By Katie Knorovsky
Derek Jungarrayi Thompson
When Derek Jungarrayi Thompson etches a ceramic pot, he embeds generations of Aboriginal art and history into his clay designs. Concentric circles, dingo tracks, the shape of a desert serpent—each carved marking that appears on his vessels tells a piece of a story. Like the rock paintings at Australia’s Uluru monolith, his art carries on the sacred traditions of the Anangu people.
As one of the chief potters of Ernabella Arts—Australia’s oldest indigenous art center—Thompson also helps his native Pukatja community adapt with the times while preserving their ancestral way of life.
In 1948, Presbyterian missionaries opened a craft room at a mission in the Australian outback where local Anangu women gathered to pull and knot floor rugs by hand using raw sheep fleece. Their wares featured a distinctive pattern that became known as the Ernabella walka (design). In the late 1960s, as woolen work became less economical, artists took up batik (wax dying). By the late 80s, Ernabella artists added silkscreened fabrics to their output. In 2003, the center added a ceramics studio.
Today Ernabella Arts supports more than 100 artists of all mediums, including painting, batik, and pottery. Men work alongside women and young artists learn from Ernabella elders. Though the nearest gallery is three hours away by car—to say nothing of the distance even basic art supplies have to travel to reach their remote location—Ernabella artists have achieved international recognition and appear in galleries from Singapore to Chicago.
For decades almost all of the center’s art followed the nature-themed, free-hand walka style of the early days, but in recent years Ernabella artists have started applying a narrative art form known as tjukurpa to depict sacred stories of creation and culture that were once so closely guarded that artists didn’t dare portray them.
Enter artists such as Thompson, who bridges generations as he incorporates both walka and tjukurpa themes in his sgraffito pottery designs. Ernabella—and its international reach—allow Thompson to pursue his art while remaining close to his family on their homeland.
Longitude 131°, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World recently announced a $100,000 donation to go towards Ernabella’s renowned ceramics program. Together, artists and travelers alike are helping to keep the story going in this sacred corner of the Australian outback.
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