Barkindji photographer, Nici Cumpston was born in Adelaide in August 1963. She spent her childhood growing up in Broken Hill (NSW), Alice Springs and Darwin (NT) and in the province of Manitoba in central Canada, returning to live in South Australia in 1979. Her family background is Aboriginal, Afghan, English and Irish. In a lecture given in 2002 at The Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia (USA), Alison Holland stated that it was important for Cumpston that people know about this mixed cultural background "in order to set the scene, as she is intent on showing the diversity amongst all. Nicole says, 'I don't particularly look like any of these nationalities and I want people to know how different we all are.'"
Cumpston's artistic career began when she enrolled in a Diploma of Applied and Visual Art with the North Adelaide School of Art in 1987 (graduating in 1989) and held her first exhibition, "Doubts" at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 1988. It was at the art school that Cumpston was taught the technique of hand colouring photographs with transparent oil paints by Kate Breakey who was employed to present a photographic workshop to the students. This is the style of photography that Cumpston would gain recognition for later in her career.
For the next eight years Cumpston worked in Photographics for the South Australian Police Department where she processed the slide film used in the new speed and red light cameras that were being introduced across South Australia. She also processed and printed crime scene, accident investigation and forensic autopsy films. This work taught Cumpston to be proficient with colour film processing and printing and the importance of daily equipment maintenance and testing procedures. It also provided her with an understanding of colour printing methods including how to read a print to enable accurate colour correction. In correspondence with the author, Cumpston has said that she is "not sure if it is through seeing the process of documenting crime scenes that I have developed a way of documenting the landscape looking for evidence of past Aboriginal occupation. I feel like I am an investigator when I go out into the bush as I am always photographing everything I see, like I am gathering evidence."
During her time with the South Australian Police Department Cumpston completed her Advanced Diploma of Applied and Visual Art, again at the North Adelaide School of Art (1992-1994) where she furthered her studies in photography and took courses in ceramics and textiles. Upon leaving the Police Department in 1996 Cumpston began lecturing in photography at the Tauondi Aboriginal Community College in Port Adelaide, South Australia - a position she held until 2006. From 1998 to 2004, while working at the College, Cumpston undertook and completed her Bachelor of Visual Art and her Honours degree at the University of South Australia, majoring in photography, where she learnt to experiment with many different photographic techniques including working with a variety of films and papers including digital and infra-red film.
Her exhibiting career did not rest during these work and study years. In 1998 Cumpston participated in her first major exhibition, "3 Views of Kaurna Territory Now" (curated by Vivonne Thwaites) with fellow photographers Darren Siwes and Agnes Love at the Adelaide Festival Centre.
In 1999, when Cumpston was in the second year of her Bachelor degree, her mother passed away. Though struggling with grief, Cumpston continued with her studies. Later that same year she was commissioned by the State Library of South Australia to work in collaboration with Adelaide based photographer Andrew Dunbar. Cumpston and Dunbar's brief for the State Library was to create a series of portraits of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which was the launch exhibition of the 2000 Adelaide Festival of Arts. This exhibition, titled "Nakkondi/Look - Indigenous Australians 1999-2000", was then invited to tour to Noumea in October 2000 for the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts. In her Kluge Ruhe lecture, Alison Holland described the images taken by Cumpston and Dunbar as "a snapshot of 'real' lives of indigenous Australians across the spectrum of experience" and said that both the photographers "approached the project with 'open eyes' and invite their audience to do likewise: to look and see Aboriginal people as they really are, not as they may be conventionally portrayed." Again, in correspondence with the author, Cumpston stated that working with Dunbar provided a great opportunity for her as he set a very high standard and she had to "work hard and learnt quickly how to create images that pleased everyone involved."
Cumpston was commissioned again in 2000, this time by the Centenary of Federation to work on another collaboration titled Weaving the Murray. Seven Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists were commissioned to literally weave the social and cultural histories of the Murray River. Initially brought into this project as a documentary photographer, Cumpston ended up becoming involved in the weaving practices of the other participants and helped with the creation of the giant woven Murray Cod, Ponde. Whilst working on this project Cumpston learnt that her family was not only connected with the Darling River but also the Murray. Creating more images than was required by the commissioning agents, Cumpston utilised the extra photographs to stage her first solo exhibition, "Reflections", at Tandanya in 2002. At the same time as preparing for "Reflections", Cumpston was chosen to work as the assistant to her old mentor and now friend, Kate Breakey, who was on a trip home from the United States participating in the Returning Artists Residency, a South Australian School of Art, (University of South Australia) initiated project. Breakey in turn worked with Cumpston on producing the photographs for the "Reflections" exhibition and encouraged her to hand colour the work, a series of mural sized images of the Murray River.
After her father's passing in 2005, Cumpston took time away from work and travelled to Breakey's home in Tucson, Arizona, (USA) to grieve. During this six-week trip Cumpston worked with Breakey as her studio assistant on Breakey's forthcoming exhibitions. Upon her return to Australia Cumpston took up a four-week arts residency at the Bundanon Trust on the south coast of New South Wales. Following this residency she began a large commission of pencil and water-coloured hand painted photographs for the Commonwealth Law Court building in Adelaide. During this commission Cumpston had to change her technique of printing as the rolls of photographic paper she always worked with were no longer in production. For this commission she created the images on film. Negatives from the processed film were scanned and printed onto canvas. This new technique came about after experimenting with different papers resembling the type she was accustomed to working with that would allow her to continue using transparent oil paints. Not finding any that satisfied her, she moved to canvas, substituting transparent watercolour for oil paint when she found that oils rubbed the photographic image from the new surface. The end result of this work was installed in foyer of the building along a 12 metre and a 5 metre wall. The works titled Eckerts Creek, Murray River National Park and Flooded Gum, Katarapko Creek are large panormaic images of the waterways and trees of the Murray River. In correspondence with the author, Cumpston has said of this body of work that she hoped that people would "feel as though they are in the country even though they are within a building in the city."
Cumpston began to be nationally noticed as an artistic photographer when she was invited to submit work for consideration for the 2006 Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award at the Queensland Art Gallery which led to her first Sydney solo exhibition at Cooee Aboriginal Art Gallery later that year. In 2007 Cumpston entered the River Murray Art Prize, for which she won the People's Choice Award. That same year Judith Ryan included her in the Heide Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Power and Beauty: Indigenous Art Now" from November 2007 to March 2008. Her work sat alongside the works of Fiona Foley, Lin Onus, Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, and Julie Gough, Ray Thomas, Ellen Jose, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Samantha Hobson, Ricardo Idagi, Ellen José, Ricky Maynard, Clinton Nain, Wingu Tingima, Gulumbu Yunupingu and twenty artists from the Kayili Artists and the Warakuna Artists groups, both of the Gibson Desert, Western Australia, including Coiley Campbell Tjakamarra, Dorothy Ward Nangala, Eunice Yunurupa Porter Panaka and Molly Malungka Yates Tjarurru.
From 2006 to 2008 Cumpston worked at the University of South Australia where she wrote and delivered a new compulsory course, 'Indigenous Arts, Culture and Design' for the undergraduate visual art and design students. In 2007 Cumpston, with Nerina Dunt, co-curated "Indigenous Responses to Colonialism: Another Story" at Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre (her first professional curatorial experience). In that same year she worked alongside Julie Gough as the Project Manager for Gough's South Australian School of Art residency.
In 2008 Cumpston began working full time as an assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the gallery's first Indigenous identified curatorial position. Marita Smith's Gallerysmith also began representing her in Melbourne, this was the first commercial gallery to represent the artist.
Author profile: Tess Allas has worked in the field of Aboriginal visual arts and community cultural development since the early 1990s and has a Masters in Curatorship and Modern Art from the University of Sydney. Tess currently works as the Storylines Research Officer at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW.