Thanakupi – one of the Legends of Cape York

Thanakupi. A true legend of Cape York and a lady who gives her heart to the community and its children.

Thanakupi. A true legend of Cape York and a lady who gives her heart to the community and its children.

Gloria Fletcher-James or Thanakupi, as she is known, is an a woman of enormous importance in Cape York Peninsula; a strong character who has encouraged others,
developed programs and actively worked to sustain her indigenous culture, language and identity.  
Thanakupi is a distinguished ambassador, cultural educator and community elder and has also gained momentous respect on a national and international scale as a ceramic artist. The name Thanakupi or Thancoupie (as she has previously been known) is well-known; she is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost artists and a pioneer for Indigenous artists and Australian ceramicists in general.  
The story of Thanakupi begins in 1937 in Napranum, on the Western Cape, where she was born to parents Amjak and Athaylpine of the Thainakuith people. Their lands are to the north side of the Mission River and include Bouchat (Mangrove Island). Like most of Cape York, these areas are a splendor of riches, showcasing Mother Nature at her best ,so it is no wonder that such a gifted personality was bred of these lands.
At the time, some may have questioned the young Thanakupi’s desire to further her education and move away from her community. Her enormous potential and skill was already evident in her character and in her artwork. Did it really need developing? Thanakupi found herself in the bustling streets of Brisbane. With no formal high school education, she completed a three-year course – condensed into one – to become a qualified kindergarten teacher.
Thus began the journey that has, among many other attributes, created a legend…Thanakupi; icon, artist and intellectual.
In 1966 with no money for wages or resources, Thanakupi returned to Napranum village to open the community’s first kindergarten in the St Barnabas Presbyterian Church. Times were tough but the support from parents was plentiful. Almost a year after opening the Napranum kindergarten, she spread her wings again and took a journey that even today would frighten the most adaptable of us – moving to Sydney to attend The National School of Arts. Here she studied ceramics. A perfect medium, she believes, because with ‘clay you are working with all the elements; earth, water, fire and air… and you are a part of it.’

More at home on the beach or bush in Cape York, Thanakupi can mix it with the best of them when it comes to 'styling up'. Pictured here about to receive yet another award for the work she has been involved in.

More at home on the beach or bush in Cape York, Thanakupi can mix it with the best of them when it comes to 'styling up'. Pictured here about to receive yet another award for the work she has been involved in.

For a while after completing her degree Thanakupi continued to live in Sydney working odd jobs in order to fund her art and to exhibit. From here the world quite literally opened up, leading to shows in numerous cities throughout the United States, Aspen Colorado, Japan, South America and New Zealand to name but a few. Her distinctive style made a tremendous impact on the international art scene at this time and, judging by the current demand for her work and auction prices, the impact is still as strong as ever.  
Currently residing in Weipa, Thanakupi has recently received a Doctorate of Letters from James Cook University. She is still active in community programs and education, in the hope that she can help sustain her culture and create better opportunities for generations to come. When asked what positive outcomes she hopes to see within her lifetime relating to the arts and culture of Cape York she says “Everyone is art. Everybody has it. I hope it helps to develop change and I hope that people see it before it is too late and nothing happens. It can help make you a better person because it makes you believe in yourself and that’s what makes you strong.”