In 1971, after beginning her artistic career as a painter, Thanakupi travelled south from her coastal home in Napranum (Weipa), in far north Queensland, to study ceramics at East Sydney Technical College in Sydney. Thanakupi grew up at the Presbyterian Napranum Mission, where she experienced the use of clay in a ceremonial context. The opportunity to handle clay inspired her to complete her studies. Thanakupi became Australia’s foremost Aboriginal ceramicist, with a professional career spanning 40 years.
Thanakupi’s strong Thanaquith back-ground ensured a childhood rich in traditional customs, but many years of Christian influence and well-meaning but destructive assimilation policies had a significant impact on the continuation of Thanaquith culture. As a student, Thanakupi returned often to Napranum to learn of her ancestral histories from the old people of the community, with a view to preserving their stories through the design and decoration of her bold, sculptural forms.
During these years, Thanakupi designed a set of unique visual symbols and totemic characters. The duality of the human and the natural world is integral to Aboriginal culture and ceremonial custom. Many of Thanakupi’s characters are anthropomorphic, with creatures of the natural world showing human characteristics. She translated her community’s stories into a series of visual images, and decorates her stoneware with these narratives. Thanakupi refered to the end results as ‘story pots’. These objects – both in their physical creation from earth, air, water and fire, and in their finished form as spherical story pots – embody the artist’s relationship with her land, her culture and the natural world.
Thanakupi was one of the first generation of Aboriginal artists to explore art making in an academic environment, far from her people and home. She created public art murals that can be seen in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as those executed when she was an artist-in-residence in Edmonton, Canada and Colorado, United States. Thanakupi features in many documentaries and has shown at scores of exhibitions nationally and internationally as a solo artist. Her life and work was the subject of a monograph published in 1982. In the early 1980s, she relocated from Sydney to Cairns, Queensland, where she produced ceramics from her base at Trinity Beach, continuing her work as an artist actively committed to the preservation of her distinct cultural heritage.
Natasha Brook in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014