Pati Solomona Tyrell and Christian Thompson use self portraiture and masquerade as a way to tap into and channel historical identities. Both work across performance, photography, and video.
Tyrell is a founding member of Auckland's Fafswag collective, whose members proudly celebrate their LGBTQ Pacific-Islander identities. Photographing himself and his friends in their performance guises, his work traverses the documentary and the directorial.
Traditionally, some Pacific Island cultures recognised a spectrum of genders, outside the binary of female and male, however this practice was complicated with colonisation. Tyrell investigates ways in which, in pre-Christian Samoan culture, fa’afafine and fa'atama were able to navigate gendered space as well as the space between the spiritual and physical worlds.
Organised as a journey through the Pacific Islands, Tyrell's video Fāgogo (2016) counters the colonial-church gaze, by re-attributing pre-colonial oracle status to the gender-fluid shapeshifting entities channelled by himself and his collaborators. (Fāgogo is form of Samoan theatrical storytelling where people, events, and stories are brought to life.)
Oracles also includes the Fafswag Interactive Film (2018), made by Taika Waititi’s production company Piki. It takes the form of a video game. You can choose two of five dancers, pick an Auckland location, and witnesses their vogue battle. When you pick your winner, a short documentary about them is played.
Thompson is of Aboriginal Bidjara and European heritage. His work—which he describes as 'auto-ethnography' and ‘spiritual repatriation’—revolves around self portraiture. His photos show him framed and ornamented with suggestive allegorical and talismanic objects reflecting his complex background: native flora, rocks, crystals, candles, model ship, flag jacket, a map ... His suggestive, obscure allegories are ambiguous. Are his accoutrements and attributes expressing him, swamping him, subsuming him, or becoming him?
In his black-and-white photo series Museum of Others (2016),Thompson's features are masked by portraits of British colonial figures (Cook, Ruskin, Pitt Rivers, and Baldwin Spencer), but he looks back at us through their cut-out eyeholes, perhaps trumping these stern emissaries of empire. In a follow-up works, Enchantments (2018), Thompson appears as an androgynous otherworldly spirit, with oddly 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 features Thompson's haunting three-screen video installation, Berceuse (2017), whose French title means lullaby. In it, Thompson sings in his native language, Bidjara, which is now considered extinct.