Born in 1988 in Auckland, New Zealand, Fijian-New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thomspon lives and works in London. Across film, performance and installation, Thompson's artworks are concerned with social injustice, often in the form of the mistreatment of minority communities and historical trauma.
Though relatively young, Thompson's deep concern with intimate histories is evident from his early work. For inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam (2012/2014), Thompson invited viewers to travel by taxi to explore the suburban New Zealand house where he lived with his mother. With both participatory and performance elements, the work won the Walters Prize in 2014 and pre-empted his 2015 New Museum Triennial commission, for which Thompson worked with a cast of performers who led visitors to New York City sites charged with histories of racial violence.
Two years later, in early 2016, Thompson presented his installation Sucu Mate/Born Dead (2016) at Hopkinson Mossman in Auckland. For the work, Thompson applied for and was granted custodial rights to a graveyard of a colonial sugar plantation in Fiji, and was permitted to temporarily remove the headstones for circulation as art objects. Sucu Mate/Born Dead comprised of nine of the anonymous monuments; marking the graves of deceased workers and managers, the blankness of the headstones raises issues of cheap, exploitative labour and racial discrimination, while the title of the mobile cemetery refers to the short, difficult and damned fate that awaited the workers from birth. The installation was later shown at the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo in the same year.
In recent years, Thompson has become well known for his portraits that present those affected by racialised policing and employ the language and technology of Andy Warhol's 'Screen Tests'. For example, the silent 16mm black and white film Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) shows consecutive images of two young Black men wearing white dress shirts against a plain wall. Depicted with near-unmoving frontal gazes, the men are the descendants of women who died from police brutality in London: one is the son of an undocumented Jamaican mature student who was bound and gagged by police during a raid for her deportation and died days later, while the other is the grandson of Dorothy 'Cherry' Groce, whose shooting by police led to the 1985 Brixton riot. None of the officers who were involved in the women's deaths were convicted, reinforcing the sentiment that their lives were less valuable due to their race.
Similarly, Thompson's black and white film autoportrait is a silent portrayal of Diamond Reynolds, who was in a car with her partner Philando Castile when he was shot five times by a police officer near St Paul, Minnesota, during a routine traffic stop in 2016. Reynolds live-streamed the shooting's aftermath; this alarming footage came to be viewed several million times and has since been referenced widely by Black Lives Matter activists as evidence of fatal racism. Made during Thompson's time at the Chisenhale Gallery Create Residency, autoportrait acts as an inmate, grief-laden 'sister-image' to Reynold's broadcast, wordlessly commenting on the devastating impact of excessive police violence against Black bodies in America (the officer who shot Castile was acquitted of the crime). The work won the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 and in the same year was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.
Examining another unjust and violent death, Thompson's installation Untitled (2012), exhibited at the 5th Auckland Triennial in 2013, consisted of the three garage doors previously owned by a Auckland businessman who stabbed a 15-year-old to death for tagging the doors.
Thompson earned a BFA (2009) and MFA (2010) from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, and studied at the Städelschule, Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste, Frankfurt am Main, from 2013 to 2014. Recent solo exhibitions include: Luke Willis Thompson, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington (2018); autoportrait, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland (2017); Luke Willis Thompson, Chisenhale Gallery, London (2017); Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries, Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin (2016); Misadventure, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (2016); and Sucu Mate/Born Dead, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland (2016).