The Aboriginal art of making possum-skin cloaks

By Sarah Rhodes November 29, 2013
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Sarah Rhodes has been recording the meaning of historic possum-skin cloaks to indigenous communities.

In this video Boonwurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs, the director of the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages and Culture, and an indigenous language specialist, talks about the role of language in shaping identity.

INDIGENOUS ARTISTS LEE DARROCH and Vicki Couzens began a revival of the historically southern Australian Aboriginal art of possum-skin cloak making in 1999, a movement which gathered momentum when many were made to wear at the opening of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

In November 2011, photographer Sarah Rhodes drove from Sydney to Newcastle on assignment for Australian Geographic to document the process of making a cloak for our story Capes of Good Hope, Issue 108, May-June 2012. Ironically, it was the first time she’d photographed this part of the process, as she’s concentrated her time on following the effects of already assembled cloaks on communities and individual elders for some time. 

Here, she explains about the art of possum-skin cloak making: 

“In 2010, the Powerhouse Museum first asked me to use digital storytelling to promote museum collections, which is how I stepped into the magical world of the possum skin cloaks. After interviewing Lee Darroch and Vicki Couzens who had been working on reviving the possum skin cloak for some time, I realised I needed to somehow show the empowerment a person feels when they drape a possum-skin cloak over their shoulders.

Culture Victoria, which run a website focussing on telling stories about historic collections, gave me the support I needed to set off and meet some of the elders who had breathed vigour back into this ancient tradition. So I travelled to Victoria and took portraits of elders who had made cloaks with their communities for the opening ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

With Vicki’s blessing, and the help of the Koorie Heritage Trust, I took portraits representing eight of the state’s 36 language groups, in their homes and where possible, on country. The images in the series titled Home/On Country (2011) are presented as diptychs and illustrate the challenges in negotiating a balance between indigenous culture with western values.

The National Library of Australia acquired three diptychs of Ivan Couzens of the Gunditjmara people and sisters Esther Kirby of the Baraparapa people and Phoebe Nicholson of the Wadi Wadi people in 2011.”

See VIDEO of Monash University Professor Henry Atkinson, an Elder of the Wolithiga Clan of the Yorta Yorta Nations, talking about the issue of sustaining culture for younger generations in south-eastern Australia and how possum-skin cloaks have played a role.

Find out more about the traditional Aboriginal art of making possum-skin cloaks from the Culture Victoria website.

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