The inherent scholar in Dr Christian Thompson AO DPhil (it’s not a PhD at Oxford, Christian!) has almost inevitably lead on from his florid photographic examination of his Bidjara personality (and singing) to a new engagement with his fifth generation Chinese/Australian character. It’s currently to be seen at the Asian-specialist gallery in Sydney, 4A.

What’s fascinating is that the multiple images one has become accustomed to seeing of Thompson’s hands and hints of his face wreathed in native botany are now replaced by the full Thompson taking himself terribly seriously in a variety of settings that relate to the book in his hands. For he’s taken inspiration from an old Chinese saying, “To hold a book in the hand is to hold a house of gold”. Given that his Cantonese family emigrated to Australia in pursuit of a more tangible gold mountain, the show is entitled ‘House of Gold’.

Of course, Thompson hasn’t used artifice to make himself suddenly look Chinese. But tightly cut hair, serious glasses and settings such as that amongst the dragon-dance outfits in the Chinese Museum of Melbourne, out in the Victorian goldfields with coolies labouring in the background, or against the leather-bound bookcases in the State’s Parliamentary Library undoubtedly transform the familiar figure quite believably.

The inspiration for all this in his family was a grandmother who insisted that he not erase the Chinese part of himself inherited from her, lead the celebrations of Chinese New Year every year and taught him to cook a mean chow mein.

Ideas that lead to this 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art commission began bubbling up as Thompson researched in Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, for the uni was full of ancient buildings where he might have situated his developing Chinese self. But a DPhil takes a tonne of work, though he did find time to decorate the august dining hall of Trinity College with self-portraits that were a definite challenge to 500 years of serious male academic images!

The actual connection was made when Thea-Mai Baumann joined 4A as Artistic Director last year and cold-called him to find both a very receptive ear and an Instagram series of images that was already underway. Unexpectedly, though, Thompson’s added a photo where he’s studying the book, ‘Judaism for the 21st Century’. Is he Jewish as well as Aboriginal, Irish and Chinese? No, he tells me, but he’s put three years of Talmudic learning into the religion as a challenge to Covid lockups and obviously feels that it’s becoming part of his persona.

He may not be Jewish, but he does proudly assert: “I’m a living embodiment of so many strands of Australian history”.

As the invited Thinker in Residence at 4A LAB, Thompson will work with the gallery team to commission writers and creatives, delving deeper into the theme of intersectional identities, as well as releasing content in conjunction with the exhibition – which runs until 2 June 2024 .