Hermannsburg Potters remember their past in the present
This exhibition by Hermannsburg potters looks back to the history of their Country in a way that is strenuously contemporary. Many of the artists included have, according to Alcaston Gallery’s Beverly Knight, “devoted their lives to this movement.” Potters such as Judith Pungkarta Inkamala, Anita Mbitjana Ratara and Rona Panangka Rubuntja are integral to the Hermannsburg Pottery which began 30 years ago under the tutelage of ceramic artist Naomi Sharp. The group has defined the style for which the Hermannsburg Potters are known and recognised, nationally and internationally.
In the Alcaston exhibition, distinctive Hermannsburg-style pots are characterised by a figurative narrative on the bowl and clay figures on the lids. One of Judith Inkamala’s pots is titled Albert Namatjira, after the painter whose watercolours made Hermannsburg famous. And Namatjira sits atop the lid, with his brushes, canvases and easel. Below him, the bowl of the pot shows women painters in the Hermannsburg landscape recording their impressions on canvas. Rona Panangka Rubuntja’s AFLW Player includes a sculpture of a female football player on top, with dramatic moments from the game depicted below. Kukulala by Anita Mbitjana Ratara features a jaunty cockatoo above the distinctive red soil and mountainous landscape that is so recognisably Hermannsburg.
The 30-year history of the Hermannsburg Potters parallels that of Beverly Knight’s Alcaston Gallery (she opened one year before). As their representative, she travelled to Arrernte from 1990, initially every three months, and is part of the progression of this group in the last three decades.
“The exhibition is really a tribute to a group (mainly women, although there have been men from time to time) who have dedicated their lives to keeping this extraordinary group of artists together in the Central Desert,” Knight explains. “They have weathered financial storms and heartbreaks. They have also had many dramas to deal with – recessions, people, ceramic breakages – yet they have created amazing ceramics that are now all over the world. They have been very quick to learn from other ceramicists. Judith went to Indonesia to make bigger pots. I remember when she was very shy, her head down, back in 1990. Now she is confidently travelling the world.”
The history of pottery in this area began in the 1960s, an initiative of the Hermannsburg Mission. It reflected the watercolour traditions of Namatjira but also the use of ochre and the clay mining used by Western Arrernte people well before colonisation. The pottery-making was encouraged during the early 1960s through the mission. Between the mid-1960s and the arrival of Naomi Sharp in 1990, there was little activity on the ceramic front, but pottery remained part of the community’s collective memory.
The qualities that the pots in this exhibition have developed with such charm also channel the ongoing strength of Arrernte connection to Country. The delicate paintings that adorn them are done in different shades of oxides, with the heat of the kiln bringing out the colours secreted in their underglazes. Knight suggests, “When the artists paint, they know what it is going to look like in the end. The grey powders that make up the underglaze become multicoloured works; it is a highly technical skill.” In this exhibition the legacy of the past is imbued with fresh perspectives from the artists’ present.