Thancoupie has become increasingly admired by contemporary Australian curators for her brilliance in adapting a craft that was formerly unfamiliar to Indigenous communities in Australia. After studying ceramics at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) with Peter Rushforth, she was the first Indigenous woman to graduate and then become a solo exhibiting studio “potter” – or, more accurately, solo studio artist in clay.

Uniquely gifted, she essentially invented her own Indigenous version of expressing culture through an entirely new artform – an art that broke long-established rules of making, glazing, function, and balance, and took the medium beyond the boundaries of ceramic vessels as defined throughout centuries of ceramic traditions in Europe and Asia. After face-to-face exposure to Indigenous potters and clay traditions on her travels to Mexico in the ‘70s – then the US, South America, and the Pacific – and withstanding the lack of interest from Australian pottery aficionados of the era, she forged a singular artform, in which storytelling and culture dominated.  

In the 1970s, no one who had grown up in remote North Queensland First Nations communities dreamt of living independently. It was remarkable that by 1982, through her Sydney exhibition success and earnings, Thancoupie had obtained land, and built her own studio/house in Cairns. Her forms and the illustrations across their surfaces were unique, with spectacular groups of large circular spheres marked with legendary animal characters of her Thaynakwith lands, and the surrounding Country of related clans, near Weipa in western Cape York. As the foremost Traditional Owner and primary Elder of these lands prior to her death, her knowledge of her country was at the core of her being, but her repertoire or mode of representing it was wide.

Fêted by arts and crafts movement divas like Mary White and Marea Gazzard, Thancoupie soon became the first Aboriginal woman to have a touring solo art exhibition overseas. In 1983, she travelled to the Bienal de São Paulo with Bernice Murphy as Australian Commissioner, resulting in a large exhibition there a year later. She remained in Brazil potting and teaching, meeting with the Indigenous communities and others. The huge show of her archetypal white spheres was a knockout, and continued to Mexico and to Houston, Texas.

Thancoupie’s inventive “making” gene had been apparent even at art college. She formed organic vases like textured trees, or flattened slabs with the kitchen rolling pin, and twisted clay around cardboard cylinders. Soon, heavy moulded clay platters were created in the garbage bin lid. Most surfaces received low-relief clay appliquéd figures or designs, as she simultaneously began a cultural restoration project for her home community of Weipa: recovering legends, dance forms, and memories from the very oldest relatives. 

After decades potting in studios in Sydney and Cairns, and numerous artist-in-residence stays in Australia and overseas, teaching people of all backgrounds, in the mid-1990s she returned to set up a studio in her community at Weipa. Here, she aimed to concentrate on the cultural guidance of her family and the wider education of children through creative activities. 

Thancoupie’s ceramics have been collected by major art galleries around Australia, and internationally. What is not widely known is that she was also an extraordinary designer and inventor. What the public saw was only what she chose to exhibit as a notable contemporary artist. As her media and forms changed, she exhibited less, and often sold items directly to collectors or used artwork as a currency, gifting pots and other works to those who supported her in significant ways. The way in which she reinvented herself – creating a life in the wider world as well as spearheading a new art form in Australia – opened communication pathways in numerous disciplines. 

Her own unique clothing style often utilised printed fabrics she had designed, painted, and printed, and she also began to make a small range of decorative arts, including clay jewellery and tiled tables. Glazed clay tiles had been part of her repertoire from her first exhibition in 1972, and large tiled murals continued to be made on commission for over two decades. She used linear codes, each of which offered multiple meanings and metaphors about place and life. These symbols signify creative ancestral animals and beings, as well as places and linguistic divisions in her own community; her life, then, became a heroic attempt to collect, recover, preserve, and share the knowledge she gained from older generations of her family.

Throughout the Cairns era from 1980 to 1995, Thancoupie commissioned silk screen printers in Cairns to make runs of her fabric prints on handloom cottons and linens that she imported, mostly from Indian or Asian handloom centres. Thancoupie hung these as backdrops for her pottery exhibitions, made clothes for herself, or as her business savvy improved (when she was commissioned to design for numerous government and corporate logos), also made particular designs for corporate interior use.

The bold fabric design Quintagan (Kwintangan) the Mother Mullet became one of Thancoupie’s main fabric designs. The large Mission River at Weipa is the site where the eggs of the big mother mullet hatched, and where her little fish swam to fresh water and went on to become tribes in their own right. This was a foundation creation story Thancoupie told children as she stood by the flowing Mission River, mullets jumping as she hurled her thongs like frisbees to stun one or two for them. Then, sending the kids to gather them up from the shallows, the little hunters were taught how to cook them on the fire. 

From the early 1990s, Thancoupie also began to try to protect key environmental areas, by negotiating with mining executives. She used her art to express the waterholes, swamps, plants, and trees that provided foods and wild resources on parts of her Thaynakwith Country that were at risk as they fell under the Rio Tinto bauxite mine lease. She chose animals or symbols that had lessons for humanity, and blended them into elegantly placed lineal patterns. 

While the designs are important, she was also the mistress of form – of spheres especially, which varied in belly shapes, and could exhibit long or short necks, or torn openings. A very physical maker, she also used her knees to form shapes, and put all her weight and strength into manipulating heavy thick clay forms. In the late 1990s, she also invented what she called her “one-flower pots,” some of which show masterful and elegant placement of drawn creatures, who appear to move around the belly yet seem to rise at the neck as if seeking air.

The simplest piece could often hold a deep truth. One of these is the 1995 figure of Ngool (Ngul), the mosquito man. This presents as an anthropomorphic group of mosquito dancers. The mosquito corroboree was a great event, attended by all the tribes of Albatross Bay, and it celebrated the relationships of these tribes through continuous dancing. Thancoupie’s agile lineal figures are shown with bent knees, and arms that extend into wavering hands and feet – like mosquitoes hovering before landing. Thancoupie taught the associated chant and dance to schoolchildren on the lawn behind her home. They practised running around the clothesline in single file while she beat the rhythm on a slit wooden drum, calling out instructions. The children buzzed in high voices, answering her like a swarm of mosquitoes. 

The array of shapes and forms of bush foods – tubers, pods, seeds, and fruits – offered Thancoupie many ideas. She walked children through the bush, collecting these and studying their shapes and textures. Many of her own works were inspired in this way, and she made a small number of large yam forms over a period of years.  

Two works of singular import, simply called Man Yam and Woman Yam, both 1998, began this departure in form when she was artist in residence in Tauondi Aboriginal College, in South Australia. Man Yam is taller and thinner than the bulbous Woman Yam, but with a powerful, wide-growing base. Its surface shows the artist’s circular coiling technique, its growing rings signifying that it is a primordial progenitor – an ancestral form. With bare-baked clay surfaces scratched and worked as if eroded by time, these new works were left as unadorned, bare clay, rubbed with red ochre but with none of Thancoupie’s surface designs. The “Adam and Eve” yams soon gave rise to other yams, with bush-food themed decorative surfaces.

Using Tauondi’s blended low-firing clay, she also made several other atypical elegant dry clay spheres at the same time, including Creation (Land and Sea), 1998, and Quandong, 1998.

Thancoupie remained actively working in Weipa until illness overtook her in 2011. She adjusted her production techniques with advancing age, but continued to make high-fire stoneware in her own studio and gas kiln.  Works from this period included platters with drawn ochre stories, with less symbolism but with incised and painted stories. These were more readily understandable for children, so began to take precedence, as her wheelchair seemed always to have a child at the elbow, watching and learning. 

Hugely decorated over her lifetime – for her art as well as for her community cultural leadership – she achieved honorary doctorates from two universities and an Order of Australia, and was thence Dr. Thancoupie “Thanakupi” Gloria Fletcher James AO. She was officially a “Queensland Great,” and had been given the honour of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts Emeritus Award as well as the Emeritus Alumni Artist Award from her alma mater.  

As well as capturing and retaining the legends and stories of the land in her designs and art, one of her last great gifts to her descendants was completing a language dictionary, when she was the last known fluent Thaynakwith speaker. Her estate set up a western Cape York Bursary to award grants to enable further art studies by chosen younger Indigenous people from her communities.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022. 
Images courtesy Jennifer Isaacs and Effy Alexakis.

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