Writer and editor Genevieve O'Callaghan writes about the visit of Derek Thompson and Tjimpuna Williams from Pukatja(Ernabella) to Jingdezhen in China to make ceramics.
Last year I went to China with Tjimpuna Williams and Janet DeBoos. In Shanghai we went to the museum, where we saw Jingdezhen pots for the first time - blue tjuta (many), dragon tjuta and walka tjuta – like our tali and tjanpi walka (sandhill and native grass drawing). We did a lot of walking – from the museum to the city, to Shanghai's big river (the Bund). I liked watching the river but there were too many people there. Tjimpuna and I were the only Anangu. There were Chinese people tjuta, some white people, but black people wiya (no) – just Tjimpuna and me.
Derek Thompson, statement, 5 February 2014
Derek Thompson and Tjimpuna Williams come from Pukatja (Ernabella) community on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of north-west South Australia. The community sits at a T-junction, with a road running north to south and one coming in from the east, the horizon flat and far away. The roads are 'secondary’ – unsealed and temperamental – but Derek, Tjimpuna and the artists of Ernabella Arts are finding other pathways,1 connecting Pukatja Pottery with a creative network across Australia and beyond.
‘Tjungu’ is a term in currency on the APY Lands,2 used in relation to proper art practice. Derek makes work tjungu (together) with Tjutjuna Andy and Ngunytjima Carroll, who all developed their techniques through men’s workshops, and other artists, like Milyika Carroll and Tjimpuna Williams, who talk about developing Pukatja Pottery tjungu, with the assistance of expert Australian ceramicists who have visited the community.3
The first exhibition of Pukatja ceramics was called Tjungu Warkarintja (Working Together) (1998) at Adelaide’s JamFactory, and the most recent is Tjungu Warkarintja: Fifteen Years at Sabbia Gallery in Sydney. It was with this idea in mind – the idea of working together – that Derek and Tjimpuna travelled to Jingdezhen, China, for a three-week residency at the Big Pot Factory in San Bao. In a place full of "students, artists and people from all over the world", with a 1000-year porcelain tradition and facilities unlike anything in Australia, Derek and Tjimpuna focused on extending their practices.
The last two small ones I did were with the factory's blue colour. I had been looking every day at Chinese pots - at the museum and gallery in Shanghai, and everywhere in Jingdezhen. Two pots were sprayed blue for me. I drew my father's country around Atila. All the time I watch how country changes colour with the different time of the day. I have always drawn country - punu, puli, tjulpu, malu tjuta, kalaya, ngintaka (trees, rocks, birds, many kangaroos, emu, perentie).
All the works produced in China by Derek and Tjimpuna are made using the technique of sgraffito, where designs are carved into raw clay, creating a textured surface alive with memory, and used in Ernabella as it speaks naturally to the Pitjantjatjara tradition of milpatjunanyi (sand drawing).
Cuts can be hard or simply graze the pot's face, as seen in Derek's blue-and-white Atila (Mount Conner) (2013), where the tree, etched deep into the sprayed blue pot, stands strong and white and stark, while its flighty leaves are gossamer thin - a desert scene pulsing with heat and life.
Derek likens his ceramic work to drawing and by personalising the sgraffito technique he takes a solid and unforgiving material and breathes movement into it. As the desert fire brings new life, the kiln firing of the pots completes the cycle, awakening the subject matter on the ceramic surface.
When I first saw how tall the big pots were, I was worried. I didn't know how I would draw on them. We started with the small ones and all the time I was thinking about that big one. When it was time for the big one, I had my drawing ready and knew what I wanted to do. I picked my colours from the glaze test tiles Janet had done. Then we put the paint down - some of the Chinese artists helped, as the pot was so tall. First I drew ngintaka, then other side liru, then kapi tjuluka and tali (perentie, snake, waterholes and sandhills). I was still worried about that pot, but I enjoyed doing the big drawings. It felt good to do the long lines of the snake.
When Tjimpuna and Derek arrived at the Big Pot Factory, the enormous forms awaited - a row of blank canvases beckoning to be filled. And just like those pots, the Pukatja Pottery exhibitions are lining up. the past fifteen years have seen an unrelenting rise, with shows including 2002's Desert Cool at the Power Station Gallery in London, Three Communities, One Language (2009) at Watson Arts Centre, Canberra, and Ngayuku Ngura, Ngayuku Tjukurpa (Our Country, Our Law) in 2012 at the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
On a weekday in Pukatja the Ernabella Arts Centre is abuzz with painting, ceramics and a whole range of other activities. When all hands are on deck, the place brims with action and energy. But other responsibilities pull Derek and Tjimpuna in all directions, and finishing a full day's work is challenging. The Jingdezhen residency at the Big Pot Factory offered not only new materials and scale, but the time and space for focus and reflection, for asking and answering questions.
"Sometimes I would have a break, walk around and watch what the different people were doing," Derek said. "Some were carving. Some younger people were painting with fine brushes." This way, where a person has "just one job, they are one part of the pot", as Tjimpuna explained, is different to the process underpinning Pukatja Pottery. But there were shared experiences too: by immersing themselves in Chinese culture and Jingdezhen technique, Tjimpuna and Derek "began to see that while our pots and the Chinese pots look very different, they also painting their country and their stories, but in their way."