The exhibition Thanakupi: a gatherer's view, curated by Eliza Cole, was presented by Craft Queensland in association with Verge: 11th National Ceramics Conference held in Brisbane in 2006. Excerpts from the catalogue essay are republished by Craft Australia.
Thanakupi (known by her anglicised name, Thancoupie) is the most established Indigenous ceramicist in Australia. Her background in the arts has crossed decades of Australian social change and history, and her work has been at the forefront of Australian art. She was the first Aboriginal artist to study ceramics at tertiary level and the first to establish a ceramics studio in Australia. She has commanded attention both on a national and international scale, while keeping strong ties to her community, her country and her home. This is most evident in her commitment to education. Having established the first preschool in Napranum in 1967 she is today, at the age of seventy, amongst several different projects, coordinating and participating in the Crock Eisteddfod and the Weipa children's holiday program.
Thanakupi's signature aesthetic creates a unique platform for her innate story telling ability. Represented in these works are the stories of Peetherethee, Knoolu,The Fisherman, Guiree, Thomom, Anang - Therung - Phrutam, Thaal and Maal, Kumbaal and Pouw, Corrup and Quichan, and The Mission River. The culturally significant forms on which these stories unfold include the Yam, Emu Egg and Mullet. They are expertly shaped through a hand-building process which lends itself to being receptive and in tune to their intended aesthetic. An Emu Egg form may take several non-consecutive days of hand held patting and shaping until the right balance and curve has been achieved. The oxide and earth engrained treatment capture the tactile and textural nature of the bauxite enriched Weipa and Napranum area. Her use of bauxite directly links the work to country while subjectively connecting it to the stories, providing a beautiful and skilful insight into Thanaquith Clan culture and the history of the West Cape.
Eliza Cole, 2006
The two kangaroos Corrup; the red kangaroo and Quichan; the grey kangaroo are brothers. One day they hopped along the Hey River and as they hopped across the land they noticed that there was no bush, no rocks, no hills and no trees, there was nothing. After a while Quichan had to sit down for a moment and when he got up his brother Corrup noticed the wet ground from where Quichan had sat down. He felt the wet ground and then noticed a stream of water. He tasted the water and it was good. Everything started to get wet and so the grass grew. As the water was flowing in they decided to push the earth up to make a bank. This is how they made the rivers. They also pushed the earth up to make the hills (Cairns region). With all the water the bush came alive, water lilies and water chestnuts grew. After they created the waterholes and the rivers and the hills they returned home late at night. They started to talk about how they would go about finding wives. Eventually Corrup found himself a wife who was the lizard.
The markings inside Thomom the water snake are how the snake people setup their Gunyas (humpies). The clan elders would face their Gunyas looking outside while the rest of the camp would face their Gunyas looking inside the camp. Also within the snake are their fires spotted throughout. The head of snake reaches out to Melville Island and islands of the Torres Strait with the body swirling on the surface to outline Australia. The islands around the top of Queensland and the Northern Territory are also important for balancing the design. Uluru is centered within Australia's outline with the four strokes representing four fishermen and the circle being their fire. The fishermen are Owellingan (possum), Chang (the stingray) Janany (fish) and Yarra (frigate bird). This leads into the story of the Bouchat fisherman. The snake design itself works in with the curve of the platter to show Australia as a raised body of land.
The sun had just gone down, and all the men gathered around the fire. All night they waited for tides to turn. They talked about their catch next day. They sang by the firelight and waited for morning.
Then as morning came, old Change the stingray walked down the beach to the water and out to sea. He turned to the rest and said, 'Let's go, we should be there in good time.'
All four hopped into the canoe, and paddled downstream silently; the village was still quiet in the early morning, and they were far away. By the time the sun had come up, they could hear other fishermen talking; some of them had been out all night and were going back to the village.
Farther and farther away downstream they paddled. Soon they reached the spot and pulled the canoe up onto the beach. They got all the things out and placed them under a nice shady tree. Then the first thing they did was make fire.
The sun was rising above the trees. On e by one they started down to the sea with spears in hand; Chang the stingray, Janany the chalk fish, Yarra the fish hawk and Owellingan the possum. They fished all morning and soon got a lot of fish. The sun was then directly above them and it was hot; they made their way back to the shady tree; the fire was slowly burning. They sat down and rested for a while, and watched the tide turning. Late afternoon soon came and Change said that he would look for water. The rest of them made new songs and sang aloud. Chang remembered not far away there was a well, but he could not find it. He looked for it and suddenly cam e upon it all covered with leaves. He then called out to the others and said, 'Water, fresh water'.
The rest of the men came quickly to the well, for they were all thirsty. Then stooping down to remove all the dirt, Chang had the first drink of water from the well. He said this well was a special well which was set aside for young girls of the tribe to draw water every evening for the elders. This water he said was a cleansing water, for they who drank out of it also bathed in it.
The men all sat down and rested for a while; then Chang decided how pleasant it would be if he changed into his proper form, because he belonged to the tribe of stingray. The rest of the fishermen followed him and all changed into their animal form.
The Fishermen Passage quoted from 'Thancoupie The Potter' by Jennifer Isaacs, Page 94
The lines in the centre of the work border the two different environments in which Kumbaal; the crocodile and Pouw; the blue tongue lizard live. Kumbaal and Pouw were brothers and each respected each others space as Kumbaal lived in the sea and Pouw on land. The brothers were quite similar except for the fact that Pouw had very sharp teeth while his brother had blunt teeth. One day Kumbaal came up to the bank of the river and said to Pouw that he would like to talk to him about something. Pouw said to his brother to come back the next morning as he was busy. The next morning Kumbaal returned and Pouw was on the bank with a fire beside him. Kumbaal swam up the creek beside his brother and called out, Pouw, I would like us to exchange teeth. Pouw asked his brother why he would want to do this to which he replied that he lived in the sea with many dangers. Pouw eventually agreed and so they came to a tree on the bank to pull their teeth out. After Pouw exchanged his sharp teeth for his brothers blunt teeth he said to Kumbaal, "well now we have exchanged teeth promise me something. You promise me you will never bite people".
Thanakupi often asks, "You think they keep their promise?"
On the back of the platter are the foot prints of the two brothers. On one side are the sharp indentations of Kumbaal the crocodile and on the other the curved blunted footprints of Pouw the blue tongue lizard. The back of the crocodile and his general design also takes on the sharp zig zag patterns like his teeth after the exchange. Pouw however, shows a curved aesthetic to his back legs, arms and feet also like his teeth after the exchange.
One day the tribesman from across the river and Echo Point went out fishing. After some time they returned bringing their catch of flying foxes. It was midday now and they each built a shallow trench so they could build the fire. When the fire was burning they threw rocks on the wood they placed and rubbed Guiree on them and put it on the hot stones and covered the meat with leaves and paper bark. They went to rest under the trees. At the same time not too far away two boys returned without catching any fish. Then as they were passing they smelt the meat cooking. They crept up to where the men were asleep under the trees and they saw the food all cooked. They could not resist the meat covered in the damp leaf. They quickly took some meat out of the fire and ran. When they were far away all the flying foxes swooped down and tried to take them away. At the camp one of the men got up and saw the sky all black he called out loud and the other man stood up and heard the flying foxes make a cackling noise. Mothers cried and tried to hit down the flying foxes.
The women tried to fight with sticks and tried to knock them down. The sky went dark and the mothers where still crying. They cried where you are taking them. The men knew because the small boys broke the law.
Young boys are not allowed to eat meat. Or even Guiree until they are initiated. When they are initiated they are rubbed with the fat of the meat (any type of meat) that way the universe knows their smell.