What began as a series of workshops with artists in the community of Ernabella has grown into a nation-wide survey of Indigenous ceramics practice. Clay Stories: Contemporary Indigenous Ceramics from Remote Australia, a touring exhibition currently on display at Jam Factory: Seppeltsfield, is presented by Sabbia Gallery in partnership with the Remote Communities Ceramic Network.
As Bruce McLean, Curator of Indigenous Australian Art at QAGOMA, says in his Clay Stories catalogue essay: “Indigenous Australian pottery and ceramics have a long and proud tradition within the canon of Indigenous Australian art history. Although many overlook the medium and misunderstand its historical importance, it has played a pivotal role in the establishment of many Indigenous art centres and the Indigenous art industry as a whole”.
The exhibition includes artists working through five remote art centres: Ernabella Arts, Tiwi Design, Girrigun Aboriginal Art Centre, Erub Arts, and Hermannsburg Potters. Each of these centres has a substantial history of ceramic practice, some dating back to the early 1970s. Ernabella (near the borders of South Australia and the Northern Territory) is home to the oldest continuously-running Indigenous art centre in Australia and has been operating Pukatja Pottery since 1998.
Just ‘up the road’ (approximately 550 kilometres north of Ernabella), the Hermannsburg Potters have been pursuing their own idiosyncratic and highly sought-after ceramic tradition for decades. On the Tiwi Islands, in the community of Girrigun in Far North Queensland, and on Darnley Island in the Torres Strait Islands, entirely distinctive approaches to clay-making have been underway for many years. As Sabbia Gallery Curator, Anna Grigson, told us, “We soon realised that there was a very interesting movement happening within many of these art centres, and mostly in quite remote communities, who had difficulties accessing the broader public to show their work”.
The artists in Clay Stories come to their ceramic practice from multiple perspectives. Some depict animals, plants and landscapes local to their homes; others evoke important ancestral stories. Anna says, “The Bagus from Girrungun Aboriginal Art Centre [for example] have their basis in traditional fire making implements…the Bagu was originally made in wood rather than clay”. Tiwi artist Jock Puatjimi makes marks and incisions on his clay forms, using traditional patterns and drawing on his background of as a carver and printmaker.
Clay Stories is an important exhibition. It brings together a diverse group of artists to present an overview of contemporary Indigenous ceramic practice today. It also brings attention to a little-known aspect of Indigenous art history. With tour venues across the country through 2017-18, it’s well worth a visit.