The Antipodean World of Stephen Bowers Ceramics

By Murray, Kevin | Ceramics Art & Perception, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Antipodean World of Stephen Bowers Ceramics


Murray, Kevin, Ceramics Art & Perception


I WAS ONCE IN A ZULU VILLAGE ON THE DAY OF A SOLAR eclipse. Feeling self-conscious of my skin colour, I asked my host what they called a white person. He smiled and pronounced a mysterious word, Umlungu, explaining that it means 'magician'. With something like admiration he then described the fantastic devices Europeans brought when they first came to South Africa. With a few curious contraptions such as gramophones, cameras and books, white people seemed able to capture the entire world. "They could persuade a chief to give away a whole valley for a piece of mirror, for in that mirror seemed to be the whole world." While those Europeans saw natives as beholden to primitive beliefs, they did not realise that they themselves were bearers of their own magic.

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Acquisition of land by colonisation is no longer the source of celebration that it once was. But there is still fascination in the original scene when two halves of the world met for the first time--not just when first peoples met mysterious white people but also when Europeans initially encountered those whom they had previously only imagined. Today, to reflect on those original encounters is to renew the sense of possibility that fate has closed off.

Adelaide based ceramist Stephen Bowers is adept in the sense of conjunction, contact, overlap and possibility. His works--detailed and richly decorated, crowded with familiar images--are also edged round with shadows, overlaps and shards. They at once evoke a whimsical, topsy-turvy sense of wonder, while hinting at the breakage and fracture central to all forms of encounter.

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Dreams of a counterbalancing netherworld can be traced back to the origins of philosophical thought itself. The early Greek philosopher Pythagoras posited that if the earth was a sphere, then it needed an antipodes to underpin or support oecumene, the known world. In his complex works, Bowers continues the imaginative preoccupation with the antipodes as a speculative mirror and source of possibility. At a time when Google Earth exposes all corners of the world to instant perusal, it is especially important to retain the space that once was a playground for our collective imagination.

Pythagoras' notion was given more concrete form by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE. What was for the Greeks a theoretical postulate was, for the Romans, a source of wonder; imagine a world that could never know of the splendours of Rome. Pliny populated the South with imaginary creatures--antichthones that invert biological order, like the Blemmyis who hid their mouths and eyes in their breasts.

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Classical authors presumed an antipodes that was radically separated from the known world of the north. A ring of fire was supposed to prevent travellers from venturing below the equator, a belief not dispelled until the age of exploration, when navigators braved the latitudes and discovered the riches that lay below.

Anxious to claim Terra Australis (the South Land) for their empire, the British imbued their own new antipodes with a mellow neo-classical turn in which the decorative arts and pottery in particular played an early role. Wedgwood, using a sample of dark grey clay from Sydney Cove collected by Governor Phillip and given to Sir Joseph Banks, created a medallion to commemorate the 1789 poem by Erasmus Darwin, "The Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove". It was here that Darwin dreamt of that...

  ...some isle
  Might rise in green-haired beauty eminent,
  And like a goddess, glittering from the deep,
  Hereafter sway the sceptre of domain
  From pole to pole, and such as now thou art,
  Perhaps New Holland be.

Reflecting similar evoked icons of dignified nature, Bowers draws on the specimens and representations brought back by the navigators and naturalists. …

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