Possum skin cloaks offer a vehicle to learn about Aboriginal people’s stories and their connection to country. The Collections Australia Network (CAN) has been building an online database of possum and wallaby skin cloaks and rugs. The designs and motifs etched onto the cloaks pass on stories about a community’s ancestors.
In this video, artist Vicki Couzens explains her designs while telling the story of her grandmother’s country in Victoria’s Western Districts. When Ms Couzens made the cloak, she wanted to connect to the spirits of the Gunditjmara Tribe. She wanted to get to know her ancestor’s land and create an awareness of the unseen. Ms Couzens offers an insight into the culture and meaning behind the possum skin cloak revitalisation project that began in 1999.
Over the last 12 years, five women have worked hard to bring the tradition of making possum skin cloaks back into Aboriginal communities. The work of contemporary Indigenous artists Debra and Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm have been acquired into public collections — the cloaks have been recognised as artworks that tell stories about their ancestors. Cultural Collections and Community Engagement Manager Amanda Reynolds and Koorie Heritage Trust Curator and artist Maree Clarke have supported the revitalisation project so that communities are able to make their own connections to country.
The Collections Australia Network (CAN) invited the collecting organisations that acquired traditional and contemporary possum skin cloaks to upload the catalogue entries onto CAN. This means that by searching ‘possum skin cloak’ or ‘wallaby skin cloak’, researchers, curators and the general public can discover where the cloaks are cared for and learn more about the cultural stories behind them.
This project evolved while planning a trip to the Albury City LibraryMuseum. Collections Co-ordinator Bridget Guthrie was keenly promoting the four cloaks in the Museum collection by artist Treahna Hamm. Albury has the largest number of cloaks in its collection of any cultural organisation in Australia. This not only reflects the Indigenous tradition in the Riverina area but also the strength of Ms Hamm’s career as a contemporary artist who depicts trade routes in pre-settlement times, as well as sharing country, totem and personal markings.
Possum and wallaby skin cloaks, possum and wallaby skin rugs and a platypus skin cape in collections across Australia on CAN
*AIATSIS – Drawings of the Maiden’s Punt (1853) and Lake Condah (1872) possum skin cloaks not accessible on CAN
*Albury City LibraryMuseum: Four possum skin cloaks made by Treahna Hamm and the Indigenous community
*Australian National Maritime Museum: Treahna Hamm’s Dhungala (Murray River) Creation Story, 2006
*Australian Museum: Possum-skin cloak, Maureen Reyland (Mor Mor), Commonwealth Games revitalisation project, 2006
*Koorie Heritage Trust: Ten possum skin cloaks not accessible on CAN
*Museum Victoria: The original Maiden’s Punt (1853) and Lake Condah (1872) possum skin cloaks and work by Lee Darroch are part of Museum Victoria’s collection not accessible on CAN.
*National Gallery of Australia: William Barak drawings depicting Indigenous people wearing possum skin cloaks in 1824
Badhang (possum skin cloak), Michael McDaniel, 2008
*National Gallery of Victoria: Possum skin cloaks by contemporary artists Euphemia Bostock, Treahna Hamm and Lorraine Northey-Connelly
*National Museum of Australia: Collection of possum skin cloaks and works on paper
*State Library of Victoria: Tuuram gundidj possum skin cloak by artist Vicki Couzens, 2004
*South Australian Museum: Wallaby skin cloak and rug
*University of Ballarat Art and Historical Collections: Possum skin cloak made by university students, 2002. The story is based on Eugene Von Guerard’s painting ‘Barter’ (1854) which depicts the exchange of possum skins between indigenous peoples and white settlers.