother however, liked to keep them as pets), yellow belly ﬁsh, bush turkey and my favourite; twisties: damper dough wrapped around a stick fried over the ﬁre then ﬁlled with butter and golden syrup, so, so good!
Those formative years hold the most vivid and cherished memories for me. Sleeping under the stars with my family is where I learnt about my family history, our traditions, our language and our legacy as Bidjara people. It imparted to me a strength. While some believed that being Aboriginal was a cultural deﬁcit, I had the feeling that I was unique and had something real to say to the world.
I was an inquisitive child and would question my Mother "Where do you go after high school?" My Mother would reply "... well, you go to the big school". It was then, at the tender age of ﬁve, that I had my heart set on going to "big school". My parents and family encouraged me every step of the way, never doubting that I would reach my goal. I also had great art teachers at high school who said "you can really make it!".
The path I have travelled has been a magical but challenging one. During this time I held on for dear life to my childhood in the bush. Art is my salvation, it gave me my voice and it is a role I feel I was born to do. My Great Aunt would say "he is the one who will keep our culture alive".
When I began my undergraduate degree in ﬁne arts at the University of Southern Queensland, I would take every artistic experiment home to show my family, everyone would gather at my Grandmother’s house as we dragged my ﬁrst painting out of the boot of the car. With emotions riding high, Dad would nail it to the wall in the kitchen.
My thirst for knowledge in the outside world drove me. I wanted my people to be in a conversation with the world, not relegated to invisibility and silence. I wanted more. So, after completing my degree, I enrolled at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, which at the time, had the most dynamic art program in the country, and I wanted to be part of it.
I packed up my things, and with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket I moved to Melbourne where I lived for nine years and undertook my Honours and Master's degrees. I was subsequently picked up by Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi at the age of 19 and I still show with them today.
I have exhibited my work around the world. I have undertaken a curatorial internship at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, as well as residencies in Canada, Asia and America, and I have met some amazing people. I have worked in education, curated many exhibitions and used my training to provide a platform and voice for other artists, especially Koorie people who have been so kind and taken me under their wing and into their community.
In 2007, I moved to Europe after I was one of 10 people from around the world accepted into a Master's of Theatre at the Amsterdam School of Arts. After completing the program I applied to study at Oxford University as a Charlie Perkins Scholar to undertake, what I think, will be the ﬁnal and most signiﬁcant step in my formal education and academic career.
My childhood ambition has led me down a path ending as one of the two inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholars and, along with Paul Gray, being one of the ﬁrst two Aboriginal people to attend Oxford University. My mother was right, I did indeed get to go to one of the best “big schools” in the world!
My advice to anyone considering going to uni is listen to your heart. Find what it is you truly love and go for it with pride and passion. Take with you all your knowledge, language, customs and family to give you strength in the world. Hold your head high; we are the oldest living culture in the world!
Christian Thompson is an artist and one of the two inaugural Charlie Perkins Scholars undertaking a doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2011.