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