MELBOURNE — The desert of Central Australia might seem like an unlikely place to find an art cooperative making potent and beautiful pottery. But an exhibition at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Centre is featuring a moving display of hand-painted pottery by the Aboriginal women of Hermannsburg — a tradition not indigenous to the area — celebrating, of all things, their football heroes. What gives?
Settled by colonialists in the 19th century, the town of Hermannsburg is 80 miles west of Alice Springs and home to just 700 people. The indigenous Arrernte/Luritja peoples here were subject to a radical and often violent disruption of their lives and lands — a sad story common to many countries and native cultures.
Around 1900, a group of Lutheran missionaries built a mission house and school in Hermannsburg, offering food, water, and protection from other white settlers to the local people if they converted to Christianity. Given their other options, it’s understandable why the Arrernte/Luritja people would embrace their European “saviors.”
The Lutherans proved comparatively benevolent occupiers. Among the many crafts they introduced were Western art-making in the form of pottery, watercolor painting, Western “women’s” skills such as crochet and knitting. (In the mid-1930s, a local watercolor style emerged and Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) became the most famous Aboriginal artist of his generation.) It’s a little unclear why the missionaries decided to introduce these arts to the Arrernte. I suspect they thought the sale of pottery to tourists could generate income.
In 1975, the land was officially given back to the indigenous inhabitants and the town became dually known as Ntaria/Hermannsburg. Shortly afterward, the local government built a ceramic workshop and the Hermannsburg Pottery cooperative was officially founded. Locals not only continued but developed the pottery tradition into artwork that has real resonance.
Initially, all the work was done by men. The pots, depicting local flora and fauna, were pretty, if not exceptional, and sold to tourists passing throughout the central desert. But in 1990, senior lawman Nashasson Ungwanaka invited a potter named Naomi Sharp to come to Hermannsburg and teach a workshop, and soon thereafter the women of Hermannsburg took over. No longer quite as passive as the male potters, the women of Hermannsburg began to make pots that reflected their lives in a more meaningful way than the “tourist art” had done.
It turns out that the women of Hermannsburg, by their own admission, are fanatical fans of Australian rules football, a rough and tumble team sport played only in Australia. Founded in 1908, the game has been traditionally a white sport and for many years the leagues (unofficially, of course) mirrored the racist attitudes of their nation. Aboriginal and other ethnic minorities faced discrimination and outright racism as they slowly integrated into the leagues. Famous and accomplished Aboriginal players such as Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, and Chris Lewis have publicly stood up against racism, and this, in turn, has given an enormous boost to the Aboriginal rights movements.
While the Hermannsburg women potters still continue the tradition of lyrical pottery depicting the natural world in which they live, it is their dynamic football pieces that reflect the personal and political victories of the players that pack a visual and emotional punch. One of the most famous moments in Australian football is portrayed in a piece by Rona Rubunjta that recreates the image of celebrated player Nicky Winmar lifting his shirt and proudly pointing to the color of his skin in 1993. The piece, entitled “I’m Black,” is a triumph of identity, and one can only imagine the empowerment that this gesture conveyed to his country folk.
The Ian Potter Center exhibition consists of 20 pots, with animated scenes from famous football games painted (in fired underglaze) around their exteriors. Each is topped with a sculptural finial portraying one or several athletic figures in three dimensions. The drawing and modeling is loose and fun; the pots self-assured in their design and fabrication, and bold in their statement of ethnic pride. Each pot tells its story in a circular way, the narrative traveling around its exterior, though each maker has a different portrayal of space. In some, the figures are foreshortened and slightly warped, as their bodies conform to the undulation of the classical ceramic shape. Others tell a visual story in space that is compressed, both horizontally and vertically, so the story reads more as a band of images. The color is universally bold and opaque. The individual drawings are personal and idiosyncratic; there is no mistaking the work of one potter for another.
Because this is a significant political and cultural exhibition, I was slightly dismayed that the curators decided to design it as an exhibition primarily for children. Officially entitled Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids, the show is set up like a football field: a red floor with boundary markings delineates the gallery and the pots are placed in vitrines that mimic the official football starting positions. The gallery is hung with the banners of Australian Football teams. It’s lively for sure, but also a little chaotic, and I fear decreases the social import of the artwork. I am all for enticing children into museum shows, but this one feels a little like an amusement arcade. I’m not sure why the giant wall text needed to say “For Kids.” The art and the message presented in this exhibition is in no way childlike. I could see adults read the signage and turning away from the exhibition, which would be a loss for everyone.
While I had no idea of the personal significance of the pots and their various scenes of football triumph to those who made them, the exuberance and joy need no explanation. The exhaustive wall text connects each pot to its episode and makes the pieces feel even more important in a larger context. And while each of the 20 pots stands on its own, there is something very moving about seeing them all together — like a team whose individual players collectively create a new and powerful entity.
Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) (Ground, Federation Sqaure, Flinders St & Russell St, Melbourne, Australia) through April 10.