Philando Castile: a name artist Luke Willis Thompson won't let you forget

UK-based Auckland artist Luke Willis Thompson in his east London studio. Photos/Charlie McKay.

Artist Luke Willis Thompson is making waves in London, where the focus of his work is shifting from trauma and death to life and survival.

Police killings cut deep in London. Like New Zealand, there’s a certain long-held pride in the fact that most of the constabulary walk the streets unarmed. So when deaths happen, they are always news. Names like Mark Duggan (a young black man killed by police in 2011) linger in the culture: emblems not so much of systemic brutality as tragic cock-ups with uncomfortable racial undertones.

For the New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson, now based in London, these traumatic collisions between the city’s black communities and the police say a great deal about how we see each other, and how we understand violence in public spaces. He also sees strong connections between London’s black communities and the Pacific communities of his hometown, Auckland.

“There are these really interesting parallels,” he says when we meet in his east London studio, “between Caribbean movement [to the UK] and Pacific movement [to New Zealand]. Even in terms of adjusting to the colder climates, and the climate and the landscape becoming synonymous with oppression – being inside, working in factories and so on.”

Thompson, a 29-year-old Aucklander, has already earned a hell of a reputation here and abroad. He’s been exhibited by the New Museum in New York, had a survey show at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, was in the 2016 Montreal Biennial, and is in London on a residency with the prestigious Chisenhale Gallery, where he’s currently exhibiting.

In 2014, he was the youngest-ever winner of the Walters Prize for his much-discussed “taxi ride” – a work in which gallery visitors were invited to take a cab, with no further explanation, to an Epsom villa where they could wander around, almost freely. And in 2012, he made waves in the art world with an installation at Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi made up of three garage roller doors – the same doors that had been tagged by the teenager Pihema Cameron in 2008, who was then followed and killed by the owner of the property.

Everything Thompson makes is connected by trauma,place and memory. His creations draw partly on his Fijian ancestry and the loss of his father when he was young, but also from his extraordinary understanding of how objects can be embedded with histories of violence. And that often divides people.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” he says, “that I keep doing shows and people keep saying ‘that was important, but I didn’t ask for it’. I think the right an audience has is to leave. That’s paramount. Or the right to say no, like, ‘I don’t want to get in that cab’. But I don’t think that right then extends into what they can ask the work to be.”

The first work Thompson made in London is currently showing at the Auckland Art Gallery. ‘Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries’ is a 16mm film made up of two takes in which young black men look directly into the camera and don’t move. The subjects, Graeme and Brandon, are each descended from someone killed by London’s Metropolitan Police. Graeme’s mother Joy Gardner was killed in her home during a dawn raid for her deportation in 1993; and Brandon’s grandmother Dorothy “Cherry” Groce was shot in 1985 – a shooting that started riots in Brixton (Groce died of complications related to her injuries in 2011).

Thompson says working with Graeme and Brandon, “was easy, because they reminded me of old friends. And there’s a certain way language shapes their lives [as young men of colour, as South Londoners] that isn’t unfamiliar to me. It’s not seamless, but there is a way to build a tapestry out of that.”

The “mug-shot” format was irresistible too, not just for its history in criminal identification but also for its links with phrenology – the pseudoscience based on the shape of people’s skulls. For Thompson, there’s an interesting link here between criminology and Pacific exploration, where phrenology was used to demonstrate the inferiority of Pacific peoples and pave the way for colonisation and resource extraction.

Those brutal 19th century histories were at the heart of one of his most controversial exhibitions, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, at Hopkinson Mossman in 2016. Thompson arranged nine worn and anonymous headstones in a row – stones borrowed from a graveyard in Lautoka, Fiji, where his father’s family comes from. The stones marked the remnants of unnamed indentured labourers who had worked in Fiji’s sugar plantations: Indian and Chinese men who were exploited in brutal conditions.

Many people were upset or confused by his use of objects so directly associated with bodies and death. Thompson acknowledges these concerns, but says the response was somewhat frustrating, given that the process of obtaining the stones was so much a part of the work: a collaboration, in a sense, with the Fijian authorities, the local community, and the Fiji Museum, and premised on a kind of care or vigil.

“It’s impossible today to go to Fiji and excavate a grave or monument, get it through customs, and take it to a gallery in another country,” he emphasises. “There were all kinds of checks and balances to make that work.” But what made him really uncomfortable, he says, was the implication that Fijian authorities shouldn’t have collaborated with him: the idea that “Fiji doesn’t have the right to perform its own transgression.”

Thompson is headed back to Fiji shortly, to work on a new project. But before that, he had the small matter of a major exhibition in London to deal with: the culmination of his year-long residency at Chisenhale. autoportrait opened last week, and the entire show consists of one work, shot on 35mm: a slow, silent film of a black woman, wearing glasses, breathing slowly and evenly. The woman is Diamond Reynolds. In July 2016, Reynolds was travelling with her partner Philando Castile and her daughter in their car in St Paul, Minnesota. They were pulled over, and Castile, in the driver’s seat, was shot several times by a police officer. Reynolds, armed with her phone, live-streamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook: a video that has now been viewed online more than nine million times.

“What I saw in that video was a performative brilliance that works on a jurisprudence level,” Thompson says of Reynolds’ decision to stream the events. “It’s changed the way we think about witnessing and image production.” Perhaps not enough: Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who shot Castile, was recently acquitted of all charges.

Making the film became a three-way negotiation between Thompson, Reynolds, and her lawyer, over many months. “We talked about how an image is useful or not useful to their case, and how the media is useful and not useful,” says Thompson. “And we developed parameters for what was possible. What was possible was a silent film, because the biggest danger was that she says anything that then becomes testimony, or counter-testimony.”

Since Thompson filmed Reynolds, the case against Yanez, the officer who killed Castile, has ended. Reynolds herself is facing an assault charge on an unrelated matter. But as Thompson explains: “We both wanted to make something before things were decided. That indeterminate space became something really important to me, as a space to think about what an artist can do. How does my approach differ from journalism? How does my approach differ from activism?”

Watching Thompson’s film is immensely moving; a beautiful transformation from the stunned panic of a phone camera to the cinematic poise of 35mm. Thompson says that this was about scrambling the logic around the ways race, class, and poverty are depicted in America, which Reynolds’ film of her partner’s killing has been absorbed into.

It is also a reminder that we all carry, physiologically, our hopes and fears and pain; they emerge in the ways the boundaries of our bodies hit the world every day. And it represents a profound shift in Thompson’s work, from his confronting focus on the consequences of death, to life and survival – something Reynolds, breathing slowly as
she waits for her uncertain future, constantly reaffirms.

Luke Willis Thompson's works that launched a global career

Displayed at Auckland’s Hopkinson Mossman Gallery and subsequently at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, this work features anonymous headstones borrowed from a graveyard in Lautoka, Fiji. The stones marked indentured Indian and Chinese labourers who worked (and were often exploited) in Fiji’s sugar plantations.

Thompson’s survey at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art included the exhibition of three garage roller doors tagged by the teenager Pihema Cameron in 2008, who was then
followed and killed by the owner of the property. They were first displayed at Auckland’s Te Tuhi.

Currently on display at the Auckland Art Gallery, these two short films focus on the faces of Graeme and Brandon, each man descended from someone killed by London’s Metropolitan Police.

Thompson’s Walters Prize-winning work was an experiential (and mysterious) one: people were collected in a taxi, dropped off at an Epsom villa, and allowed to wander almost freely through it, before being collected in a cab again and returned to their pickup point.