Building New Legacies With The Hermannsburg Potters

This is Western Aranda Country and the artists here are famous. In Mparntwe (Alice Springs), the Iltja Ntjarra Arts Centre presides over the legacy of legendary painter Albert Namatjira (the great grandfather of 2021 Archibald Prize winner, Vincent Namatjira), teaching his watercolour techniques and preserving his artistic style. Many of his relatives practise here.

But on the other side of the Macdonnell Ranges in neighbouring Ntaria (Hermannsburg), the celebrated Hermannsburg Potters are forging new artistic traditions. The collective was established in 1992 and has now grown to nearly 20 artists. Every day, the Potters arrive at their studio and set about making art in their own pioneering style.

The artists paint stories of the surrounding Country, community, animals and memories of family onto the surface of their hand-built terracotta pots, topping each piece with a figurative sculpture. The works are vibrant, cheeky, purposeful and original, displaying a deep knowledge of Country, and a playful, vivid view of contemporary desert life.

While the acclaimed works are displayed in cities and galleries all around Australia, this small town in the Central Desert is where they came from.

[A warning that this article contains names of people who are deceased.]

Sasha Gattermayr

Ceramic works by the Hermannsburg Potters and watercolour painting ‘Tjoritja (West MacDonald rangers) II’ (2020) by Iltja Ntjarra artist, Hubert Pareroultja, on display at Bett Gallery in Tasmania. Photo – Bett Gallery.

Rona Rubuntja (a finalist in this year’s NATSIAA awards) at work. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

A pot by Judith Inkamala. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

The Potters use traditional hand-building techniques to make their vessels. Ropes of terracotta clay are coiled on top of each other and layers are then pinched together to create a smooth surface. Photo – Tobias Titz,

Potter Hayley Coulthard works surrounded by inspiration. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Karen Inkamala painting her finished vessel with underglaze.Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

The Potters emblazon the surface of their clay vessels with scenes of Country, community, family life and animals. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Rona Rubuntja painting a series of pots. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Works by various artists in the kiln. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Anita Ratara carefully painting scenery onto a small vessel. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Ceramic works by the Hermannsburg Potters and watercolour paintings from Iltja Ntjarra artists on display at Bett Gallery in Tasmania. Photo – Bett Gallery.

‘Erraarnta (red-tailed black cockatoo)’ by Rona Rubuntja on display atBett Gallery in Tasmania. Photo – Bett Gallery.

The Hermannsburg Potters studio in Ntaria. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Western Aranda Country, Pmurlankinya (Palm Valley National Park). Artists (from left) Rona Rubuntja, Hayley Coulthard and Bethany Inkamala stand on Country. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Western Aranda Country, Pmurlankinya (Palm Valley National Park). Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

‘Alkngarintja Outstation’ (2020) by Andrea Pungkarta Rontji. Photo – Bett Gallery.

Karen Inkamala out on Country. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Bethany Inkamala and Karen Inkamala. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Hayley Coulthard making damper. Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Sundown at Lyitjarra Outsation’ by Judith Inkamala. Photo – Bett Gallery.

Nanda (horses) on Western Aranda Country, Pmurlankinya (Palm Valley National Park). Photo – Genevieve Walshe.

Sasha Gattermayr
20th of May 2021

‘We saw Albert Namatjira painting, when we were young girls (late 1950s). I would always walk with Gillian Namatjira, Albert’s granddaughter, after school, not far from the school was Albert Namatjira’s house. Albert had a house but his sons had humpy house. We would sit down, watching him paint the landscape. We was watching him thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a nice painting’. Then, everyone started to learn to paint – white fellas called this way of painting “The Hermannsburg School.”’

This is Judith Inkamala, a renowned artist who practises with the Hermannsburg Potters in Ntaria on Western Aranda Country, 130 kilometres west of Mparntwe (Alice Springs). An animation of one of her ceramic pieces is currently projected onto the Opera House’s exterior sails as part of Badu Gili, an outdoor art installation featuring the work of six female First Nations artists.

Judith and her fellow artists in Ntaria (Hermannsburg) learnt to paint with watercolours at an early age due to the area’s historical connection with Albert Namatjira. But the Hermannsburg Potters are confidently establishing their own artistic legacy, with their hand-built, hand-painted terracotta pots.

Though first introduced to the medium by non-Indigenous craft practitioners employed by the Adult Education Office in 1990 to teach pottery in Ntaria, from these initial lessons, the community members harnessed their incredible talent and passion for ceramics, and established the Hermannsburg Potters as its own artist collective.

‘Dennis, Noreen Inkamala, Carol Rontji, Grahame Ebatarinja, and Arthur Aston were working there first,’ Judith describes. ‘Then big mob woman started working there, maybe 20. We all learnt how to make pots and lid, nice shape. After 2 years we became Hermannsburg Potters, in 1992. Then we thought, we got to keep going, keep this pottery strong.’

The Hermansburg Potters is now a studio and gallery comprising 15 artists: Judith Inkamala, Anita Ratara, Dawn Wheeler, Hayley Coulthard, Rona Rubuntja (who is a finalist in the upcoming NATSIAA awards!), Andrea Rontji, Stephanie Ratara, Beth Inkamala, Karen Inkamala, Alizha Coulthard, Vera Armstrong, Bethany Inkamala, Geraldine Inkamala, Dalissa Brown, June Campbell; with one male potter, Lawrence Inkamala (the centre’s male potter’s development program starts next month!).

All the Potters use hand building techniques to create their vessels, coiling ropes of terracotta clay into a sturdy shape and then pinching the layers together to form a clean, smooth surface. Once the ceramic bodies are complete, the potters paint scenery on them with underglaze, telling stories of Country, family, animals and contemporary life in vibrant style.

The pots are then finished with a lid bearing a moulded and painted clay sculpture, which takes the shape of anything from a bogged Toyota troopy to a frill neck lizard or a footy player. Most of the time, artists choose which narratives they want to depict on their own pots, though they work collectively to a theme when making a body of work to be displayed at an exhibition.

With recent rains this summer, lots of the Potters have emblazoned their current pieces with scenes of river life, while Judith chose to illustrate the memories she has of sunsets at her husband’s outstation when she was a young woman.

‘All the people talking story at sundown – we always used to talk story by the fire,’ she says. ‘I was feeling I should make this pot of my memory from this time, thinking about from a long time ago, when I was young. I tell my story on this pot.’

Recently, the artists have been experimenting with new materials such as white earthenware clay and learning slip-casting techniques, which enables the makers to develop designs for tableware. With the Potters’ unique style, independent hold on their creative unity and clear vision for keeping the practice alive, the future of the collective is only going from strength to strength.

‘We teach the young people, show them how to make a little pot and a little bird,’ says Judith. ‘They learn a little bit. I been teaching Geraldine and Bethany, my two daughters, to work with clay – like me. Those old ladies are all gone, passed away. Only me, Anita Ratara, Dawn Wheeler and Rona Rubuntja still working from the start. Anita been teaching her daughter Hayley for a long time. They got to keep coming, the young ones, to learn. We got young ladies coming in, Vera, Andrea, Alizha, Dalissa. They learn from their aunties and grandmothers. They are coming up. They are keeping our pottery strong.’

Learn more about the Hermannsburg Potters and their work here.

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