Thancoupie at the opening of the new wing at the National Gallery of Australia in 2010 – her first view of her huge spherical work Eran (River) installed at the entrance. Executed with the Urban Art Projects team from Brisbane. Photo: Jennifer Isaacs.

Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher James AO, affectionately known as Than, was a beacon figure of Aboriginal art and also the wider Australian art sector, as a primary elder of the Thanakwith people. She is remembered as a Queensland Great and a pre-eminent Australian ceramicist and cultural educator.

Thancoupie's passing in mid-2011 as the result of a long illness came as sad news to all who knew or knew of her. In Thancoupie’s final weeks, I went to see her in Cairns prior to her trip to Brisbane for treatment and then her final journey back to her hometown of Weipa. In Cairns, she was in the heightened grasp of terminal illness, but you would never have known. Her spirits were high and her humour was as sharp and witty as ever, bringing laughs and drawing attention and affection in the hospital triage ward, as per the style of any grand dame. Asking the nurses for fresh oysters and mood lighting so that the patients might sleep better; she was still finely astute. Her mind and wisdom never failed her, even in the end. Sadly her body did; however, the famed potter always seemed to dwell on a higher plane.

Jennifer Isaacs AM was one of Thancoupie’s dearest friends, and she was also viewed by the artist as an adopted sister. Thancoupie lived and worked with Isaacs in Sydney in her early years of arts practice, and one of her first shows was held at Isaac’s gallery Voltar. Isaacs was certainly the key driver in Thancoupie’s career and Jenny and her family are still considered dear friends to Than’s family, friends and extended network.

Following classroom teaching in Napranum, and living "Under the Act"[1], Thancoupie went on to enjoy the world at large. She took her home with her spiritually everywhere she went. She did this through her work as an artist. Thancoupie made history early on by becoming the first Indigenous Australian to study visual art at a tertiary level. She did this in Sydney at the institute known as East Sydney Tech, now the National Art School.

The world of the arts has changed and become more sophisticated since those days. The Aboriginal art movement has become stronger than ever and is now situated in the mainstream. The subject of the future of Aboriginal Art has arisen and the contemporisation of subject matter, concept and design has been a hot topic at many a conference throughout recent years. What is the difference between art and artefacts? What is 'Aboriginal Art’? Is it a technique and can a non-Indigenous person accomplish it? Is a painting created by an Aboriginal artist, though it is void of Aboriginal cultural concept, design and technique, and leans to more modernistic and expressive formats, still Aboriginal Art? Richard Bell summed up the industry and hype astutely (albeit cynically), in his award-winning artwork stating Aboriginal Art: it’s a White Thing in 2003. But then, as now, the room for challenge of such a statement is still wide and vigorous.

With all the banter and lively discussions surrounding the new age of traditional Australian Aboriginal art, the legacies of artists such as Thancoupie continue to have key relevance. Collectively, her works remain an unsurpassed revolution in Aboriginal art. To take traditional stories and traditional designs and to place them, not on canvas or boulders, but on spherical and yam-shaped pots was a remarkable step. Pottery was at the time conceived as a practical form of ‘craft’ as opposed to ‘art’. The fact that Thancoupie turned ceramics into such collectable ‘fine art’ was ground-breaking. Certainly the end results of hard-fired clay symbolise her great strength.

After her illustrious and international career representing Australia and First Peoples abroad, Thancoupie returned home to Weipa in and around the 1990s (Far North Queensland, Western Cape York Peninsula, Albatross Bay, Gulf of Carpentaria). She still worked consistently on her craft and held exhibitions steadily and sustainably, though focusing most of her attention on her family, community and neighbours. She became very active in land rights and traditional ownership in the Western Cape, much like her tribal daughter, Aboriginal Affairs advocate and political spokesperson, Jean Little OAM.[2] Thancoupie became colloquially known as the ‘Queen’ of Bouchat (her tribal land and outstation), and Jean became known as the ‘Queen’ of Mapoon. Together they acted as strong advocates for their immediate people against governments and mining companies. They championed, along with the vital strength of their brothers and sisters, the Ruchuk Festival which celebrated the life, culture and history of their region. Thancoupie started an annual holiday programme for children of all races and creeds to come to her outstation Bouchat, and learn from her and other elders about their local and diverse customs, art, legends, culture and bush tucker. It was an initiative which sadly died when she did, due to lack of support from the community and the government. Family members are currently working towards the goal of bringing it back on a permanent basis.

Bouchat is an amazing place that Thancoupie often drew upon for inspiration. Horticulturalists, botanists, historians and environmental scientists from all backgrounds, have remarked on the fact that it has a river system, beach/shore, desert/bush and wetlands ecosystem all situated in harmonious union within a radius of about 3 kilometre of each other. The land was left untouched by the nearby Andoom mining operations and we hope it remains unscathed forever.

Growing up around all this drive and push for recognition, and visiting Bouchat almost each weekend, inspired me and many others. While Jean is still going strong and Jenny is still active, it is our memories of pride and positive spirit that should keep us working forward in all of the mediums that Thancoupie pioneered, showing us what was possible. She was a modern-day epitome of her people’s old customs and ways of life. Our arts and culture were not simply characterised by paintings with stories; our dancing was not just for fun; and our food was not just to eat. Each aspect was vital in terms of protocol and custom. They were never stand-alone aspects of our day-to-day life; as Thancoupie showed to the world. The Aboriginal art industry and its collectors and curators needs to remember that the value of an artwork rests in the histories behind it and even the memories of all the people who didn’t create it.

The legacies and lessons learned from our loved ones who are gone allow for renewal of culture in a progressive world. I honour Thancoupie and all of our countrymen and women from different Aboriginal nations whom we have lost over the ages.

Sorry Business is over; Thancoupie’s name has been released and we no longer have to call her, out of traditional customary protocol, by the sacred no-name Thapich/Tapich. It’s not about the mourning of her loss, but the celebration of her life.

Thancoupie/Thanakupi means Black Wattle Flower. It still blossoms.
Appo, Aii Aie O’.[3]



  1. ^ For almost 100 years, the lives of Aboriginal people in Queensland were strictly controlled by Protection Acts.
  2. ^ The term tribal relative is widely used in north Queensland to denote membership of related tribal groups and hence a genealogical connection.
  3. ^ Goodbye farewell in the Thanakwith/Thanakwithi language.