Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

Glo­ria Fletcher (Than­coupie),

Yam (2003) Cairns Re­gional Gallery collection, ac­quired 2004. On dis­play at the gallery, Cairns, Queens­land. SUCH was Glo­ria Fletcher’s pas­sion for art that she left her an­ces­tral lands in far north Queens­land in 1971 to move to Syd­ney to study paint­ing at East Syd­ney Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. But she ar­rived only to find her ap­pli­ca­tion was de­clined.

How­ever, rather than ac­cept the re­jec­tion, she in­stead en­rolled in the three-year ceram­ics course. It was a for­tu­itous de­ci­sion; Fletcher went on to be­come the first Abo­rig­i­nal ce­ramic artist, in­stru­men­tal in es­tab­lish­ing the indige­nous ceram­ics move­ment in this coun­try.

Fletcher (1937-2011) is best known for her in­tri­cately tex­tured ce­ramic sculp­tures, such as Eran at the en­trance to the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra. Dur­ing her life­time, she achieved many high points, such as be­ing the first indige­nous artist to have an in­ter­na­tional solo ex­hi­bi­tion, and she rep­re­sented Aus­tralia at the Bienal de Sao Paulo. She was awarded an Or­der of Aus­tralia in 2005 and three years later was named a Queens­land Great.

In 1972 Fletcher be­gan us­ing her Abo­rig­i­nal name Than­coupie, mean­ing wat­tle flower. She dis­cov­ered that through the medium of clay, she could con­tinue the tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling.

Im­ages of an­i­mals, fish and birds such as kan­ga­roos, pos­sums, emus, du­gong, ibis, bar­ra­mundi and other cre­ation fig­ures from the Cape York re­gion are painted or in­cised into the sur­face of her ves­sels. These im­ages re­fer to tra­di­tional sto­ries such as Alya the mes­sen­ger bird, Wa­combe the bush­man or Chiva­ree the seag­ull man. In ad­di­tion, her forms are sym­bolic: egg shapes sug­gest fer­til­ity and spheres sug­gest Earth and the cy­cle of life.

For Fletcher, clay was al­ways sa­cred, al­low­ing a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to her cul­ture, land and lan­guage. At Weipa, where she grew up, the clay was used only for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses and each colour had a mean­ing. The men kept the clay in a spe­cial store­house.

“Kids were not al­lowed to touch the clay,” the artist once ex­plained. “The idea of hav­ing my hands in clay and work­ing with it, mak­ing art was some­how strange but ex­cit­ing. It was only much later that I re­alised that clay would be my art, and also my leg­ends.”

One of Fletcher’s works is on dis­play at the Cairns Re­gional Gallery in north Queens­land. When I visit, I’m shown Yam by the di­rec­tor, An­drea May Churcher, and cu­ra­to­rial of­fi­cer, Janette Laver, who ex­plain its sig­nif­i­cance and their re­sponse to the piece.

“The way she cre­ates her ob­jects is re­ally in­ter­est­ing be­cause she does it by hand and ac­tu­ally uses her body to mould it un­til she gets the ac­tual shape she wants,” says Churcher. “I just think Yam is quite unique. It has got a lovely sort of rough­ness, but at the same time it is very so­phis­ti­cated, with a lovely sim­plic­ity. The thing about it is the sense of touch. You can still feel her fin­gers press­ing into it, which gives it a beau­ti­ful tac­tile qual­ity, which a lot of ceram­ics has lost. She also has this amaz­ing abil­ity to cre­ate sur­face pat­tern.”

Laver says, tra­di­tion­ally, indige­nous people didn’t work in ceram­ics and clay was used in body dec­o­ra­tion for per­for­mance. How­ever, she adds, ceram­ics is the way Fletcher man­aged to keep her cul­ture alive. “She is re­ally a stand­alone artist, and in­no­va­tive in that it is a woman work­ing with ceram­ics,” Laver says. “She is cre­at­ing a new tra­di­tion where the women are cre­at­ing art and retelling sto­ries and leav­ing be­hind that legacy be­cause other­wise these sto­ries get lost very quickly.

“Yam is very much about the con­nect­ed­ness to the land, sus­te­nance, and it is a story in the sense of teach­ing the young people about the bush tucker, the food. It is pre­serv­ing their cul­ture and re-ed­u­cat­ing the young.”

April 26-27, 2014

Stoneware re­duc­tion fired with iron ox­ide and slip dec­o­ra­tion, 390mm x 230mm di­am­e­ter

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