The bold work of Aboriginal Australian artist Christian Thompson at Trinity College catches SARAH MAYHEW off guard

Arriving at the gate of Trinity College in Broad Street I ask the porter for directions.

He looked slightly confused, but he’d heard that someone had been mounting an exhibition, and I was directed to The Hall, which was built in 1618 after the college’s refectory collapsed.

Although grand, it is ultimately a slightly shabby, wood-panelled dining room. The experience didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I was self-conscious, the porter had been caught off-guard, and there was a gigantic, incongruous tomato ketchup pump in the exhibition space; it was the most peculiar exhibition encounter I have experienced in a long time. I felt out of place and slightly ill at ease, trying to make sense of my surroundings – the scene was set.

Bold, large scale, brightly coloured photographic works occupy wall space between portraits of former Presidents of the College in The Hall.

Formal portraits of Lord North and William Pitt the Elder, former Prime Ministers, General Ireton (one of the individuals who signed King Charles I’s death warrant), and The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Catholic writer and theologian, have hung in The Hall for many years, but have been removed for this exhibition.

This is an artist who has not only disrupted, but made history.

There’s nothing particularly glamorous about the setting, despite possessing a sense of self-contained grandeur. This exhibition marks the first time in over 450 years that Trinity College has used its Hall for an exhibition of a student’s work. The works are by the Australian artist Christian Thompson who is currently a DPhil student in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

Thompson is also one of the first Aboriginal Australians to be accepted into the University of Oxford in its 900-year history. He said: “Trinity College has been very welcoming to me and I’m delighted to be able to use the Hall for this survey exhibition.”

President of Trinity College Sir Ivor Roberts added: “Christian’s work is undoubtedly contemporary and strikingly different from the formal portraits that people associate with Oxford colleges. I doubt that many or any college halls will have been transformed in the same way as Trinity’s. We hope that visitors to the exhibition will enjoy it. It is particularly appropriate that the exhibition celebrating Christian’s work opens on Australia Day.”

As soon as I stood before these great portraits and allowed them to speak it became clear that this exhibition is about fusions, and worlds colliding; suddenly this obscure setting, and the journey to it, made perfect sense.

The recently hung portraits aren’t just visually bold, but conceptually bold. Positioned, shoulder-to-shoulder, alongside a history of Trinity College’s great and good, the face in the pictures is the artist himself.

An influential leader in his own right, Thompson is an internationally-acclaimed contemporary artist occupying the forefront of, and influencing, a new generation of Indigenous Australian artists whose work, not unexpectedly, explores issues of identity, cultural hybridity and history.

Thompson’s work spans photography, video, sculpture, performance and sound in its exploration of identity.

In this exhibition of photography, just as in his performative work, the artist inhabits a range of personas achieved through hand-crafted costumes and carefully orchestrated poses and backdrops.

Somewhat at sea standing before his works, Thompson harnesses iconographies from completely different times and cultures, and grafts and blends them into charged, and magical, hybrids that possess a familiar yet intangible presence. A thought-provoking exhibition indeed.

The exhibition runs until Friday, February 8, and will be open to the public during normal college opening hours at Trinity College, Broad Street, Oxford.

Call 01865 279900. Entrance is £2. For more information about Christian Thompson visit