Tanya Harrod followed with a beautiful lecture on the theme of the rag-picker, covering many examples of art projects that extracted works of beauty from the slums. She spoke highly of the work by Brazilian artist Vik Munos, featured in the film Wasteland, who donated money from the sale of his works to the favela dwellers who made it possible. While critical of those who mindlessly use the poor of the world to make high-end design, Harrod praised those who embrace the act of making with all its responsibilities. Caroline Slottee and Paul Scott provided examples of work with readymade ceramics and Ezra Shales considered the role of museum as a contested site for these works.
On the second day, Monica Gaspar introduced the concept of the infra-ordinary as a space opened up by use of the readymade. She provided a feast of contemporary work associated with her recent exhibition ‘Re-defining the Applied’, which reflected a shift away from the object itself to the way in which we inhabit. A highlight was the film by Swede Olas Stephenson where a gang breaks into a house to create musical symphonies using objects from each room. Andrew Livingston followed with a bold attempt to place use of the readymade in the context of sustainability. It made perfect sense, but the ethical logic seems at odds with the aesthetic context of the conference. Barnaby Barford’s artist talk presented narrative as an alternative context of the readymade. His film for the exhibition brilliantly demonstrated the power of pathos in the leftover figurine.
The day ended with Jorunn Veiteberg herself who expounded the thesis behind the conference. She loyally used local artists to illustrate her thesis that the ceramic readymade is following Duchamp’s liberating gesture with ‘Fountain’ to liberate the art object from the ‘fetish’ of the handmade. Veiteberg argued that re-purposing existing ceramics opens up new possibilities of creative intervention.
The last day began with Michael Petry, author of The Art of Not Making. His ebullient talk covered many instances of artists using skills of craftspersons, praising those who acknowledged their contributions. As one of those grateful artists themselves, Petry spoke very much from the commissioner’s perspective, focusing more on the grand ambitions of the artists than any creative input from technicians. The Polish ceramist Marek Cecula followed with a wonderful account of his career in ceramics, parallel to his remarkable personal journey as a survivor of the holocaust who returned to make work about the value of human labour. Linda Sormin followed in the afternoon with a lively short account of her practice in making ceramic interventions in museum spaces around the world.
As the second last presentation, I attempted to introduce the relational dimension of the readymade. This regarded the commissioned object, rather than the found object. I focused particularly on the work of artists who have their work made in Asia. Rather than a post-industrial aesthetic, I considered a ‘para-industrial’ condition where work responds to the scene of making ‘elsewhere’.
Rather than leave space for questions at the end of each paper, the conference was programmed with generous breaks where participants could discuss issues among themselves. While this was quite convivial, it was difficult to tell what the conference had achieved at the end. Making or Unmaking? provided a symbolic departure from the studio model of the ceramicist, whose work reflects the personal experience of clay. But it left hanging the question of where this is going. Is it opening ceramics up as an installation-based art form? Is it part of the elegiac moment in Europe as it sees its manufacturing capacities drift off to Asia? Does it reflect a sustainability ethic that eschews making anything new, in favour of re-purposing the old? These questions needed airing, either in response to papers or in panel discussions.
Most pressing is the gradual loss of a global dialogue around ceramics. Last month’s Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale in Korea did not have one entry from Britain, and there was little opportunity for dialogue between representatives of east and west. As globalisation continues to expand, it seems a mistake to turn inward. Modern ceramics has such a rich history of borrowing between cultures.
Norway has set the pace. We now need to pass the baton.
PS. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the excellent catalogue, then send an email to KHiB publications at firstname.lastname@example.org. Price: NOK 250,- (EUR 34) + handling expenses. More information here.
At the core of the biennale are three complexes each containing galleries, sculpture gardens and activity centres. The official centre is at Icheon, which features the international exhibitions, including competition shows and focus on French and Dutch ceramics. As you might expect, the competition was ‘hit and miss.’ There were quite a few ‘good enough’ generic pieces, but still enough remarkable works to make the trip worthwhile.
Over three floors of galleries, the work that particularly took my eye was by a Chinese artist, Meng Fuwei.
I’m not normally taken by figurative ceramics, but this work presented an uncanny sympathy between content and materials. The fact that both people and building debris were made of the same clay gave a real emotional depth to this installation. Looking at it, I realised that on hearing news of an earthquake disaster, I unconsciously separate out loss of human life from physical destruction to buildings. This logic helps us deal with the compassion fatigue brought on by 24 hour news cycles: even if a whole building had collapsed, at least the inhabitants might be alive. Meng Fuwei’s work closed off that mental escape. Alongside the rubble were scene of great pathos, as clay people cradled each other and dead bodies lie flat, their hands having been crossed in respect. Work like this deserves broader exposure. It not only tells us of what an earthquake must be like, but also intimates a real pulse beating in the heart of contemporary Chinese ceramics. Fuwei himself was a victim of the 2008 Szechuan earthquake, and has been making work about it ever since. This installation was awarded the Gold Prize.
Despite the odd powerful work, the main exhibition lacked a curatorial hand to guide the visitor. Given that the curator had resigned only three month’s before the opening, the organisers had done wonders to create a credible festival. There was an attempt to give curatorial structure to the international competition with a thematic based on the elements, ‘Journey into Fire’. But this seemed rather after the fact, and served to suggest how much more powerful the spaces could have been with a strong narrative frame.
Yeoju Bandal Art Museum was a more popularist complex containing exhibitions of applied ceramics. Much space was given to an exhibition of ceramic jewellery. I wasn’t particularly convinced by the work on display. I thought it would have been more interesting to see jewellery that made reference to ceramics as an art form, rather than include some brightly coloured glazed pieces. There’s been some interesting jewellery that draws on ceramic traditions, such as recent adornment in terracotta from Bengal.
Other exhibitions about ceramics and glass and digital media were quite strong. But I liked the best the exhibition of tableware settings. These ceramic sets spoke of the social dimension of ceramics as a way of bringing people together – not just the living.
The ‘Thankful feast’ by Min-il Kim is designed to be used during a ritual meal shared with ancestors. The key element is a plume of words from poem in Korean that are bring sucked into a ‘moon jar’. Porcelain on charcoal was a powerful combination.
The more traditional pieces could be found in the third complex, the Gwangju Gyeonggi Ceramics Museum. The highlight here was a joint exhibition of Korean and Chinese ceramics, including a feast of celadon. In an international event like this, it is especially interesting to see how Korean culture orients itself not just to the global centres of the West, such as France and Netherlands, but also its older neighbours including China. This is a key to its global positioning.
Thinking about the other powerful neighbour to the east, I was left wondering what a show of Korean and Japanese ceramics might be like. There was a touching hint of this dialogue at one of the forums. Over two days, the international visitors presented papers on the ceramic scene. Sadly, there was virtually no dialogue with the local Korean scene during these talks, apart from occasional barbs by the moderator, Jinsang Yoo, an art theorist from Seoul. The discussion became animated around the topic of acknowledging the work that ceramicists contribute in collaboration with contemporary artists. The Taiwanese professor Ching Yuan Chang reflected on the way Asia culture is oriented more to craft than the West, which hampers creativity because work is traditionally left unnamed. During a break, in company with the Japanese curator Akira Tatehata, I asked Jinsang Yoo if he had heard of the Kizaemon tea bowl, the famous work of the ‘anonymous craftsman’ that was ‘discovered’ by Soetsu Yanagi in the early 20th century. Tatehata very gingerly explained this emblem of Japanese-Korean relations – how the most revered piece of ceramics in Japan should come from the most humble of ceramic workshops in Korea.
At the time, I was thinking about the paradox contained in this story: when the value of work is attached to the humility of the maker, how can it be recognised in a way that rewards the producer? You can’t have work made ‘anonymously’ by Joe Potter. Or can you? Could anonymity be branded?
But after some googling, an alternative possibility suggested itself. On Richard Roth’s blog post about this bowl, he quotes Yanagi’s impression of the response that Koreans had to the elevation of their most humble product:
Emerging from a squalid kitchen, the Ido bowl took its seat on the highest throne of beauty. The Koreans laughed. That was to be expected, but both laughter and praise are right, for had they not laughed they would not have been the people who could have made such bowls… The Koreans made rice bowls; the Japanese masters made them into Tea-bowls.
In hindsight, Yanagi’s comments beautifully reflect the colonial thinking behind such primitivism. While the Korean work might be celebrated in Japan, it is really a testament to the sophistication of Japanese taste rather than Korean culture. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be interesting to imagine a series of ceramics which explored that Korean laughter a little more…
I was left with the impression that Gyeonggi Ceramics Biennale is a tremendously important event on the international cultural stage. We should be immensely grateful to the Koreans for giving this event their support and vision. I hope it remains a stage for international dialogue about clay. With good planning, it is possible for this event to even extend its reach. It has potential in particular for reaching out to the fragile ceramic traditions that are being revived in collaboration with artists. Korea could be the home of a ceramic renaissance. That would be something to revive the spirits of a flagging world.
The focus of the Crosshatched project this year is the mudka form, the traditional Indian water storage pot, round bottomed and full bodied, as functional as it is beautiful. It is used throughout India. The ability to cool water to a pleasurable temperature due to the evaporation of water on the exterior wall of the porous body is a sustainable cooling system we could utilize in our own households.
The Crosshatched team, traditional Indian potters Manohar Lal and Dharmveer, ceramic sculptor Ann Ferguson and myself will engage with others to generate what we envisage will be an exciting 5 weeks of ceramic cross-cultural collaborations.
There are two main activities. Tallarook Stacks. A Regional Arts Victoria funded venture where by the building technique used to make mudka will be utilized to create a community sculpture. Series of these forms will be embellished with local earth materials by the Tallarook community facilitated by Ann to come together as an installation to be sited at the Tallarook Mechanics Institute.
The other, an exhibition at pan Gallery will see the mudka in its traditional form. The potters over the time they are here will make mudka, some decorated with traditional designs some unadorned. These will be woodfired in a replica of their home kilns. These will be exhibited at pan Gallery along side mudka that will have been painted by Melbourne artists. The latter will be sold via a silent auction to raise fund for improved kiln technology in their home village.
Sandra Bowkett for the Crosshatch Team
The Regional Arts Fund is an Australian Government initiative supporting the arts in regional and remote Australia, administered in Victoria by Regional Arts Victoria
The irrepressible Vipoo Srivilasa has organised an auction to support the Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal to assist victims of the flooding in Queensland.
According to Vipoo, "After watching the terrible footage on the news about the Queensland flooding, I was so moved I felt like I had to do something, so I went straight to the Appeal web-site to make a donation. However, I didn’t feel like I had done enough, but being an artist I can only afford so much by way of a monetary sum, but then I realised I could donate my artwork instead! Then I thought of an art auction to make the donation a bit bigger.”
Ceramicists have responded wonderfully. Already 40 of best Australian and overseas ceramicists have donated work to the cause.
The auction will happen online at ebay.com.au from Friday 4th to Sunday 6th
February, 2011. You can preview the work by following the link at Vipoo’s web-site: www.vipoo.com. To be notified when the auction is online please email email@example.com with the word ‘Auction’ as a subject. For an interview, further images, or to arrange a photo-call please contact Vipoo Srivilasa on 0425-710-149. Starting bids are at the discretion of the donor artist and will range from Aust. $20 upwards. Please note: freight/insurance and any additional fees are to be paid by the successful bidder and arranged with the respective artist.
Clearly, it’s time to open your purse…
As part of a larger project Crosshatched, two Melbourne ceramists, Ann Ferguson and Vipoo Srivilasa and visiting Indian artists Mr Pradyumna Kumar and Ms Pushpa Kumari took on the adventure of cross-cultural ceramic collaborations. There were challenges. In Crosshatched the pairs did not have a common language. Was there a universal creative language that would transcend these limitations and enable unique ceramic outcomes?
Following is the account by Ann Ferguson of her collaboration with Pradyumna Kumar and then, as described to me by Vipoo Srivilasa his collaboration with Pushpa Kumari.
Two weeks in the goldfields with beautiful tones, autumn prevailing, provided the connecting experiences that gave root to the idea, that later flourished in the form of The Universal Tree. We discovered common themes in our work and interests while exploring the landscape at our doorstep. The shapes and diversity of trees became a strong theme, one that had been explored in our previous work and one in which our common environmental concerns and interests could be expressed. Instrumental to this awakening was the presence of Minhazz Majumdar interpreting conversations, giving it context and telling us stories of India including that of the scarcity of wood and women carrying the loads on their heads while walking all day to find fuel for their fires. Later, in the children’s workshops at my workplace we read Pradyumna’s, ‘How The Firefly Got its Light’ I wondered at the power and depth of this work which spoke so lovingly of the relationship between people and trees and was touched deeply with its acute relevance to this time of great debate in Australia about fire, fear and trees.
In the studio at last, we rushed to make our special tree. Some brief conversations and plans had preceded, but mostly the work took place without words. Pradyumna’s remarkable craftsmanship together with my experience with large scale ceramic building techniques enabled this ambitious undertaking to move forward. The tree was designed in 4 sections, trunk, branching section, branch extensions and leaves. A double wall was designed to support the curve. Pradyumna built the exterior roots, reminiscent of the banyan tree. I worked on texturing bark surfaces using oxides, slips and sewing tools. An insect was painted on one side of each leaf. These were inspired by the insect focus from Pradyumna’s story. Birds and animals included both Indian and Australian species. A brightly coloured woodpecker, a weaver bird and nest, a sulphur crested cockatoo and a kangaroo are just some of the animals that live amongst the branches and under the canopy of The Universal Tree.
The limited time available for this project was foremost in Vipoo’s mind and so he was keen to establish a structure to enable an equitable collaborative productive process. They made the decision to work on a small scale. Initially Puspa made small ritual images for the festival of Sama Chakeva. Traditionally these unfired images were made over a 10 day period—different objects for different days of the festival.
Vipoo developed a successful strategy for collaboration: one made the form, on that form the other created the decorative composition in pencil and then the other then filled in the details in cobalt oxide and then this process was reversed. Vipoo is well known for his detailed imagery, but Pushpa’s drawing skills challenged Vipoo to new levels of refinement. At times Vipoo felt frustrated by the level of communication available and thought it limited the conceptual development of the work. Pushpa had commented “You think too much”.
I asked Vipoo what was the most significant outcome for him from this collaboration and being involved with Crosshatched. He stated he was surprised with the quality of the work that was created in a short time, but appreciated the exposure to the imagery and pattern making of traditional India art. The freshness and unrestrained quality of the ‘Outsider art’ of which Minhazz had a brimming folio also captured his attention.
This report is by Sandra Bowkett. Crosshatched was organised by Sandra Bowkett and Minhazz Majumdar. For more on Crosshatched visit www.crosshatched.multiply.com. Vipoo Srivilasa is represented by Uber Gallery Melbourne. Crosshatched was financially supported by the Australia-India Council
The Willow Pattern Story, 2008, Text by Ian Howard, Mandarin translation by Jingzhe Le, Illustrations by Lucienne Fontannaz, 3D PRECISION PTY LTD, www.Jingzhe-art.com.au, ISBN 9-78-0-9805816-0-7
Le fabuleux récit du Willow Pattern, 2008, Text by Ian Howard, Illustrations and French translation by Lucienne Fontannaz, Publi-Libris, Switzerland, http://www.publi=libris.com/, ISBN 9-782-940251-57-5
Reviewed by Christine Nicholls
Reproduced with permission from Asian Art News, Hong Kong
These two beautifully designed, elegant books are the result of successful collaboration between Sydney-based husband and wife team Ian Howard and Lucienne Fontannaz. Ian Howard is an artist, academic and writer, while Swiss born Fontannaz is an artist, writer, curator and translator, whose deep, long-term research into the narratives, myths and legends of diverse cultures has led her to publish widely in the area.
Fontannaz’s abiding fascination with the willow pattern and its attendant rather complex narrative has its origins in her childhood in Switzerland, where her parents were the owners of a willow pattern tea set. The francophone family referred to the willow pattern as ‘le motif chinois’ (‘the Chinese motif’). As a small girl Lucienne, entranced by its distinctive patternings, began making her own drawings ‘directly from the plates’. As she grew up and began travelling around Europe, she became aware of the ubiquity of crockery featuring the dominant blue and white of the willow pattern. “It was as if all the places I visited, grand and humble”, says Fontannaz, “had somehow been visited earlier by this curious design, linking them all”.
Soon after Fontannaz met Ian Howard in Montreal for the first time, he asked her whether or not she knew of ‘the Willow Pattern’. Replying that she did not, later on the same afternoon Ian Howard presented Lucienne Fontannaz with a cup and saucer. Astonished, she recognized that the ‘willow pattern’ on her prospective husband’s gift was one and the same as ‘le motif Chinois’ of her European childhood!
Fontannaz illustrated her first book on the willow pattern more than thirty years ago. That book, with text written by the distinguished Barbara Ker-Wilson and published by Angus and Robertson in Sydney in 1978, is now out of print. Nonetheless it is evidence of the enduring nature of Fontannaz’s enthrallment with the visual elements of this celebrated design and the tragic story underlying it.
In her excellent and informative introduction to the 2008 bilingual English/Mandarin version simply titled the Willow Pattern Story, Lucienne Fontannaz begins with the bold assertion that the “…Willow Pattern is unquestionably the most popular ceramic design ever produced…
Very well known in England where it was created more than two centuries ago, this blue and white design, mainly seen on tea sets and dinnerware, is also known to many individuals and cultures around the world. The popular success of the design has led to its being applied to a range of other objects, such as tea towels, greeting cards…folding screens and even textiles for soft furnishings. In recent years individual artists have incorporated the design, in whole or in part, into their paintings, collages, sculptures and ceramics. This is an indication of the widespread and deep cultural significance the Willow Pattern has as a contemporary motif”.
Fontannaz goes on to detail the history of the design, including the seventeenth century English passion for ‘chinoiserie’; the surprisingly low cost of importation of fashionable Chinese porcelain from Jingdezhen and elsewhere in China to England and Europe at that time; the various factors that led English potteries to mass produce appropriated Chinese designs and to create their own ‘oriental/ist’ motifs, particularly the Willow Pattern; the British use of transfer printing and the associated use of the distinctive cobalt blue colour in the willow pattern; the manufacturers’ eventual branching out into different colour schemes including brown and red; and the uncertain origins of the narrative accompanying the design.
In addition, Fontannaz provides expert guidance in interpreting the individual graphic elements of the willow pattern, beginning with the pagoda on the right hand side of the plate, and continuing in a clockwise direction to the top where two white doves, representing the doomed lovers, signify the end point of the narrative. There is also some discussion about the genealogy of specific elements in the pattern (for example, the plates’ borders are definitely British) and further speculation about the genealogy of the narrative itself.
What becomes clear is that this complex history involves a plurality of eastern and western influences that converge and co-exist in the graphic elements of the willow pattern itself and its associated story. That such cultural diffusion was occurring before the advent of mass globalization makes it even more remarkable as a transnational phenomenon.
The balance of both books is devoted to Ian Howard’s lucid retelling of the successive episodes that collectively comprise the willow pattern story, complemented by Lucienne Fontannaz’s marvellous illustrations. Fascinatingly, in his account of the sad story about two star-crossed lovers, Ian Howard identifies a surprisingly contemporary environmental theme, relating to the critical role played by the weeping willow tree in the unfolding drama. Howard also draws attention to the importance of nature in more general terms, and its capacity either to obstruct or to further – as happens in this case – human endeavour. His re-interpretation not only convincingly places the narrative in the context of the present, giving it greater contemporary relevance and resonance, but it is also an inspired touch.
Both books are strongly recommended. They would make excellent gifts for persons of either gender, especially because the pattern itself is so well known while by contrast, the ‘story within the story’ is relatively unfamiliar. The broad cultural reach of both the willow pattern imagery and the accompanying narrative also makes these books perfect gifts for overseas associates, friends or visitors.
In Australia, ceramics is under siege. Since the boom of the 1970s, the number of courses available have rapidly declined. For today’s iphone generation, the dedication required by clay-making poses a significant lifestyle challenge – it threatens to disconnect you from the ‘clouds’ of text and image that give meaning to the day. Of course, as craft advocates we perceive the danger that this will lead to a closed system, where our cultural ecology loses the language of the material world outside. In ceramics, we have a particularly primordial understanding of the ground on which we stand. Without this ‘earth’, we risk a cultural short-circuit.
Thankfully, Janet DeBoos has been successful in adapting ceramics education to this new generation through her model of the ‘distributed studio’. Sustaining this is a new audience that she has discovered which is deeply appreciative of Australian ceramics. But it’s not the white knight of the American collector, willing to pay thousands for a unique work. Rather, it is the Chinese factory owner who can see in the Australian ‘hands-on’ ceramic style something of great value to his growing middle class market.
Janet seemed destined to work in China. She first encountered Chinese ceramicists in the mid-seventies, when a delegation came to East Sydney Tech. In 1996, she received an invitation to be part of the First Western Yixing Teapot Symposium, where she was introduced to Zisha-ware. This was followed in 2001 with an invitation from The Chinese Ceramic Industry to attend and speak at the International Forum on the Development of Ceramic Art in Zibo, Shandong province.
On the strength of her presentation, DeBoos was invited to return and make work with the factory. She has subsequently made work in collaboration with Prof. Zhang Shouzhi in which she produced the form and he provided the decoration. Shouzhi’s design is based on a traditional Ding-ware, though it is applied with a decal rather than traditional hand-carving. The company produce only for internal market as they prefer to make work of high standards rather than cut costs as would be demanded for export. 250 sets were made and subsequently all were sold at the Zibo ceramic Industry conference and expo at the end of 2007. They sold for twice the price they would attract in Australia.
Janet’s experience reminds us how important it is to be open in dealings with businesses in China. While Australian craft has traditionally looked north (to the ‘developed’ countries in Europe, Japan and North America) to gauge its progress, the horizon needs to be broadened to engage with the emerging economies. In the case of China, the depth of appreciation for ceramics is something that a country like Australia could do well to import.
You can find an article by Janet about her China experience in the After the Missionaries issue of Artlink. The presentation set will be on display in the World of Small Things. Janet is current head of the ceramics department at the ANU School of Art, Canberra.
From The Earth – Contemporary Indigenous Ceramics from Alice Springs Pottery, Ernabella, Hermannsburg Potters, and Tiwi Islands
Gallery One, JamFactory Adelaide
13 December 2008 – 25 January 2009
Reviewed by Christine Nicholls for World Sculpture News, Hong Kong
From the Earth is a survey exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Australian ceramics from the Tiwi Islands (situated off the north coast of Australia) and also from Hermannsburg, Ernabella Arts, and Alice Springs Pottery in Central Australia. It features works by established and emerging artists, some of whom have now specialized in ceramics for a considerable length of time.
To the best of my knowledge this is a genuinely groundbreaking exhibition: the first occasion on which Indigenous Australian pottery from Australia’s northern seabord as well as from diverse locations in the Central Desert region have been displayed in a group exhibition. From the Earth, showing in the principal gallery of Adelaide’s highly regarded JamFactory, gives audiences an opportunity to consider and perhaps appraise distinctive regional and personal differences in style, technique and practice. At the same time the exhibition shines the spotlight on certain commonalities evident in these diverse approaches to pottery making.
The accomplished John Patrick Kelantumama, a senior Tiwi man who is affiliated with Tiwi Design based at Nguiu on Bathurst Island, has worked as a professional potter for more than three decades now. Beginning his long and successful career as an apprentice with Tiwi pottery in 1976, today Kelantumama is recognized nationally as a master potter. Kelantumama’s Purrukupali, fashioned from earthenware and metal with underglaze decoration, depicting the legendary Purrukapali with his infant son Jinani, is an immediate, vivid and touching work. This compelling work relates to the major Tiwi narrative of how death came to be visited upon Tiwi Islanders.
That story goes that after some years of marriage to the old man Purrukapali, Bima, his much younger wife, entered into a ‘hot’ sexual liaison with Japara, her husband’s younger brother. One fateful day the adulterous couple, who habitually left baby Jinani under the shade of an ironwood tree while they went about their sexual romp, forgot about the baby. Returning late on the same afternoon Bima found that her baby son had died underneath the tree – the sun had swung around exposing the child to its strong rays, killing him. This unleashed an entire sequence of violent and desperately sad events that are still, to this day, played out in the ceremonial lives, particularly in the funerary rites, of the Tiwi.
There are more splendid ceramic works relating to the same extended Tiwi narrative on display in From the Earth. Included among these are Mark Virgil Puautjimi’s Japara (Moon Man), depicting Purrukapali’s younger brother Japara who was transformed into the moon as a result of his transgressions. Lunar craters are understood to be the scars left on Japara’s face – resulting from the fight unto death that took place between the two brothers in the wake of the cuckolded Purrukapali’s devastating discovery of his wife’s adulterous liaison and the consequent death of his infant son Jinani. Cyril James Kerinauia’s marvellous Moonman and his Bima and Jinani also relate to this narrative. The major players in this ancient Tiwi drama of crime and punishment have been rendered with wonderfully wild, spiky ceramic hair. This bestows upon them a somewhat neo-Gothic air – notwithstanding the fact that these ceramic sculptures are rendered in such bright colours. Given the base treachery, violence and originary ills underlying this Tiwi narrative, the protagonists’ ‘feral’ head-dresses seem quite fitting.
There are also a number of fetching Tiwi works depicting everyday life and entirely secular themes, for example, Mark Virgil Puautjimi’s Buffalo, an earthenware work with underglaze decoration. Feral hoofed animals, including camels, donkeys, horses and pigs, none of which are native to Australia, are literally on the loose in many remote Australian outback regions. Rampaging buffalos are both feared and desired (as a magnificent food source) on the Tiwi Islands. Traditional Tiwi geometric designs have been applied to these ceramic sculptures, which are characterized by their extraordinarily left-of-field colour use. Puautjimi’s Buffalo is no exception: vibrant yellows, warm oranges, blue and olive greens have all been used to masterful effect. So what if this ceramic buffalo looks a little like a multi-hued, short-horned wombat? This contributes to the creature’s charm.
Fellow Tiwi Islander and countryman Robert Edward Puruntatameri, representing Munupi Arts and Crafts, based at Pulurampi on Melville Island, also makes a strong contribution to From the Earth with his vases and appealing round vessels. These he has adorned with tradition-inspired Tiwi geometric designs, fish and other sea creatures including squid. Puruntatameri’s father, the illustrious late Eddie Puruntatameri, is credited as the major founder of Tiwi Pottery along with his apprentice John Bosco Tipiloura. Puruntatameri-the-younger is clearly working hard to keep the family tradition alive. The status of Tiwi men as master carvers becomes overwhelmingly apparent in the aptitude they have shown in the transition to pottery, which is not a vernacular Australian tradition. The carved, wooden three-dimensional sculptures of traditional Tiwi visual arts practice seem to have allowed for a seamless segue into that other three dimensional medium, ceramics. That this has happened in the comparatively short space of time since 1972 when pottery was first introduced to the Tiwi Islands is a formidable accomplishment.
Travelling south and inland, Judith Inkamala, Hedwig Mocketarinja, Carol Panangka Rontji, Rona Panangka Rubuntja and Rahel Ungwanaka, all from the Arrernte community of Hermannsburg in Central Australia also make notable contributions. The Arrernte potters’ cap-lidded pots, decorated with everyday desert scenes, are rendered in vivid colours, bringing to mind their celebrated precursor, the Hermannsburg school of landscape art, of which Albert Namatjira was not only the progenitor but also the most famous exponent. These women’s ability to create ‘living pictures’ of their desert homeland on these three dimensional pots is exemplary. Without any doubt the pièces de résistance of these works are their sculptural lids, which always relate to something – often fauna – culturally significant to the maker. Hedwig Mocketarinja’s alert, crouching marsupial really caps off her work; as does Carol Panangka Rontji’s rather phallic, predominantly deep green Port Lincoln parrot. In a similar vein, Judith Inkamala brings a wonderfully eye-popping quality to the ‘bush creatures’ she creates and perches atop her bowls: her exquisitely-fashioned rock wallaby and captivatingly importunate perentie (a large burrowing Australian lizard) are cases in point. The Arrernte potters of Hermannsburg began working in the early 1960s and have since transformed ceramics into an art form distinctively their own: their unique, collective artistic ‘signature’ is evident on all of their work. Their skilful hands render these superficially conventional desert landscapes animate and alive.
Ernabella Arts, situated in the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunjatjara community of Ernabella (Pukatja) in South Australia’s arid north, is also represented in From the Earth, with contributions from sisters Tjimpuna and Carol Williams and several others. Ernabella artists only began experimenting with ceramics a little more than a decade ago but they have already made a considerable impact on the market with their carved and incised sgraffito forms. The sgraffito method, involving decorating pottery or ceramics by scratching through a surface of plaster or glazing to reveal different colours underneath, is the preferred method of many of these artists, no doubt because it taps into other long-run Pitjantjatjara/Yankunjatjara artistic practices, particularly those that relate to wood-carving.
High profile Pitjantjatjara/Yankunjatjara potters Nyukana (Daisy) Baker & Jillian Davey, who also originally hail from Pukatja but are now resident in Alice Springs, also make an impact with their large terracotta, underglaze decorated pots. Both work now at Alice Springs Pottery, the ‘newest kid on the block’ in Indigenous Australian pottery ventures. This enterprise was set up largely to accommodate ceramic artists like Nyukana Baker and Jillian Davey who need to live in Alice Springs whilst they undergo kidney dialysis. While Davey tends towards making beautifully restrained, monochrome works, Baker offers a nicely contrapuntal splash of colour to the display with her large and often flamboyant vessels.
The vigorous, confident works on display in this exhibition indicate that Indigenous Australian ceramics is prospering, despite being a relatively nascent art form. From the Earth demonstrates that what could be described as the recent Australian ‘Aboriginal invention of pottery’ looks forward to a bold, bright future.
Christine Nicholls adds an interpretive comment to her review:
Interestingly there is a mission connection in the case of all three enterprises: the Tiwi Islands, Hermannsburg and Ernabella all have mission histories – respectively Catholic, Lutheran and Presbyterian (which is of course one part of today’s Uniting Church). It’s become fashionable these days to give the missions and missionaries a really good bagging or solid drubbing but on balance, in my view, and I’ve never been a missionary myself (far from it) the positives of their contribution can often be seen, for the most part, to outweigh the negatives. For example, notwithstanding their Christianizing and conversion agendas, the mishos DID often encourage people to develop cottage industries such as these pottery co-ops which have proved sustainable in the Tiwi and Hermannsburg cases, over a considerable length of time. This could not have happened if they had simply been imposed upon the people – the Indigenous people involved actually get real pleasure, a feeling of well-being and self-esteem from making and exhibiting their work
With respect to the Christian influence on some of these ceramists’ work, I believe that these influences goes beyond any clear or overt reference to Christianity or Christian iconography such as the Christian cross that Irene Mbitjana Entata has placed on the lid of her obviously Christian-themed work. Judith Pungkarta Inkamala’s red tailed black cockatoo, for instance, has a distinctly angelic quality – a black angel? The same comments also apply to many of the works by the Tiwi artists – the male figures of the much maligned and suffering Purrukapali, cheated on by his wife and brother, seems to be represented in a Christlike manner or with a Christlike dimension in some of the works.
Another factor each of these ceramics enterprises holds in common is the fact that all four, including Alice Springs Pottery, the latest player in this field, the newest kid on the block, have involved and continue to involve productive and fruitful collaborations and partnerships between Indigenous artists and non-Indigenous potters and/or art centre co-ordinators. While 40 or 50 years ago these tended to be asymmetrical relationships, in other words, yes, there was a paternalistic element to them, today, the partnerships mostly take place on a relatively level playing field, founded on mutual respect and recognition. Whilst at one level these enterprises involve an exchange of skills, they also represent a great deal more than that. These endeavours also have value because they work as a ‘two-way’ professional, socio-cultural exchanges where the parties are able to learn about and share each other’s perspectives by working closely together, or ‘sharing the space’ as it were. Over time these enterprises are leading to the Indigenous creative artists independently running them – as is now largely the case with the Tiwi potters today. The figures associated with the Purrukapali/Bima/Japara/ Jinani narrative seems to have acquired the status of Supreme Beings which represents something of a move away from earlier Indigenous cosmologies – at the very least this is indicative of a cultural shift, sociocultural hybridity and so forth – unsurprising in the circumstances I guess. So the Christian references I believe are quite often not apparent in any ‘in your face ‘ way in many of these works, but nonetheless are there…
Bell-Roberts Gallery in Cape Town is hosting an exhibition by remarkable South African artist Noria Mabasa. More than 70 years old, Mabasa is one of several ceramicists from the northern province of Venda, bordering on Zimbabwe. For the past thirty years, she has been producing figures and pots with clay sourced from a local river.
Unlike other female artists, Mabasa also carves sculptures out of wood. She produces monumental installations drawing on traditional themes and the status of women. Like many Venda artists, she takes inspiration from personal visions and dreams.
While highly regarded within South Africa, art from Venda has little international profile. It would be wonderful if we could rustle up a touring show of Venda artists. If not, perhaps a residency would do. They are up for it.