Recently, thanks to curator Christine Nicholls, I received a copy of the catalog from the 2012 exhibition Earth Works: contemporary Indigenous Australian ceramic art (Flinders University City Gallery, 2012). The show had a lamentably short run of six weeks in Adelaide, so I’m glad to report that the catalog is still available. Presenting a history of Indigenous ceramic artistry and illustrated with superb photographs that document that variety of schools of ceramic art that have arisen in recent decades, the show and its catalog are in equal parts instructive and delightful. The work of the Hermannsburg Potters is widely known throughout Australia; that of the Tiwi Pottery greatly admired; that of the Ernabella Potters less well-known. All are represented here, along with some other surprising and recent examples of the form.
Nicholls begins her survey with two unusual aspects of the story of Aboriginal ceramics. The first is a look at how Aboriginal people used clay prior to contact, for there is no Indigenous pottery tradition. In Australia cooking vessels were largely unknown, water carriers were often carved from wood, and woven baskets were using for storing and transporting food in various parts of the continent. However, clay had important ceremonial uses, used in decorating bodies and headdresses, and as pigment in other ceremonial painting. It had pharmacological uses for absorbing toxins. And thus clay had value and became partof the currency of trade among peoples around the continent.
Europeans brought ceramics with them to Australia, and Indigenous people soon found ways to recycle them, for example, by fashioning spear points from shards. Another point of Indigenous-settler contact in the sphere of ceramics is the common and unfortunate practice of painting pottery bowls, ashtrays and the other flotsam of suburban life with images of the Outback savage, noble or not (see the example by Guy Boyd, right). Bringing the concept of recycling settler ceramics full circle, Tony Albert is now making his own artwork by compiling the mid-twentieth century kitsch Aboriginalia into works like the National Gallery’s Ash on Me, a large wall installation composed of ashtrays bearing images of stereotypical Aborigines.
But the bulk of Nicholls’ catalog essay deals with the making of fine-art ceramic-ware by Indigenous artists, and she begins with the best-known school, that of the Hermannsburg Potters. Hermannsburg’s Pastor F. W. Albrecht, under whose guidance Albert Namatjira’s school of watercolor painting first flourished, also encouraged crafts manufacture, in its earliest incarnation through the development of modeling in plasticine in the early 1950s. The first kiln for the making of ceramics was established about a decade later, with Nahasson Ungwanakal and Joseph Rontji (seen in the photograph below) among the earliest practitioners. The early practice of plasticine modeling no doubt contributed to the unique development of sculptural forms on the lids of conventional pots that have come to be a signature of the Arrernte women’s work. This new interest in pottery began in earnest in 1990 when Naomi Sharp arrived to begin a sixteen-year career as the coordinator of the now famous kilns at Hermannsburg. The production of ceramic sculpture, like the Bilby by Virginia Mbitjana Rontji that appears at the top of this post, continues to this day as well.
In the far north of Australia, another initiative took shape in 1966 with the establishment of the Ceramic Research Unit at the Bagot Road Aboriginal Settlement in Darwin. Among the early participants in this program were the Tiwi men who went on to become the leading figures in the creation of Tiwi Pottery at Nguiu on Bathurst Island, where the first kiln was built in 1971. Eddie Purutatameri was the first of the great Tiwi potters, starting a tradition that is carried on today by artists like Mark Virgil Puautjimi and Cyril James Kerinauia. (The history of the Tiwi potters is chronicled in depth in Jennifer Isaacs’ recent Tiwi: Art/History/Culture (Miegunyah Press, 2012.)
It was also during the late 1960s that the career of the greatest Indigenous potter began. Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher left Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula to establish herself as a painter in Carins, but a chance wander into the ceramics studio at East Sydney Technical College a few years later took her in new and unexpected directions. Over the next four decades, Thancoupie became one of Australia’s most renowned artists, mastering a wide variety of styles and techniques in her ceramic work. Eventually recognition of her accomplishments led to the creation of more durable instances of them, as I was delighted to discover on my last visit to the NGA, where this large cast version of one of her characteristic globe-shaped forms, incised with stories from her country, was installed near the building’s main entrance.
The next chapter in Indigenous earth works that Nicholls takes up is one that is less well known in general, but one that is intimately familiar to the curator herself: the 1989 Lajamanu ceramics project. Nicholls originally went to Lajamanu in 1982 to work as a linguist and as a teacher in the school. Within two years she had become principal of the Lajamanu School and was given responsibility as well for the Adult Education programs. Funding for arts programs was hard to come by, but Nicholls was successful in a number of ventures, including arranging for a pair of ceramicists to come to the community to run workshops. Surprisingly, one of the senior Warlpiri women, Jeannie Herbert Nungurrayi, had visited Thancoupie a few years before in her Trinity Beach studio in northern Queensland, and the broad influence of Thancoupie’s work can be seen in the shperical shapes of Nungurrayi’s pots (above left). Many of the other works produced as a part of this project adapted traditional desert containers such as the coolamon (parraja), blending a sense of the utilitarian and the aesthetic object (right, an example by Biddy Nungurrayi).
Another blooming desert ceramic enterprise began in the late 1990s at Ernabella, home to the oldest operating art center (since 1948) in central Australia. Here again, there has been considerable variety of experimentation in style and technique, with some work adhering to simple, ochre-colored forms that seem to grow directly out of desert traditions, while other artists have adapted the traditional Ernabella designs, in themselves drawing on the community’s batik and silk-painting traditions, to the painting of European-style pots, vases, and decorative vessels.
In the twenty-first century a new wave of independent ceramicists have emerged from art schools to produce striking contemporay earthenware forms. Perhaps the most famous of these is Danie Mellor, whose Spodeware kangaroos have graced numerous installations and won prizes in art competitions. Ceramic work has also emerged from the Torres Strait Islands. Ricardo Idagi (right), a sculptor with a long record of innovative practice, has produced striking work of exceptional originality. My personal favorite, though, among the work that Nicholls has included in her survey, is Janet Fieldhouse, another artist who has been inspired by the example of Thancoupie. Many of her forms draw from traditional weaving practices, and her austere white ceramic pieces, modeled on armbands, have a grace and elegance that dazzles the eye (above left).
Thanks in part to the enormous commercial success of the Hermannsburg Potters and to the startling and often humorous innovations of the Tiwi, the various Indigenous schools of pottery-making have received significant attention in terms of exhibition and publication over the past twenty years. I am unaware, however, of any broad survey of the field prior to Nicholls’ Earth Works exhibition and catalog, and it is therefore all the more disappointing that funding has not been forthcoming to allow this excellent and broadly educational overview of the field to travel beyond Adelaide. Nicholls has done us a great service in documenting the breadth of Indigenous people’s engagement with the introduced media, and giving us a sense of how they have made it uniquely their own.