In Aboriginal tradition, a possum skin cloak had a biographical, as well as a practical, function. Bestowed on a baby at birth, it began as perhaps four or five pelts stitched together, evolving throughout the wearer’s lifetime, with the addition of more pelts, intricate designs on the skin, tinted with ochre. It accumulated memory upon memory, worn even into death, with people buried wrapped in the furs. With the advent of European colonialism in 1788, many cloaks were violently stolen, reappearing in museum displays as curios with scant regard for their origins.
Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist Maree Clarke (b. 1961) is at the heart of a 21st century movement reviving the ancestral practice of cloak-making in Melbourne after a 150 year hiatus, along with artists such as Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm. Clarke’s 63-pelt cloak, which maps countries connected with her family, including the UK and Ireland, was commissioned by The National Gallery of Australia (NGV). It’s on display at a major retrospective of her work at the NGV, which marks a cultural milestone – she’s the first south-eastern Aboriginal artist to have a solo show at the gallery since it opened in the 1800s.
Clarke began her artistic career in the 1980s as a jeweller and is now a multi-disciplinary practitioner, working across design, photography, video, sculpture and installation. The exhibition reflects her diversity of output, featuring a suspended glass sculpture inspired by traditional eel traps, necklaces made with kangaroo teeth, river reed and echidna quills, a nod to traditional materials, alongside Ritual and Ceremony (2012), a series of 84 black-and-white portraits that draw on the rite of wearing of white Kopi mourning caps. In the process of making these, Clarke talked with the sitters about the ritual, opening up emotional discussions around loss, land and lineage. In dialogue with Clarke’s works are a historical clock, necklace and cap loaned from the Museum Victoria, reflecting continuity with the roots of these practices.
Over the past three decades, Clarke has been a catalyst for the recognition of First Nation artists in Melbourne, curating exhibitions of south-east Aboriginal art there in the 1990s, before becoming the state’s first Aboriginal arts officer and later creating the Living Archive of Aboriginal Art in collaboration with the Melbourne Social Equity Institute to “centre Aboriginal perspectives about Aboriginal histories and culture” by collating photographs, artworks and documents. Her art is one chapter in a bigger project – about honouring the rituals and crafts of her predecessors.
Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories is due to run until 3 October 2021 at NGV Australia. The exhibition is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Check website for the latest updates here.
Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
1. Maree Clarke, Desiree Clarke 2012; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018. © Maree Clarke.
2. Image by Tom Ross.
3. Maree Clarke, Paola Balla 2012; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018. © Maree Clarke.
4. Maree Clarke, Maree Clarke 2012; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018 © Maree Clarke.