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Gloria Fletcher Thancoupie

Gloria Fletcher Thancoupie

1937 - 2011

Dr. Gloria Fletcher James AO

Gloria Thancoupie and Tiwi potter Eddy Puruntatamerri are widely credited as having been the two founders of Australia’s Indigenous ceramic art movement. During her early years as a  primary school teacher she created her first artworks in ochres on bark. It was not until 1971, when in her mid 30's, that she gathered the courage to move from her home in Weipa (Napranum), Northern Queensland, to the urban environment of East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) and began her training under the guidance of famed Australian ceramicist Peter Rushforth, the head of the ceramics department at that time. She had been drawn to ceramics, as clay was sacred in her heritage, and making art with it was somehow ‘strange but exciting‘ (Isaacs 1982: 35). Initially her work was influenced by Japanese functional ware, and during her training she worked at refining both her iconography and her forms through a series of transformations. In the process she developed a unique style of hand-built large bowls that first gave way to spherical shapes, and later to more organic and minimal forms that were more closely drawn from nature. At this early stage in her development as an artist, the elegant simplicity of her line and brushwork, representing animals and her traditional creation stories, evolved from working with her teacher, the Japanese potter Shiga Shigeo. As her art practice evolved she had opportunities to meet and mix with people in the wider artistic world. These friendships influenced her artistic practice and created opportunities for her to exhibit with the best artists, sculptors and craft-makers as a contemporary artist, rather than an Aboriginal Australian artist. In 1983 she visited Sao Paulo as Australia’s Cultural Commissioner to the 17th Biennale and her works subsequently toured Brazil and Mexico and later were included in the Portsmouth Festival in the UK. The primary focus throughout Thancoupie’s distinguished career was on the ‘object as art’. Her naturalistic forms, the methods of making them, and the incised decoration that adorns the surface relate these objects directly to traditional ways of story telling. Her forms were created by building with slabs and using the concave surfaces of her own body, her knees and elbows, to push the walls of clay into free-form shapes. Large spheres and ‘eggs’ were created using semi circular moulds as a template, and then building upon the shapes created with small pieces of clay from the inside out as the walls reared up from the mould. Thancoupie’s surface decoration, consisting of grooved out Thainkuith legends and totemic creatures, demonstrated the connection between her work and traditional sand drawing. Her sculptural pieces assert the three dimensional quality common to Australian Aboriginal painting, differing from the European concept of painting as a two dimensional activity. In her work, important Dreaming narratives, for generations held precariously in song and living memory, are encoded alchemically in rock-like permanence from the numinous materials of clay and pigment. By creating this visual language, combining the ceramic shape with the etched surface decoration, Thancoupie produced pots of great beauty and, in the process, became regarded as one of Australia’s great artists. Thancoupie has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas. She was represented by her friend Jennifer Isaacs who assisted in staging exhibitions at many of Australia's finest commercial galleries including The Hogarth Galleries in Sydney, Chapman Gallery in Canberra, as well as Gabrielle Pizzi and William Mora Galleries in Melbourne. Other important survey shows have been held at Manly Regional Gallery in Sydney, and Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Adelaide. In 2001, eighty works spanning her entire career were presented in a survey exhibition at the Brisbane City Gallery. She is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia as well as State art galleries and museums in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Queensland. Thancoupie’s creative influence can be compared to that of the great Native American Pueblo artist Maria Martinez, in that it has provided the impetus for the development of the Indigenous ceramic art movement in this country. Yet her prime motivation was steadfastly a personal one. Her unique interaction with artists from a range of creative disciplines here in Australia and overseas served only to strengthen her intimate relationship with her own culture. Throughout the last 30 years of her life, Thancoupie mentored aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhem Land, the desert and the Tiwi Islands. Furthermore she has influenced Indigenous and non-Indigenous students enrolled in art and professional development courses, and others in her extensive travels as an artist of international acclaim. Her commitment to teaching spilled beyond her art through founding the Weipa Festival and running holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations.  Thancoupie’s creative and philosophical motivation carries a universal message best expressed in her own words. ‘You are here in a lifetime to help, to understand… That is intelligence. And only intelligent people have strong friendships. I wish we all have that‘ (Message Stick: 2004).  
Thancoupie was a great ceramic artist and an important cultural ambassador whose pieces should be thought of less as pottery than art, in much the same way as we think of Robert Klippel’s sculpture or Rosalie Gascoine’s wooden constructions.  In her later years, she was no longer able to produce ceramics without assistance and her most successful mature works were produced between 1980 and 2000. Prior to studying ceramics, Thancoupie produced bark paintings and the only records of any of these having been offered on the secondary market was in the late 1990s when three small barks were auctioned with low estimates ranging from $300 to $1,200. Unfortunately all failed to attract buyers. Her most successful pieces at auction have been spherical pots with deeply incised figurative animal motifs, designs and symbols. When the first of these appeared on the secondary market in 1997, described as a spherical vase, it also failed to sell despite its low estimate of just $2,000-3,000. However, given her standing as the 'mother of Australian indigenous ceramics', and the wide acclaim for her gallery exhibitions, it was only a matter of time before her works sold successfully at auction. In July 2001 Phillips sold one pot for $9,200, exceeding its high estimate of $6,000 (Lot 177), while another similar piece, listed as the following lot, sold for $14,375. The sale followed a major retrospective exhibition of her work, which was installed in Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns thereby enhancing her reputation and recognition. This result, which generated a great deal of excitement at the time, was  aided by the extensive description of Thancoupie and her work in the auction catalogue. Little wonder that  the number of Thancoupie items up for auction increased during the following year when, in August, Deutscher~Menzies sold a 37.5 cm high pot, c. 1981, for $28,200, way over its high presale estimate of $12,000, and a stoneware mural, 88 x 111 cm for $21,150 (Lot 160). Later that year, in Shapiro’s December 2002 sale, a pot of similar size, created c. 1989, achieved $29,700, her record price to date (Lot 140). The demand for Thancoupie works, however, quickly abated after no fewer than nine items were offered for sale with only two selling during 2003. Amongst those that failed to sell were two murals. By the time one of these was put up for sale again in 2005 the secondary market for Thancoupie’s work had collapsed, and even though the estimate was halved, it still failed at auction. This was reinforced when a very nice 39 cm high spherical vessel of stoneware with slip and oxide decoration failed to sell at Deutscher~Menzies in June 2003 with an estimate of $20,000-25,000 (Lot 63) but found a buyer willing to part with $13,200 the following year after the estimate was nearly halved to $12,000-15,000 (Lot 486). The only other exception was a pot offered in Sotheby’s July 2004 sale with significantly lowered estimates, which achieved $25,175 (Lot 146). However during that year only three items sold out of the ten offered with one being a small Knee Pot which sold for just $575 at Stanley & Co. in October. By 2005 potential vendors had had enough. Only three items were up for auction that year with just one recorded sale, a small Love Magic Egg for $1,920. Since that time, auction houses and vendors have been reticent to offer her works for sale. Only one piece appeared at auction in 2006. A ceramic Totem Pole measuring 95 cm in height, which had failed to sell in 2003. This piece passed in once more in Sotheby’s October 2006 sale even though its estimate had been nearly halved to $15,00-20,000. Offerings during 2007 and 2008 told much the same story. However, in 2009 there was some cause for revision of this somewhat bleak picture, with three pieces sold of six offered, A ceramic Totem Pole commanded a very reasonable $12,000 at Deutscher and Hackett in March (Lot 122) setting her ninth highest auction record. It demonstrated clearly that good work can still expect to sell well, even if Thancoupe’s early success at auction has cooled. Though 2010 saw no works offered at all, 2011 brought three strong sales, two creating new 5th and 6th records, with total sales of $50,793. Between 2012 and 2015, 19 pieces appeared at public auction and 10 have sold. The highest price achieved amongst these $12,000. 2016 started with one work from the Thomas Vroom collection selling for $3,050. Since then, all 8 works offer until the end of 2017 were passed in. As can be clearly seen, Thancouipe’s auction results have been extremely discouraging since 2003, given her status within Aboriginal art circles. It is now more than 25 years since a book was written about her, and a decade since her touring exhibition. Since that time very little, if any, of her pieces have appeared on the primary market. While her work may not appeal to many fine art collectors, no significant ceramics collection in Australia would be complete without a fine example of Thancoupie's work. Perhaps the medium may be difficult for art collectors with more conventional taste, however, those ceramic pieces made by important Australian artists such as Brett Whitely, Gary Shead and John Olsen, in response to the opportunity afforded by access to a major ceramicist or pottery studio, have always been accepted as a highly collectable part of their oeuvre. How much more important therefore, is the work of a major artist who chose ceramics as a principal medium? Despite the current downturn in market interest, ceramic pieces by Thancoupie are cherished by those collectors who are fortunate enough to possess them. There is little doubt in my own mind that her finest pieces are due for a major price hike. Once collectors become aware that her finer, large works, are extremely rare, the auction house that devotes a major presentation to her work should receive a very strong response.

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