Ceramic Artists Shine

Cairns Indigenous Art Fair
31 July - 2 August 2015

Each year, since its inception in 2009, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) has presented a fresh show incorporating a high proportion of innovative three dimensional works. Sculpture has always been an important media in Queensland Indigenous art practice, in both traditional and contemporary contexts, so it is not surprising that the state produces some of Australia’s most accomplished ceramicists. In 2015 a new model of display worked to beautifully showcase exceptional ceramic work. More than ever ceramics was used to compliment two-dimensional works, and in doing so helped to tell the story of what is important to Indigenous Queenslanders. 

Co-curators Hetti Perkins and Janina Harding succeeded in presenting a pared-back, streamlined art fair at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal. In previous years, work of varying quality was shown by art centres and galleries under one roof. In 2015 the primary exhibition ‘Wabu Minjaan’ (Coming Together to Share), of mainly exhibition quality work, was shown in Terminal 3 and an Art Market was held in Terminal 2. Other significant changes included the absence of large commercial galleries from the capital cities, the addition of Independent Artists (a group of six), and two Guest Artists, and a much more tightly curated show in which a number of art centres presented themed installations. 

In the absence of their primary galleries some artists exhibited with local galleries. One such artist was Shenane Jago, a Kurtjar woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Jago has exhibited with Alcaston Gallery since 2012, both in Melbourne and at previous CIAFs. A small but impressive group (a crocodile skull, bull skull replete with horns, and a long-necked turtle) of her ceramic works were shown at Saltwater Gallery. The crocodile skull was simultaneously fossil-like and contemporary, an effect created through the choice of a marshy brown-green colour under a gloss glaze. Jago’s rendering of a bull’s skull elevated it to a commanding and noble object, a far cry from the kitsch rural feel created by the original bone specimens. The long-necked turtle, Jago’s favourite bush-tucker, was remarkably life-like, with the shiny glaze lending it a sense of having just emerged from the river. Only artists who have a great familiarity with their subjects can breathe such qualities into inanimate objects. Jago’s ceramic sculptures were contextualised beautifully with paintings of cattle and brumbies by Kurtjar countryman Ian Waldron. The acquisition of three of Jago’s works by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013, and her selection as a finalist in the 2014 Indigenous Ceramics Art Award, is an indication of the growing interest in the ceramics being made by artists at the Bynoe Art Centre in Normanton. 

Emily Ngarnal Evans, born on Mornington Island, was one of the two Guest Artists at CIAF 2015. Accomplished as both a painter and ceramicist, her work is instantly recognisable by her Balibal (Spotted Stingray) totem, depicted through the use of fine dotting, a representation of the pattern on the stingray’s body. The irregular patterning of dots creates fluid, organic movement, like bodies reflecting the magic of a starry night. 

The Lockhart River Art Gang, best known for their paintings, presented an avian themed group show by artists including Marjorie Accoom, Evelyn Omeenyo and Irene Namok. Night owls, doves, parrots and sea birds were created in a large mixed media work and a small ceramic version. The ceramic birds stood in groups, each bird individual and charming. The giant mixed media birds had an impermanence about them, kooky comic foils to the smaller ceramic figurines which begged to be taken home and cherished. 

Another group-oriented Aboriginal art centre, Girringun, based in Cardwell, presented a fine display of their famous ceramic Bagu (fire spirit) figures. Each Bagu is highly individual and exudes its own personality. These characters are timeless and every new group is born with fresh energy. Girringun’s latest triumph, on display at CIAF, was a pair of ceramic Jawun by Abe Muriata, a master weaver of the lawyer-cane Jawun (a distinctive bicornual basket unique to the Rainforest people of far north Queensland). Painstakingly smoothed to a bisque finish, these white clay baskets are strikingly elegant. The patterns decorating the Jawun reference the Gunggamburr (butterfly) and Didda Bigul (split rock) stories from Muriata’s Rainforest Find series. By rendering the Jawun in clay and decorating it with traditional patterns, Muriata has transformed the basket into a fine art object while still referencing his culture. There is evidence of a growing artistic freedom in these new works, allowing the audience a glimpse into the artist’s poetic imagination.

While CIAF’s main exhibition showcased many of the best and most recent ceramics, the Art Market was by no means short of very strong work. Sue Reys, who also showed a fine ceramic coolamon titled Rainbow Serpent Three Lores (2015) in the Independent Artists show, had her own stand in the Art Market. Rey’s work has found a market with collectors favouring naturalistic design and wheel thrown clay forms decorated with figurative imagery. While conservative in design, her works are distinctive, thoughtful and beautifully crafted. At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum are the sophisticated minimal vessels designed by Vanessa Cannon. Her Rainforest Swirls Red Tall Pot, an unglazed terracotta decorated with fingerprint-like concentric circles and wrapped with a tapering overlap, was among the most beautiful pieces shown by Yalanji Arts from Mossman Gorge. The art centre has a number of practicing ceramicists, each stylistically unique, with the men’s work being bold and more figurative. Cannon’s pieces are in contrast delicately decorated, slender and understated. 

The full CIAF experience must include seeing the satellite exhibitions. KickArts Contemporary Arts held a major exhibition of new work by the Yarrabah Arts and Cultural Centre. Production and acclaim have ebbed and flowed for the centre over the last four decades, but a revival has been evident over the past five years, due partly to the stimulating effect of CIAF. The exhibition, ‘Yarrabah: Icons in Clay’, heralded a surprising new direction for the artists, many of whom have been working with the centre since it began. As is common with many community art centres, a fresh charge of technical support and artistic inspiration results from a new art worker sharing the artists’ experience. In this case it was ceramicist Simon Suckling. The challenge for the artists was to bring life to wheel thrown figures, variations on a cylindrical body with a bubble head. The result is stunning—family groups decorated to reflect each artist’s unique artistic style. Valmai Pollard, Edna Ambrym, Andrew Garrett Junior, Chris Harris and Philomena Yeatman all decorated families and couples. Each group came alive with bright colours, vibrant glazes and expressive round clay heads. Yeatman created a beautiful portrait of a woman in traditional dress. Her minimal body, black stoneware upper and red skirt from the waist down, was delicately adorned with a grass skirt, necklace and miniature woven basket. Clearly Suckling has unlocked a sense of freedom within the artists which has injected a contemporary and joyful tone into their work. 

Ceramics in all their various forms are an important feature of this lively CIAF landscape. The growing dominance of art centres could be one reason for this. Within these community groups there is considerable scope for experimentation with artists discovering new media and techniques. As more and more Queensland Indigenous ceramicists are establishing profiles in the broader ceramic community nationally and internationally, and showing their work in exhibitions and awards, we will surely continue to be surprised by the growing integrity of work they produce. 

Philomena Yeatman, Family Hunting and Gathering, 2015. Series 2. Mixed media. Courtesy the artist and KickArts Contemporary Arts. 

Valmai Pollard, P Couple, 2015. Glazed ceramic. Courtesy the artist and KickArts Contemporary Arts.