Thanakupi / Thaynakwith people / Australia 1937–2011 / Cha’angg, ‘Aanj and Guiree (The stingray, arrowroot and flying fox) c.1990 / Stoneware, hand-built, with slip and oxide decoration on incised design / 29 x 29cm (diam.) / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / © Thanakupi

Cha’angg, ‘Aanj and Guiree (The stingray, arrowroot and flying fox) c.1990

On Display: QAG, Gallery 17

Thanakupi (previously spelt Thancoupie) was born in a small village in Weipa, western Cape York, far north Queensland, in 1937. Thanakupi became a preschool teacher and in 1967 established the first kindergarten at her home in Napranum (Weipa).

In 1971 she travelled to Sydney to enrol in a graphic arts course at East Sydney Technical College. Although this application was declined, before leaving the campus Thanakupi was attracted to the ceramics studio and subsequently enrolled in a ceramics course. This diversion lead her to use clay as an educative medium that combined her storytelling abilities with her innate artistry.

Men in Thanakupi’s traditional Thaynakwith culture considered clay, which was baked into balls and stored to make paint for ceremonial decoration, to be sacred. Because of this, Thanakupi had initial concerns about working with the medium. By translating traditional stories to images in clay, she developed a means of educating young children about their culture and preserving their creation myths for future generations.

Thanakupi was a highly respected elder in her community, having been involved in its political struggle for native title and in celebrating its achievements. On 9 June 2003, Thanakupi was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). She died in Weipa on 22 April 2011.