Dr. Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher AO (affectionally known simply as ‘Than’) is, in legacy, a towering figure in the history books of Indigenous art.
A former Australian Cultural Commissioner and a Queensland stateswoman, Than was a ground-breaker across the entire, broader Australian art industry as a female ceramicist. Coming to prominence in the 1970s she is asserted by art historians and critics alike as being one of Australia’s pre-eminent artists.
This is a level of esteem which enabled her and the Indigenous artists who followed in her footsteps to stake out careers and reputations on the broader art industry stage, as opposed to the niche of “native art” in which they were once restricted. One of her many, and one of her final, achievements was her patronage of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), inaugurated in 2009.
Ten years on, the art fair that relied so heavily on Than’s fame and influence to establish the event as being one of Australia’s premier Indigenous art events celebrated her life and legacy.
The “Thancoupie - A Legacy of Cultural Power” retrospective exhibition was opened on Friday, 12 of July at Cairns’ unique Tanks Art Centre. Nestled against the foothill of Mount Whitfield and hugged by one of the oldest rainforests in the world, the former World War II fuel tanks played host to the original CIAF event in 2009. It seems fitting that any retrospective exhibition of Than’s work, as part of the CIAF 2019 calendar, would be at the original home of the fair.
The retrospective show is co-curated by longtime steward of CIAF, the fair’s Artistic Director, Janina Harding and Jennifer Isaacs AM.
Ms Isaacs is known throughout the Sydney art world as being one of the keenest minds in the business of promoting, documenting and researching Indigenous art and artists. Not only did she serve as Than’s manager but she played a vital role in encouraging Than’s studies at what was then known as the East Sydney Technical College, now named the National Art School. After having introduced Than to the who’s who of the art industry and having helped to promote her primarily as a ceramic artist and cultural authority, the two women remained close friends for the rest of Than’s life. So intrinsic was their partnership that the two women were coined as “sisters” and to this day Ms Isaacs is involved with Than’s family.
Harding, being a long time arts-worker, Indigenous rights activist and events manager, her knowledge of traditional & contemporary art from across the country is matched only by the prowess of her own family, many of whom were important activists during the height of Australia’s own Indigenous civil rights movement and are prominent artists themselves. Her historical appreciation of contemporary art movements within the Indigenous sector, coupled with her curatorial instincts, is perhaps why she has overseen CIAF’s artistic product for longer than any other director.
Together Harding and Isaacs are two of the most qualified people working in the arts today to present such an important retrospective exhibition for one of the country’s most important artists.
The works that feature in the “Thancoupie” exhibition span Than’s professional, artistic career and have been borrowed and loaned from many private and public collections. These works range from early sketches and paintings, to her distinctive and recognisable spherical, asymmetrical pots, as well as some of her more cutting-edge sculptures which are cast in aluminium.
The latter works are important due to the fact that much of Than’s traditional, Thainakuith lands are being mined for bauxite which contains iron ore. Furthermore, they are important as they began the trend of casting moulds of metals such as aluminium and bronze; a trend carried through by artists such as Alick Tipoti, Brian Robinson and Dennis Nona.
To understand Than’s fame (which included numerous decorations, investitures and awards) one must appreciate how she came to develop an artist’s method from scratch.
Prior to the mining of bauxite, kaolin (a type of clay) was extracted across much of the Western Cape of Cape York Peninsula regions around Albatross Bay. Hailing from the area herself, Than’s link with clay as a medium goes beyond the normal links to land and culture other Indigenous artists of her ilk exercised. Her art was quite literally her land. However, on the Western Cape there are no vast escarpments or cavernous hillsides where caves and traditional rock art would be found.
Much of the artistry was often practical, such as in the creation and forging of artefacts and practical tools.
In teachings of the legends and stories of the area the iconography was ephemeral, drawn in sand or soil. What Than did was take the stories that had been handed down by word, song and dance for several millennia and the iconography that was in her head and place them on her art, on the very matter of her country.
Aside from giving her people recognisable iconography for the future, visual telling of their stories, she also built a career in what was traditionally - in both Indigenous and European societies - a masculine, man’s medium. Clay and stone and the use of fire to seal the works is a very elemental process and not traditionally considered to be ‘women’s business’. That and the fact that handcrafts were not considered fine art, unless they were the marble sculptures of the renaissance, shows how dedicated and talented Than was at opening an entire medium to future artists and establishing it as a collectable, fine form of art.
Beyond being one of Australia’s most famed potters, Than played an active role in all things relating to her community. She shared a strong connection with Cape York based Indigenous affairs advocate, poet and her Tribal Daughter, Jean Little OAM. Together they would often launch into advocacy against foes and for the betterment of their people in the political arena, butting heads with heavyweights and corporations.
As a woman who cared for the future of her people, since her passing in 2011, a bursary was established in Than’s memory in order to provide scholarships and grants to young artists from the Western Cape. Continuing their work in helping the younger generations, Jean Little chairs the Thancoupie Bursary committee. The Thancoupie Bursary has long been involved in CIAF, as every year the art fair hosts a breakfast where the annual recipient of the bursary is announced to supporters, art lovers and the press.
Fittingly, the exhibition featured a special lecture on Thancoupie’s life and work by Jennifer Isaac and ran an adjunct series of children’s art workshops.
Very much part of the fabric of Tropical North Queensland and CIAF, Thancoupie’s place in history in Australian art is undeniable and thus deserving of a retrospective exhibition. The “Thancoupie - A Legacy of Cultural Power” exhibition is on display until 21 July, 2019 at the Tanks Art Centre in Edge Hill, Cairns.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is a traditional owner and is himself an artist from the Western Cape of Cape York Peninsula. He is a Tribal Grandson of Thancoupie.