Overview - Void and Knowledge

These works by Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher and Jonathan Jones look at how Aboriginal knowledge, cultural design and ways of being are encoded in objects and Country. Thancoupie used her ceramic ‘story pots’ as vessels to transmit cultural knowledge, coded in the material, shape and space of her work. Jones’ video dhawin-dyuray (axe-having) 2016 aims to reveal the inseparable relationship between a cultural object’s material, its maker and the Country it is born from. Both artists poetically use the void in their works as a mechanism to preserve, pass on and restore Aboriginal Knowledges and practices.

Artist’s Voice

The clay and bauxite comes from my land. It is my land, earth, it is me. And the designs and the stories are from the land, from my mind, from my hands – I can’t change that.
— Thancoupie
THandling ancestral objects like these are like holding the hand of an Ancestor… these objects were left behind for us to work with by our Ancestors
— Jonathan Jones

Thancoupie, Peetharee story - Dugong & Emu, 1980, hand built earthenware, slip and oxide decoration on incised designs, 30 x 30 x 30 cm. Collection of Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, purchase. Photograph: David Roma

Jonathan Jones, dhawin-dyuray (axe-having), 2015. 2 channel video, PAL, surround sound, 6 mins 27 secs. Editor: Elliott Magen; Photographer: Jenni Carter; Designer: Criena Court; Sound Design: Wes Chew, Sam Gain-Emery and Luke Mynott, Sonar Sound

Talking Points

  • The interconnectedness between cultural design, cultural knowledge and Country.

  • How cultural knowledge and ways of being are contained within objects and spaces.

  • How traces of the past, history and ancestry are resonant within spaces and objects.

  • How cultural knowledge is transferred and re-activated across time.

Getting Started

Think of an object you have at home that has been in your family for a long time. For example, a special plate that was your great-grandmother’s and now belongs to your mother.

- Where did this object come from?
- Who in your family bought, or acquired this object? Who has owned this object since?
- Where has this object been in it’s time in your family? For example different houses, or even countries.
- What would it have “seen” in its life both in your family history and Australian history?

Create a quick draw your object and around it write or draw 5 pieces of ‘knowledge’ your object holds. For example: the plate could hold knowledge about what your great-grandmother was like and family celebrations.


Conversation Points

  • Read the descriptive text and look at the artwork images closely. Thancoupie calls her works ‘story pots’. What aspects of Thancoupie’s world do you think her works tell us stories about? For example, her beliefs or her ancestry.

  • How does Thancoupie use symbols, materials and form to communicate these stories in her work?

  • Describe how you think Thancoupie’s use of clay visually and symbolically connects to her Country. Consider the clay’s colour, texture and finish.

  • For the Thanaquith people, clay traditionally has a sacred ceremonial function and Thancoupie had to ask permission to use this material in her work. Do you think the original cultural or functional purpose of an object is retained when it leaves its original community or place of origin? Why or why not? Consider:

    • What happens to objects when they enter the museum/gallery space? For example, how are they displayed and stored.

    • Is it the same for non-Indigenous objects as Indigenous objects?

Jonathan Jones

Conversation Points

  • How does Jones’ work show the connection between a cultural object and the Country it was made on? Consider his use of scale, silhouette, panning and title.

  • Jones’ presents the work as a 2 channel, immersive floor to ceiling projection.

    • What do you think the effect of this would be on the viewer?

    • Why do you think Jones would want the viewer to experience his work in this way?

  • Jones work has been described as ‘a constant reflection of the past, reconnecting it to the present”. How do you think dhawin-dyuray (axe-having) achieves this? Consider the content of the work, its presentation, where it has been exhibited and who would see the work.


Learn My Language

Language is a key aspect in Jonathan Jones’ work as it symbolises connection to culture and identity. He says that says that to “learn my language is to learn my Country”. The simple act of using language helps to preserve and re-embed cultural knowledge within our society, just as Thancoupie and Jones’ work seeks to do.

  • Use the AITSIS Map of Indigenous Australia to find out the language or nation group of the land your school is located on.

  • Research online to find a dictionary or word bank resource for the language group of your area. There are many excellent resources available online such as RegenR8’s Wiradjuri language app or your local Aboriginal Land Council may be able to help.

  • Learn the Aboriginal names in your local area for things including landmarks, places, everyday items, people, actions and foods.

  • Consider how you can re-activate these language words in your school. Ideas could include creating and displaying new names for classrooms and shared spaces; creating signage for plants with their name in language and traditional use or creating illustrated alphabet books or signs using language words. Reach out to your local Aboriginal Education Regional Representative to help guide your ideas.

Extension: Contact the AECG for advice and assistance on organising initiatives, such as language lessons, to help re-embed Aboriginal history, knowledge and culture in your school environment.

Cross-Curriculum Connections

Design & Technology

Thancoupie’s work integrates a strong use of cultural symbols, while Jonathan Jones work often uses or references murruwaygu (the cultural design that is seen in Wiradjuri Country and possessions). Jones has said that “the repeating diamonds, chevrons and radiating lines that make up the complex network of murruwaygu hold deep ancestral knowledge waiting to inspire the next generation”.

Research the ethics involved in using Aboriginal cultural designs by reading the Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP). Write a set of guidelines for your school on the ethical use of Aboriginal cultural and intellectual property, including designs and techniques. Think about the best way to enforce and educate these guidelines within your classroom - perhaps they could be developed as an infographic, poster or even presentation.

EXTENSION: Research contemporary artists including Brook Andrew and Reko Rennie who also use Aboriginal cultural design in their work. Think of a design, symbol or motif from within your own culture. How could you translate this into a different material, scale, colour or context to bring new relevance or a new audience to this knowledge?

Curriculum Links

Visual Arts

  • explores aspects of practice in critical and historical interpretations of art (4.7)

  • begins to acknowledge that art can be interpreted from different points of view (4.9)

  • recognises that art criticism and art history construct meanings (4.10)

  • applies their understanding of aspects of practice to critical and historical interpretations of art (5.7)

  • demonstrates how the frames provide different interpretations of art (5.9)

  • demonstrates how art criticism and art history construct meanings (5.10)


  • identifies and describes different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the past (HT4-7)

  • explains different contexts, perspectives and interpretations of the modern world and Australia (HT5-7)

Design & Technology

  • designs, communicates and evaluates innovative ideas and creative solutions to authentic problems or opportunities (TE4-1DP)

Further Research

  • Learn what misappropriation of Indigenous cultural heritage means and how to avoid it by watching this animation at UTS Design Index.

  • Visit Kaldor Public Art Projects’ Project Page to learn more about Jonathan Jones’ barrangal dyara (skin and bones) installation at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney.

  • Visit the Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial exhibition page to find more artists whose work asserts Aboriginal histories, culture, language and stories. Jones’dhawin-duyray (axe-having) (2015) was also featured in this exhibition!