THINKING ABOUT LUKE WILLIS THOMPSON


This online article criticising Luke Willis Thompson 2018 Turner Prize-nominated work for essentially being appropriation because he has light skin and, in the author’s estimation, “passes” for “white” has recently provoked discussion on social media.

It has raised some interesting points, but (acknowledging I really can’t speak to the indigenous perspective and don’t claim to) notions of a melanin pantone chart being applied to indigenous people in colonised places is spectacularly grotesque. Putting aside the quite natural variations in complexion among Polynesian and Melanesian peoples, Thompson’s indigeneity is inalienable from his genealogy/whakapapa and his being raised as iTaukei. This sort of discourse has been insinuating itself in postcolonial discourse in New Zealand lately. It has been very popular with neocolonialists seeking to alienate indigenous people from their identity, and more disconcertingly, turns up in internal Māori and Pasifika politics (shades of Deleuzian faciality), which I am not in a position to address, but a lot of Kāi Tahu can tell you all about it.

Make no mistake, it’s merely the latest iteration of how slaves used to be divvied up as to whether they were “high yellow” and worthy of being trained up to work in the house, or too dark and fit only for the plantation. That sort of internalised racism is a product of colonised thinking, planted by colonisers to undermine the resistance of the colonised. It’s ugly, and when applied to people from this part of the world by someone studying at a prestigious UK art school like Central St Martins and (if we really must descend to that level) really only a day’s sunbathing darker than Thompson, it’s preposterous. He isn’t Rachel Dolezal.

Anyway, that said, it reminded me of some of the problems I do have with Thompson’s work. I get what he’s trying to do – he’s trying to subvert the white cultural hegemony of the art world from the inside. Simon Denny does roughly the same thing to corporate neoliberal culture, but rather more successfully. To an extent one could make a comparison between Thompson’s work and that of Michael Parekowhai – except Parekowhai has a lightness and playfulness that Thompson (still young and enjoying success very early) doesn’t quite have. Parekowhai lets his art do the talking but doesn’t leave the impression that it’s because he has nothing to add, and perhaps more importantly had the sense to work in the Koonsian ersatz rather than fetishize authenticity the way Thompson does.

It’s this fetishizing of authenticity that creates what I see as the problem in Thompsons work, and it’s intentionally there, but that in itself is a problem. Mike P. can quietly take the piss out of the art establishment’s cynical exploitation of the exotic because he encourages an ambiguity about what he’s saying that allows white art institutions to feel like they’re in on the joke (when mostly they’re not). Thompson, on the other hand, requires the total complicity of white institutions to provide conceptual context without ever being able to function independently of them. There is also, I think, a sort of blind spot in his work regarding broader empathy for the non-white non-art world audience, and that has come through strongly to me in my conversations with Māori artists in particular and is something that the above article is attempting (badly) to raise.

By means of illustration, let’s look first at Thompson’s Sucu Mate/Born Dead (2016), which first showed at what was Hopkinson Cundy in Auckland, and later at the IMA in Brisbane as part of Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries. It consists of an installation of nine headstones on loan for two years from the Balawa Estate cemetery in Lautoka, Fiji. The headstones, lacking any identifying marks, belong to indentured Indian, Chinese and other indentured workers on the sugarcane plantations. These are from the lowest part of the graveyard. Indigenous Fijians, including the artist’s grandmother, were buried in the central area, and the white colonisers on the hill. As part of the work, Thompson did a Christo negotiating with authority bit, working with the Fiji Museum and the Fijian Minister of Culture to obtain permission to borrow these grave markers and repairing the damaged graves. The dead are anonymous and naturally their preferences can’t be known.

Now obviously the intent is to bring attention to the complicated histories of Pacific colonisation and exploitation by highlighting the physical site and replicating it as a non-site in the predominantly white context of the art gallery. It’s aiming for what Susan Best calls Reparative Aesthetics, but it seems a naïve way of approaching it. In the first instance internal Fijian politics around indigenous status versus the financially dominant Fijian-Indian population (descended from those indentured workers) are fraught and convoluted. It would be very easy to misread it as a calculated political insult directed at the Fijian-Indian population (and at some level of Fijian officialdom, not the artist, probably was). In the second instance, relocated to an art gallery in Auckland distances itself from that context, and thirdly runs the risk of being deeply offensive to Māori who might legitimately regard such a stark statement as a desecration of tapu.

Another illustrative example is inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam which won Thompson the Walters Prize back in 2014, which consisted of a magical mystery tour by taxi from the Hopkinson Cundy loading bay to what turned out to be Thompson’s family home in the suburbs (I kinda wonder what he told his parents, “like don’t feel you have to be there all the time but maybe be there some of the time”). Yeah, sure, ok, there is a niceness to it, though maintaining the surprise is rather impractical after the first few times. And for all the artwank about blurring the boundaries of public and private, inclusion and exclusion, at the end of the day it’s still the sort of nice, middle class people who go to art galleries being pre-selected by the sort of nice, middle class people who run art galleries to go to an open home at an unexceptional villa in suburban Auckland. It’s cute, kinda low stakes, and ultimately as edgy as rice pudding. That’s fine, but probably not really as subtle as everyone was making out at the time.

So now we turn to the zeitgeisty Autoportrait 2017, the work that got nominated for the Turner, a video work depicting Lavish Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, a black man shot dead by Minnesota police during a routine traffic stop in 2016, which Reynolds live-posted on Facebook. Comparisons, both positive and negative, have been made to Dana Schultz’s controversial abstract painting of Emmett Till. I think such comparisons are fallacious – they’re both problematic artworks for different reasons. For one thing, Shultz made quite clear she was approaching her subject from the perspective of a mother (Till’s mother wanted the open casket photographed and published to show white people what they had done to her son), rather than trying to appropriate Black experience, though it was flirting with the generalization of grief, which is about the worst thing you can say about it.

Thompson’s title would suggest he is identifying with his subject as a PoC. Normally this kind of solidarity of the marginalised wouldn’t be quite so discomforting, once we have disposed of the ridiculous notion that Thompson’s relative albedo disqualifies him. Mind you, it’s still feels a bit strange given the different contexts (and I feel a similar disquiet about Lisa Reihana’s depiction of non-Māori first contact narratives at the Venice Biennale), and that is emphasised with the extreme identification in the title, which suggests that the Fijian-New Zealander artist’s experiences are interchangeable with those of his Black American subject in a way that can be anything other than superficial (urgh), earning him a big prize from a predominantly white British art establishment (double urgh). Ultimately I’m probably more repelled by possibility that individual trauma has become a globalised commodity rather than by the work itself, and of course I’m further hampered by getting my information second hand and only seeing some snippets here and there. At the end of the day I simply don’t know enough about the work to say any more than that. I don’t get the impression that Thompson is deliberately exploiting anything, but I could certainly see how it could be read that way.

I must emphasize that I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with Thompson’s work beyond my concern that it lacks a certain self-aware restraint and lightness of touch. I think he would benefit from a close reading of Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and perhaps taking more time to consider each idea from multiple viewpoints. If Thompson plans on breaking into the US, he is going to need to do so with great caution, humility and awareness, or they are going to rip him a new one quicker than you can say “Jimmie Durham”, because compared to the sensitivities around racial politics there, the equivalent in the UK or NZ is a gentle love tap.

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