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image icon 'Thaal the black eagle, Mal the red eagle', 1994

'Thaal the black eagle, Mal the red eagle', 1994
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an earthenware clay pot made in 1994 by Thancoupie (1937-). Measuring 29 cm (height) x 32 cm (diameter), the pot is almost spherical with a small, irregular opening at the top. It is covered with bold decorative designs that have been carved into the surface as thick dark lines set against the off-white colour of the pot's surface. These designs include circles, fish shapes and shield-like decorative units set within irregularly curved shapes.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Thancoupie, who is Australia's most significant Indigenous ceramic artist - she is also nationally recognised for her contribution to the cultural life of her Thainakuith people of the Weipa area of the western Cape York Peninsula, Queensland; Thancoupie pioneered an art medium that was new to Indigenous Australian artists and has maintained a committed practice in the forefront of Australian ceramics over three decades; she showed exceptional art talent from an early age, after being encouraged to produce bark paintings depicting legends of Weipa; in 1971 she decided to pursue her interest in art and moved to Sydney to study ceramics at East Sydney Technical College; by the early 1980s she had extended her range of ceramic work from functional ware to include large ceramic murals depicting the history and stories of the Thainakuith and other peoples of Napranum; during the 1990s she began to participate more fully in the community affairs of Weipa and has maintained her ceramic practice while assuming the role of elder and primary Thainakuith landowner
  • demonstrates the role of an artist as a cultural custodian - Thancoupie's underlying intention in making and decorating her sculptural ceramics has been to give expression to the culture, ceremonies and creative events of the people and landscapes of her own country at Weipa and preserve cultural knowledge for future generations; this pot is one in an extended series of works in which the artist represents ancestral stories and totemic figures; Thancoupie's mother's country is Hey Point, the country of the eagle; other ancestral figures depicted in her ceramic works include Chang the stingray, Janari the bĂȘche-de-mere, Knool the mosquito man, Guiree the flying fox and Wacombe the bushman
  • expresses ideas through design - from the early 1980s Thancoupie began to adopt the sphere as a powerful symbolic form, she has stated that 'The circle can be life, world, universe, fire, woman, sun, and moon. Everything goes round - it's complete'
  • is a dynamic design - Thancoupie's success as an artist and designer lies in her ability to adapt designs to suit different contexts - her formative experiences as a painter were based on bark paintings with their distinctive 'stick figure' designs; in adapting traditional motifs to curved surfaces, Thancoupie has maintained visual interest by ensuring that as one motif begins to run out of sight another appears; the fishes play their part by creating a strong sense of circular motion around the opening at the top; Thancoupie's bold designs have also been applied to fabric lengths, furnishings and garments
  • demonstrates skilful and inventive use of the clay medium - Thancoupie developed her own technique for building and decorating her hand-built works, such as this example, by making a semi-circular plaster mould and spreading the clay within the concave hollow of the mould, then moving this around until a spherical form was created; she would then scratch or lightly cut designs into the surface of the firm but still slightly wet pot; once satisfied with the design, the lines would be gouged out or cut into the surface using clay modelling tools; the darker outlines are achieved by painting oxides into the lines prior to firing
  • references the history of Indigenous Australian culture within modern Australian art and design - around the mid-20th century it was common for Indigenous Australian art to be appropriated as the basis for decorative designs; the Australian modernist artist Margaret Preston (1875-1963) used elements of Indigenous Australian rock and bark art, such as earth colours and concentric circle and boomerang-shape motifs, in her efforts to create a distinctly 'Australian' art and design aesthetic; from the 1930s to the 1950s, a large range of 'Aboriginal style ceramics' was produced (by non-Indigenous Australian artists) for the tourist market; Thancoupie's ceramic works represented a breakthrough in terms of Indigenous Australian artists beginning to make and exhibit their own art, applying traditional designs within non-traditional media.