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Old ways of making

Once an everyday item for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia, possum skin cloaks were worn for warmth, used as baby carriers, coverings at night, drums in ceremony and for burial. Incised and painted with ochre, possum skin cloaks also mapped the identity of their owner, holding stories of clan and Country. Today, possum skin cloaks are of continuing importance to Aboriginal people across the south-east of Australia, with new uses and contemporary ways of making.

Worn from a young age, cloaks started out small with a few skins sewn together to wrap a baby. Over time more skins were added so that as a person grew, their cloaks grew with them. Possums would be hunted, the skin carefully removed, scraped with a shell, and then stretched by pegging them out on the ground. Once the skins were sufficiently dried, animal fat would be rubbed into the pelts to make them more pliable. The edges of the skins were then pierced with tiny holes using a sharp pointed bone. Kangaroo sinew was threaded through these small holes and the skins sewn together, using 40 to 70 skins to make an adult cloak. Wooden or bone pins could be used to fasten cloaks that could be worn skin to skin or with the fur side to the wearer’s skin, exposing intricate designs incised with mussel shell or sharp bone.

In the mid-1800s, British colonies across the south-east distributed woollen blankets to local Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal people began using government issued blankets rather than their possum skin cloaks. Woven wool blankets, however, were not as effective as possum skin cloaks, they were not as warm nor were they waterproof and offered little protection from the cold and wet winters of south-eastern Australia. During this time, many Aboriginal people became ill and died from common European colds and influenza viruses.

Photo - Teenminne, a Ngarrindjeri woman wearing a possum skin cloak, carrying a child on her back, South Australia, ca. 1870, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-148825818

Possum Skin Cloak Revival

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Aboriginal Elder Matilda House with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (L) and Opposition Leader Brendon Nelson (R) at the opening of the 42nd Parliament at Parliament House on February 12, 2008 in Canberra.
- Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Only a handful of possum skin cloaks made prior to 1900 still exist today, preserved in museum collections held in Australia and overseas. The scarcity of old cloaks is due both to their fragility and purpose, they were designed to be used during the lifetime of their owner and often as a burial wrapping.

The Museum Victoria in Melbourne holds a Gunditjmara cloak from Lake Condah c.1872 and a Yorta Yorta cloak from Maiden's Punt, Echuca c. 1853. These two cloaks are treasured by Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta people today and were instrumental in the most recent revival of possum skin cloak making across the south-east.

In 1999, artists Lee Darroch, Vicki Couzens and Treahna Hamm were given the opportunity to view the Lake Condah and Maiden's Punt cloaks for the first time. It was an emotional and inspirational visit. Darroch, a Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung woman recalls ‘a sense of the makers being in the room with us’2. For Couzens, a Gunditjmara woman, ‘being shown the Lake Condah cloak was like being given an idea from the Old People'3. With permission from Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara elders, the artists worked with Museum Victoria to repair the old cloaks and make contemporary replicas, a process that ignited intense interest in possum skin cloaks.

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Victorian Aboriginal elders proudly display their possum skin cloaks during the opening ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
- Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images.

Through their work, the artists became teachers, sharing and helping to return the tradition of cloak making to communities across the south-east. Their most ambitious and high profile project was the 2006 Possum Skin Cloak Project made in collaboration with language groups across Victoria for the opening ceremony for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

A little under twenty years ago there were only a few known possum skin cloaks, today there are approximately 100 cloaks held in communities and used for welcome to country and other ceremonies.

Healing Cloaks

Colonisation had a destructive impact on Aboriginal people and culture in south-east Australia. Loss of culture, language, the dislocation of people and disruption of life continues to have lasting effects. Participating in cultural practice has a powerful healing effect on many communities across the south-east.

When we run a cloak healing workshop with community and we have a group of people from one language group altogether and it is really powerful because the elders will be telling the stories that should go on that cloak. They’re the story tellers and knowledge keepers … and the parents are listening, the young people or teenagers are listening, the little kids are listening. Everyone gets to hear and those stories get put on the cloak and that is really powerful because that’s the Telling5.

Wearing a cloak, being wrapped in culture, can bring out a range of emotions for Aboriginal people. It is a ‘powerful reconnection back to their ancestors’vi, says Darroch, who has hosted many healing workshops as part her work with Banmira Arts, a collective of Aboriginal artists and cultural workers.

Making a Cloak

In 2016, Lee Darroch was commissioned to create a possum skin cloak for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Collection. While making the cloak, Darroch agreed to share her process.

Possums in Australia are a protected species under the provision of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. Cured skins, however, can be legally and ethically sourced from New Zealand, where as an introduced species they are considered an environmental pest. As possums in New Zealand have no natural predators they also grow larger than Australian possums, and so today less skins are needed to make a cloak. The cloak for AIATSIS Collection, for example, is made of 30 skins.

Using a triangular sail maker’s needle and waxed thread the skins are stitched using a herringbone stitch. This stitch is preferred as it sits flat, allowing the ochre for the design to be applied over the top.

Sewing the skins together

Burning the design

Using an electric wood burner machine, fine lines can be burnt into the skins.

Making the Resin

Sap is collected from the Black Wattle tree to make glue which will bind with ground ochre and painted onto the possum skins.

Mixing the Ochre

Ochre from Bidawal country ground into a fine powder to mix with Black Wattle glue.

The AIATSIS Possum Skin Cloak

Designed and created by Lee Darroch a Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung artist, the AIATSIS possum skin cloak tells the story of AIATSIS as a national cultural institution.

Completed in 2017, this is the first time the story of AIATSIS has been represented in an Indigenous cultural form.

The cloak design features canoe forms that navigate shared waterways depicting the linking of different parts of AIATSIS and representing the flow of materials and knowledge between communities and AIATSIS.

Image showing both sides of the AIATSIS Possum Skin Cloak
Image showing both sides of the AIATSIS Possum Skin Cloak

As part of a living and dynamic culture the cloak is the first artistic acquisition intended to be worn by AIATSIS representatives on significant occasions.

Smoking ceremony

Before the cloak entered AIATSIS a smoking ceremony was held to cleanse the newly created cloak, the artist and AIATSIS staff who would be working with the cloak. Smoking ceremonies are significant cultural rituals to cleanse and heal, which use smouldering eucalyptus leaves, usually eucalyptus, to produce smoke. The ceremony at AIATSIS was conducted by Ngunnawal elder Billy Tompkins.

Billy Tompkins and Lee Darroch smoking the cloak
Billy Tompkins and Lee Darroch smoking the cloak
AIATSIS staff embracing the smoking ceremony
AIATSIS staff embracing the smoking ceremony

Handover

Professor Mick Dodson AM, the then AIATSIS Council Chairman accepted the cloak on behalf of AIATSIS at the National Indigenous Research Conference (ANIRC), in 2017.

Professor Mick Dodson AM, Craig Ritchie (not visible) and Lee Darroch display the AIATSIS cloak at ANIRC.
Professor Mick Dodson AM, Craig Ritchie (not visible) and Lee Darroch display the AIATSIS cloak at ANIRC.

The story of AIATSIS in the cloak

The six canoe shapes depicted on the AIATSIS Possum Skin Cloak each tell a different part of the AIATSIS story.
Hover over a shape for it's story.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Possum Skin Cloak, 2016-2017, R02220 ATS 1082

Films, videos and tapes of ceremonies, dance, language and song

The circular forms recognise AIATSIS’ vast, diverse and unique recorded collection of songs, dance, ceremonies, and language from communities across the country.

Research, Aboriginal Studies Press and the Library

Fishing nets are represented by interwoven lines and symbolically reflect AIATSIS role and functions – the harvesting and sharing of knowledge and information about the rich and evolving cultural practices and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Native Title conferences and on-going support for language maintenance and revival work

This bold sinuous line represents the land and language connections between past and present peoples, as well as acknowledging AIATSIS’ role in supporting native title and language revival.

Eaglehawk and Crow letter

In 1974 a group that collectively called themselves Eaglehawk and Crow wrote to the Council demanding that Indigenous people were represented in the organisation and decision making of the Institute. This letter made the then Council re-assess its relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This design shows Eaglehawk feathers morphing into Crow feathers, representing illustrating the transformation of the Institute over the first 50 years.

Ceremony and Lore/Law (3 diamond shapes)

The three diamond shapes at the base of the cloak represent the fundamental importance of law and ceremony to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as the foundation to our identity and being.

Family History Unit and importance of the photographic collection

The basket weave design represents how knowledge of family connections weaves us all back together as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

View a larger version

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Possum Skin Cloak, 2016-2017, R02220 ATS 1082.

References

  1. Vicki Couzens and Lee Darroch. “Possum skin cloaks as a vehicle for healing in Aboriginal communities in the south-east of Australia”. In Urban representations : cultural expression, identity and politics. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2012. 63.
  2. Lee Darroch interviewed by Alana Garwood-Houng at Koori Heritage Trust on the occasion of her exhibition ‘Yenbena biganga, giayimarr biganga: Stitching together the songlines’, 7 October 2016.
  3. Vicki Couzens and Fran Edmonds. “The Reclamation of South-East Australian Aboriginal Arts Practices.” In Crossing cultures: conflict, migration and convergence: the proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art, edited by J. Anderson. 782. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2009.
  4. Lee Darroch interviewed by Alana Garwood-Houng at Koori Heritage Trust on the occasion of her exhibition ‘Yenbena biganga, giayimarr biganga: Stitching together the songlines’, 7 October 2016.
  5. Lee Darroch interviewed by Alana Garwood-Houng at Koori Heritage Trust on the occasion of her exhibition ‘Yenbena biganga, giayimarr biganga: Stitching together the songlines’, 7 October 2016.

AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

We pay our respects to elders past and present.