The Hermannsburg Potters

“Their stories’ are the voice of the individual sharing a community occurrence – it is the Arrernte people telling you how it is, how it was and what is important.”

– Eliza Tee, Curator, Artisan Gallery, Brisbane

In 1990, senior law man Nashasson Ungwanaka invited accomplished potter and teacher Naomi Sharp to come and teach pottery to families, many of whom at this time were living on their traditional country at outstations.

“I started driving out for three days and back in for two days. I had a kiln in Hermannsburg, made in the early 1960’s. That is what we started with; that was in the shack that we are still in at Hermannsburg. But I was hired originally as an oustation project. So that is why I loaded the car with clay and glazes and went out to outstations.”

– Naomi Sharp, quoted in Isaacs 2000, p.57

Sharp was inspired by Thancoupie’s work, and the example she set as “an Aboriginal woman from a traditional background who had been able, through her craft of clay, to create a life for herself and live independently as an indigenous person in Australia” (Isaacs 2000, p.63). Sharp continued to teach pottery at Hermannsburg for 17 years.

‘The family groups were very dedicated to pottery and their trainer Naomi from the beginning. They would walk several kilometres in to town from their outstations as many family groups at that time did not own cars. The building provided a more organised and conventional studio environment whereby it was easier to produce the work and control breakages and fire the kiln etc. However as it was not culturally appropriate for men from other family groups to sit beside women from other families the men would not come. They still made pots at home in the outstations for a few more years, however, over time, the women became the leaders of the pottery group.”

– Simha Koether, former art coordinator

The Potters working in the their studio, circa early 1990s.
The Potters working in the their studio, circa early 1990s.

Process

The Hermannsburg Potters iconic sculptured terracotta pots are made using the traditional hand-coil technique – the Potters do not use machines! In the early days, it was found that this was the most suitable method for working in this remote and challenging context.

Coils are carefully rolled from the clay, and the artists build up their pots slowly, pinching the rim of the pot, coil on coil. When the form is complete, the surface is smoothed and shaped with a wooden paddle, and then burnished with the back of a metal spoon. When the pots are bone-dry, they are decorated with under glazes (ceramic based material, or slips, with pigment). The pots are then fired to earthenware temperatures (1080 degrees Celsius).

This timeless and methodical pottery technique speaks to the tactile manipulation of earth and clay within Arrernte custom and tradition. The method is also informed by the external influences which shaped the visual culture of the Hermannsburg region.

With the leadership of Sharp, and the strong history of Hermannsburg visual culture and story-telling, the Hermannsburg Potters have developed a highly original and distinctive ceramic art practice, which, through savvy marketing and innovation, has become internationally renowned:

‘To many their work did not appear distinctly Aboriginal, or ethnographic, their art was not the typical Aboriginal Art of that time so the potters had a challenge to overcome in pioneering a new market. The potters employed innovation by using new materials, in turn pioneering a distinct new medium which has today become internationally recognized.”

– Simha Koether, former art coordinator