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Hermannsburg artist passes skills onto next generation

Heather Ewart interviewing Judith Inkamala on Back Roads
Western Aranda woman Judith Inkamala on Back Roads at Hermannsburg Pottery.

ABC TV Back Roads

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Judith Inkamala, an established Indigenous artist from Hermannsburg, is in a unique position — between the past and the future, while her own present-day work achieves international renown.

The 69-year-old joined the Hermannsburg Potters just a few years after the group was formed 26 years ago.

Like other women here, Ms Inkamala has travelled to Indonesia and China for exhibitions and workshops.

Her pots are sold around the world, and celebrated. One is even thought to have been purchased for Bill Clinton when he was US president.

Hermannsburg's stunning landscape of white gums and the Western MacDonnell Ranges became known around the world through the artwork of perhaps its most famous son, Albert Namatjira.

His presence is everywhere. The highway to the town is Namatjira Drive.

Albert Namatjira's distinctive paintings inspired a whole new generation of artists, including the potters with their own unique style.

Ms Inkamala remembers watching the artist at work when she was a child. It was her first introduction to art.

Watercolour painting of tiny Australian country town with mountains in the background
Artist Albert Namatjira's painting of his Hermannsburg surroundings. This piece is a watercolour of Finke River Mission and Mount Hermannsburg (1951).

Supplied: Sotheby's Australia

"We knew Albert Namatjira very well," she said.

"We saw Albert when we were young.

"We [would] always go after school, we'd go around with [a] friend.

"And then when Albert [went] up to the sand hill we'd always go there and watch him painting.

"Sometimes he went down to the creek, and we always went swimming."

Ms Inkamala said, once she started learning pottery, all her memories would come back, and she painted them — including memories of Albert Namatjira.

"Sometimes I make good ones," she said.

"We are making pots like Albert Namatjira's painting. With landscapes, sometimes a river.

"I always put these stories on my pot."

Various pots and art pieces on some shelves at Hermannsburg Pottery
A collection of various art pieces from the Hermannsburg Pottery students

ABC TV Back Roads: Kerri Ritchie

The next generation of artists

These days though, Ms Inkamala is equally focused on passing on her skills to the next generation of potential potters.

In the community-driven program Pots that Tell Stories, the artists work with students at the school next door, passing down stories to the younger generations and mentoring in Aranda language.

The program has even taken five promising young students to Melbourne for an exhibition.

"When you kids leave school, you come to pottery."

The front of an art studio covered in mosaic with the words Hermannsburg Potters
The strong history of Hermannsburg visual culture and story-telling has become internationally renowned.

ABC TV Back Roads

Pottery is a good potential source of income in Hermannsburg, a former Lutheran mission town still dotted with historic white-washed buildings, which are now owned by traditional owners and form a tourist precinct.

The potter's building is on the main road, past a rambling old cemetery. It is a small building, covered in bright and distinctive mosaic tiles depicting witchety grubs and other local fauna.

"Keep going, make round, awal," Ms Inkamala clicks softly, slipping easily into Aranda.

Ms Inkamala today is one of the most enduring of the talented ten Western Aranda women who together form the internationally-renowned Hermannsburg Potters.

Their highly original colourful pots have lids adorned with distinctive sculptures of anything from birds to footy players, and the odd feral cat. The round bases are always painted in glazes.

Each of Ms Inkamala's carefully-sculptured terracotta pots, like those of her colleagues, tell a story of her life, of the bush or a piece of the history of their home town Hermannsburg, about 130km west of Alice Springs.

"I like to paint on my pots, when I go out bush I make landscapes," she tells ABC TV's Back Roads program, as she gently taps a small wooden bat against the sides of the emerging round pot; to smooth and shape it.

"Sometimes I (paint) my countryside, Palm Valley, when I go around in the bush."

Judith has dedicated this piece of art to the feral cat she ate when she was sick
The feral cat is remembered through Ms Inkamala's art.

Supplied by: Hermannsburg Potters

A large grey and black stripped cat sits on top of one of Ms Inkamala's most recent pots.

It is a testament to a time some years ago when she became so seriously ill she was fed wild cat meat and other bush medicines to help regain her strength.

"It tastes like rabbit," she explained of the delicacy, as she works to craft another piece of art from moist brown clay.

"I said 'I can't eat it, I don't eat pussy meat' but [my sister] said 'No you eat it'. It's good medicine, you get better."

And she did.

Back Roads is on ABC TV at 8:00pm, Mondays.