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Remote communities ceramic network: Geoff Crispin explores three Aboriginal communities, one language: Ngura mankurpa wangka kutju (Pitjantjatara/ Yankuytjatara) Yirrajirrima-Murrakupunis yati ngampangiraga (Tiwi) Pmara urrputja ngkatja nyinta (Western Arunta).


Artists take for granted interactions with others of similar persuasion. They relish the opportunity to get together, exchanging skills, techniques and spending time with their peers at a personal level, just hanging out. Those artists living in remote indigenous communities in Australia, however, despite contemporary electronic communications, also need these personal connections. Three of these remote communities who produce ceramics have come together to share ideas, skills and to see what evolves from indigenous interaction over a period of 18 months in three workshops.


The Hermannsburg women potters have been well known for their vibrant and distinctive ceramics for the past 19 years. They depict the desert landscape and the mountains around Hermannsburg along with various animals and birds that form the distinctive wildlife of the area. The pots are coil built, painted with underglaze colours in the Hermannsburg School watercolour tradition. The pots are topped with hand moulded figures relating the painted landscapes on the pots. They often adapt their own stories with influences or images from outside cultures.

The Tiwi Islands' two ceramic centres, Tiwi Designs and Munupi Arts and Crafts have their own styles which have evolved over many years. The original pottery was set up by Eddie Puruntatameri, the first indigenous studio potter in the early 1970s at Nguiu on Bathurst Island. For many years the pottery made woodfired stoneware created from local raw materials. Today the pottery produces individual sculptures based on Tiwi stories both traditional and contemporary as well as thrown pots using earthernware and underglaze colours. Decoration is usually Jilimara or traditional body painting designs. These can be colourful, expanding beyond the four basic colours used in traditional ceremonies of yellow, red, black and white.

In 1985 Puruntatameri moved to Melville Island to his family's country at Pulurumpi and he started a second pottery. This is the pottery where his son Robert now works. Robert has started to develop his own style of work while still utilizing traditional patination. He has restricted his palette at the moment to just black on the red terracotta clay.

Ernabella is the new kid in the block, only recently becoming more involved in ceramics. They started with painting wares supplied by others. Now they make the pots as well as glaze and fire the works at Ernabella. They use red terracotta clay from Adelaide and use a variety of decorative techniques including sgraffito, painting and batik (wax drawing) to produce their distinctive style of work.


The men started out making the pots while the women applied the decoration. The decoration ranged from traditional local stories and cultural mark-making to batik influenced patterns. In 2006, artists from these communities attended the National Ceramics Conference in Brisbane. They each had their own exhibitions and spent some time together. They decided that they wanted to spend more time together making pots in their own country. They wanted time set aside for them to work together, get to know one another, their individual skills and to share those skills. Funding was sought from a number of institutions to support this request by the potters. (Those who supported the program are listed at the end of this article).

In April 2008, two men (Ngunyjima Carroll and Michael Evans), who were making pots for the women to decorate at Ernabella in the central desert travelled to the Tiwi Islands. This is about a 2,000 km trip from the centre of Australia to the tropical north. The Tiwi Islands are 80 kms directly north of Darwin in the Northern territory. They spent two weeks working with the male Tiwi potters at Nguiu. Potters from both Tiwi Designs and Munupi Arts and Crafts on Melville Island joined together for the workshop. Part of this exchange was for the desert people to experience the lifestyle of island people. They experienced fishing, crabbing and other tropical environment activities.

This initial contact resulted in exchange of making skills with the Ernabella men showing how they made pots for the women to decorate. In return, the Tiwi men demonstrated their skills at sculpture and working on the pottery wheel. Works produced in the two weeks at Nguiu were to be included in the final exhibition in Canberra at the completion of all the workshops. The most important outcome was the establishment personal connections between the makers in these two remote and culturally different communities.

Ernabella, situated in the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara lands of remote northern South Australia became the venue for the second workshop in April 2009 involving all three communities. It is approximately 450 km to the south east of Alice Springs at the eastern end of the ancient Musgrave ranges in the central desert.


The women potters from Hermannsburg, Judith Inkamarla and Lindy Rontji joined the Tiwi men potters, Robert Puruntatameri and John Patrick Kelantumama (Yell) at the Ernabella Art Centre. These ceramic artists joined with both the men and women working in ceramics at Ernabella. Hudson Alison from Ernabella joined the group to help make pots. Many of the women artists at the art centre decorated the pots. Joining this group were Janet de Boos, Mark Mitchell and Lucus Boswell from the Australian National University to assist and get to know the potters. The final workshop was to be held at the university immediately following the Ernabella experience. The Ernabella workshop provided new combined experiences for the various participants. Ngunyjima Carrol and Hudson Alison combined to provide a large base for Judith Inkamala to build on and finish. This large pot is then became a canvas for Judith to decorate with distinctive Hermannsburg style. Rontji worked on smaller hand built pieces. She added hand moulded animals to the lids of painted pieces, depicting galahs and geckos.

Both Yell and Robert Puruntatameri from the Tiwi Islands are skilled throwers. Robert added to a cylindrical slab built form made by many hands to alter the shape and Carol Williams from Ernabella used her decorative skills to complete the piece. Williams, Kanytjupai Baker and Vivian Thompson worked on pots made by Janet de Boos carving through a layer of local fine red clay (terrasigillata), over the clay body. After two weeks at Ernabella the women from Hermannsburg, the men from the Tiwi Islands and two men and two women from Ernabella travelled to Canberra. Inawintji Stanley, Thompson, Nugyuntjima Carroll were joined by Hudson Alison and the others at the Australian National University's ceramic workshop. The artists continued their making and decorating in an open workshop situation among the students at the university.

New techniques were learnt by the men from Ernabella. The mould used to from a large cylinder in Canberra was in four sections. This made it easier and quicker to remove the coiled piece from the mould. Instead of waiting three days while the piece stiffened sufficiently to be tipped out of the one piece mould, the mould could be removed after one day. The coils could then be smoothed over and the piece ready for decoration almost immediately. Stanley and Thompson initially worked on several pots made by lecturer Greg Daly while they waited for pots to be produced by the makers. Inkamarla and Rontji worked with coils to make their pots and then developed the painted and sculptural elements to capture that distinctive Hermannsburg potters' style.


Robert Puruntatameri from the Tiwi Islands helped to make his biggest ever pot using the coiling method and then used his traditional Jilimara or body painting mark making to decorate the piece. The artists had some definite views on the workshop and what may come of the experience of working together. Having now made the connections, several of the artists indicted that they wanted to continue with the interactions with the other communities.

The ceramics produced in the three interactive workshops resulted in an exhibition held at the Canberra Potters Gallery in the Watson Art Centre. The work was recognized as a watershed event and pieces were bought by the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian Parliament House collection, the Australian Capitol Territory Government collection as well as a number of private collectors.

Geoff Crispin is a potter who lives at Whiteman Creek in northern New South Wales, Australia and woodfires porcelain and stoneware. He has been working with indigenous people around the world for many years and was the project coordinator on this collaboration. (

Thanks to the Australia Council for the Arts, Rio Tinto Aboriginal Foundation, ANU Ceramics Workshop, Government of South Australia (Dept of Premier and Cabinet), Northern Territory Government, Ernabella Arts, Hermannsburg Potters, Tiwi Designs, Munupi Arts and Crafts, Canberra Potters and many individuals too many to name here.
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Author:Crispin, Geoff
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2010
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