This exhibition sits at the intersection between contemporary ceramic practice and the cultural traditions of the Torres Strait Islands that lie between Australia’s northern coast and Papua New Guinea. Fieldhouse’s works encompass a surprising array of materials and techniques, from textured hand-built raku forms to fragile “woven” porcelain arm bands that lean on and support each other. Two mixed-media pendants combine porcelain with the feathers of the cassowary, a relative of the ostrich and emu. Light boxes, in which Fieldhouse fused extremely thin layers of porcelain together, create glowing layered shadows in the shapes of traditional combs and other cultural objects of the Torres Strait.
Fieldhouse has undertaken research to explore the cultural traditions of her people, specifically those of women, and sees her art as a way to preserve them for future generations. In her porcelain arm bands, she uses the traditional weaving technique used in the creation of mats, baskets and armbands that are woven with pandanus palm, a practice that continues today.
The raku forms and the light boxes explore the artist’s desire to preserve designs from female rituals of scarification, where a woman’s skin is cut or burned to produce permanent markings in scar tissue. Although this ritual is no longer practiced today, the designs remain culturally significant, and it is these two-dimensional patterns that Fieldhouse transforms into her clay sculptures. Fieldhouse explains that her work intends “to bring back what is unseen, as a tribute to the women and life of the Torres Strait Islands, but also so the next generation will know that scarification was a strong part of our heritage.”
While ceramic art is not a tradition in the Torres Strait, art historian Sally Butler explains that “contemporary artists are activating their cultural heritage through these media, molding cultural memory in ways that make it alive, relevant, and use for today.”
Janet Fieldhouse currently lives in Cairns and works as an Art and Culture Teacher at the North Queensland TAFE. She studied ceramics at the Cairns Technical and Further Education College (TAFE) before continuing her studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. She has participated in twenty-seven group exhibitions since 2000, in addition to four solo exhibitions: Unseen (2005), Woven (2009), Journey (2011) and Mark and Memory (2014). Fieldhouse has twice been awarded First Prize in the National Indigenous Ceramic Awards (2007, 2012). Her work is held in numerous public collections of Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia.
From March 10 to April 9, 2017, Fieldhouse will visit Charlottesville as an artist-in-residence at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection. While here, she will develop ideas for new bodies of work, teach sculpture classes at UVA, give tours of the exhibition and present an artist talk at the museum, and provide a workshop at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Both the exhibition and residency are presented in partnership with Australia Council for the Arts and Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne. The exhibition will be on view from January 27 – May 21, 2017.