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.