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Fran Edmonds with Maree Clarke

2 - Unnamed

Maree Clarke’s traditional lands extend from Yorta Yorta and Mutti Mutti to BoonWurrung country. She is from Mildura in northwest Victoria, and began working in her home town as an Aboriginal Educator in 1978. This work experience, although not directly related to her life as an artist, provided a solid base from which to begin her career in supporting and promoting southeast Australian Aboriginal histories, culture and knowledge. This was particularly critical given the history of colonisation in the southeast, where many believed that Aboriginal people throughout the region had been successfully assimilated into European ways of life, with little authentic Aboriginal culture remaining. Maree’s working life as an artist has contested this assumption and has seen her develop as a pivotal figure in the reclamation of southeast Australian Aboriginal art practices, as well as a leader in nurturing and promoting the diversity of contemporary southeast Aboriginal artists.

In response to the 1988 Bicentenary, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement in Australia, moves to increase the limited understandings and knowledge of Indigenous histories throughout the country were initiated by Aboriginal community organisations. Aboriginal art and crafts were a part of this process, as they were increasingly acclaimed locally and internationally. Art and craft practices were also recognised as viable and productive enterprises for Aboriginal communities to own and operate. Maree became involved in these initiatives when the Mildura Aboriginal Cooperative asked her to establish an outlet for local and national Aboriginal art. This resulted in the Aboriginal art and craft shop ‘Kiah Krafts’, which allowed artists and other members of the community to learn about and sell their artworks within an Aboriginal community controlled organisation.

During this period Maree also worked on developing her remarkable jewellery designs. These consisted of necklaces and earrings made from echidna quills and local bush seeds. Her jewellery-making was closely associated with her desire to reinvigorate and promote the continuing culture and heritage of southeast Australian Aboriginal culture. Her endeavours to reclaim her cultural heritage also contested the general public’s misconception that real Aboriginal people and authentic Aboriginal art could only be found in the more remote regions of Australia.

By the early 1990s, Maree and her brother Peter were pivotal figures in the Victorian Aboriginal arts scene, involved in introducing the diverse talents of Indigenous female artists from around the State. In the 1993 exhibition Can’t See for Lookin’ – Koorie Women Artists Educating, Maree and Peter conceptualised and curated a program that emphasised the significance of Aboriginal women artists in maintaining stories and art practices of cultural significance throughout the region. The exhibition drew together 12 artists, all of whom were living in Victoria. Although some had cultural connections to Country outside Victoria, their inclusion in the exhibition reflected Maree’s respect for the influence of these artists in the development of contemporary southeast Australian Aboriginal art. Significantly, Can’t See for Lookin’ told the story of art practices in the southeast from the perspectives of Black women artists, showcasing a range of art styles including jewellery and basket weaving, photography and painting. The accompanying catalogue was the first to have Aboriginal women talking about their art practices, rather than descriptions by white curators or anthropologists. An educational toolkit, designed to accompany the exhibition was also produced in collaboration with the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI) and the Women's Art Register. The exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in June 1993, ensured Maree’s continuing involvement in the promotion of southeast Australian Aboriginal art, including her philosophy that collaborative, cross-cultural working relationships would enable southeast Australian Aboriginal histories to reach a broad and diverse audience.

A growing awareness concerning the need for more inclusive approaches to the telling of Aboriginal stories from Aboriginal perspectives, led the City of Port Phillip (CPP) to establish the Koorie Arts Unit in St Kilda, Melbourne (this was the first Koorie Arts Unit created by Victorian local government to actively promote Indigenous arts and culture). Again Maree was pivotal to the initial success of this program becoming the first Koorie Arts Officer from 1994-1998.

During her time with the CPP, Maree initiated one of the most inspirational exhibitions of Victorian Aboriginal art. In 1996, with her colleagues Kimba Thompson and Len Tregonning, she coordinated and curated the We Iri We Homeborn – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Festival.

The exhibition was a logistical success. Maree, Kimba and Len, in their desire to create an exhibition that revealed the story of Aboriginal art in the State, including work by established and emerging artists, spent many weeks driving around Victoria in a three-tonne truck. They collected over 500 artworks from people, visiting them in their homes and collecting artworks from their walls, wardrobes and from underneath beds. The We Iri We Homeborn exhibition was launched during NAIDOC week in July 1996 and was shown across five sites in central Melbourne. Today it is renowned as the largest collection of southeast Australian Aboriginal artworks in one exhibition and demonstrated the diversity of art practices throughout the region. This included surf boards, silk prints, text work and paintings Significantly, it launched the career of many emerging artists, including Gunditjmara/Kerrae Wurrong artist Vicki Couzens and her colleague Lee Darroch, Yorta Yorta. Both of whom today, alongside Maree, are recognised for their commitment to reinvigorating the traditions associated with the material culture of their Ancestors, especially the creation of possum-skin cloaks.

Maree’s inclusive approach to art practices – where art and culture are inseparable to all other aspects of life – has seen her involved in working with many members of the Aboriginal community, some of whom were imprisoned or were dealing with issues relating to drug and alcohol addiction, as well as assisting Aboriginal women residing in refuge shelters. The capacity for art to enable people to reconnect with their cultural heritage and to assist in their recovery remains central to Maree’s philosophy concerning the power of art to heal and inspire people to positively identify with their Aboriginality, a process that for some continues to be difficult given the ongoing negative effects of colonisation.

During the late 1990s, Maree’s own art practices continued to develop. This period marked the beginning of her exploration of southeast Australian Aboriginal art and its impact on her identity as an Aboriginal artist. Her interest in exploring her own family designs and markings, and the totems connected with her connections to the Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and BoonWurrung language groups were increasingly revealed in her own work as a contemporary southeastern artist.

Between 2004 and 2009 Maree studied and completed a Masters of Arts titled Reflections on Creative Practice, Place and Identity, at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Melbourne. Her research during this time provided her with the opportunity to further enhance her knowledge of her cultural heritage through art practices. As part of her Masters she conducted research into Museum Victoria’s collections, where she endeavoured to find out more about the history and designs of artefacts, including possum-skin cloaks, kangaroo teeth necklaces, headbands and shields. Her research provided the inspiration for a series of art projects that enabled her to reinvigorate the designs of her Ancestors in her contemporary art practice, including the designs on shields and the processes connected with necklace making. This research continues to be significant in providing information to the museum about the material culture of her Ancestors, as many items collected during the colonial period remain inadequately provenanced.

Among the most exciting and inspirational projects to develop from this period of Maree’s artistic career has been her work in relation to reclaiming possum-skin cloaks with fellow artists Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm (Yorta Yorta). The artists through their research of the designs and the practice of cloak-making were involved in a State-wide possum-skin cloak-making project. In 2005 and 2006, the artists were supported by Regional Arts Victoria to take their cloak-making knowledge and skills to 35 of the 38 Language Groups throughout Victoria. This resulted in a number of contemporary cloaks being designed and worn by 35 Elders and community representatives at the closing ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The significance of the project was in the revival not only of cloak-making skills, but it became the first time in over 150 years that possum-skin cloaks had been worn for ceremonial purposes.

More recently Maree’s continuing desire to affirm and reconnect with her cultural heritage has also seen her exhibiting contemporary designs of kangaroo teeth necklaces, along with string headbands, adorned with kangaroo teeth. These items, based on nineteenth-century kangaroo teeth necklaces and headbands held at the Museum of Victoria, were exhibited at Nga Woka, Woka Nganin:I am the land and the land is Me exhibition, at Bunjilaka, Museum Victoria in celebration of NAIDOC week in 2008. This exhibition was the culmination of Maree’s intensive work collecting kangaroo teeth and sinew. This process entailed many trips back to her Country along the Murray River to collect teeth and hide from kangaroo carcases. This also enabled her to emphasise her continuing connections to Country, as well as reinforcing her family and kinship connections, which included passing on knowledge of this practice to her sisters, nieces and nephews, all of whom were involved in the process of sourcing materials from Country for the project. The exhibition also involved Lee Darroch, Vicki Couzens and Vicki’s sister Debra and again emphasised the artists' connections to each other as Aboriginal women.

The latest exhibition of Maree’s work to achieve acclaim has been her creation and installation of kopi skull caps in the exhibition ‘Ritual and Ceremony’ at the Melbourne Museum and being exhibited at ‘Melbourne Now’. These awe-inspiring caps represent Maree’s latest work researching the rituals and ceremonies of her Ancestors. The kopi’s were worn traditionally as mourning caps and were made from gypsm (clay) and ochre. Maree’s reinterpretations of the caps and ceremony have seen her create 38 skull-cap plaster castes of contemporary Aboriginal women’s skulls. These represent the 38 Aboriginal language groups throughout the State. The caps were exhibited in front of eerie white tree boughs, with full-scale, black and white photographs of the women beyond. All were dressed in black with painted white eye masks, reminiscent of traditional ceremonial mourning paint. The women’s stories of survival and resilience, alongside their assertions of pride in their Aboriginality, were slowly unravelled through text across the floor in front of the installation. The creation of these caps continues to inspire Maree and she is currently researching other items of material culture associated with the mourning rituals of her Ancestors.

While the exhibitions and projects discussed here are by no means an exhaustive account of all the work Maree has been involved as an artist and exhibition curator over the years, they represent a slice of her endeavours to establish a broader recognition of southeast Australian Aboriginal culture and to reinforce the continuation of art practices from colonisation until today.

Maree was the Senior Curator and Exhibition Manager at the Koorie Heritage Trust (KHT) in Melbourne for 10 years (an Aboriginal-run organisation and cultural centre that protects, preserves and promotes the living culture of Aboriginal people of south- eastern Australia), Maree continues to curate exhibitions showcasing the development of contemporary southeast Australian Aboriginal art and culture. At the KHT she promoted art within a cultural context, while developing understandings of the diversity of southeast Aboriginal art styles for the general public to learn from and enjoy. In her role as Exhibition Manager, she fostered and inspired emerging Aboriginal artists, as well as young trainee curators.

For Maree, this is essential in continuing her work in the development and rejuvenation of Aboriginal traditions and art practices. Opportunities provided by Maree at the KHT enabled people to connect with art practices and to experience the richness of Aboriginal culture through contemporary artworks. Her work also provides incentives for Aboriginal people to continue developing their own art practices. Through her own meticulous artwork and belief in enhancing the knowledge of her cultural heritage via art, she continues to inspire others to enjoy and participate in experiencing southeast Australian Aboriginal culture from a contemporary perspective. Maree Clarke remains one of the key figures today in the story of southeast Australian Aboriginal art and the practice of cultural reclamation.

Further Reading

Arts Victoria 2004, Deadly Expressions: Profiling Contemporary and Traditional Aboriginal Art from South Eastern Australia, Melbourne, Arts Victoria and the Koori Business Network.

Broome, R. 2005, Aboriginal Victorians: A History Since 1800, Crows Nest, N.S.W., Allen and Unwin.

Cooper, C. 1997, 'Traditional Visual Culture in South-East Australia', Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. A. Sayers·(ed.), Melbourne, Oxford University Press, no., pp.·91-109; 146-148.

Keeler, C. and Couzens, V., (eds) 2010, Meereng-An. This is my Country: The Story of Aboriginal Victoria Told Through Art, Melbourne Koorie Heritage Trust. BPA Print Group

Reynolds, A. J., Couzens, D., Couzens, V., Darroch, L. and Hamm, T. 2005, Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak: The Tooloyn Koortakay Collection in the National Museum of Australia, National Museum of Australia Collection Series, Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press.

Edmonds, F. and Clarke, M. 2009, 'Sort of Like Reading a Map': A Community Report on the History of South-East Australian Aboriginal Art since 1834, Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Darwin.

Faulkhead, S and Berg, J. 2010, 'Power and the Passion' Our Ancestors Return Home, Koorie Heritage Trust Inc. Melbourne.

Brearly, L. 2010, Gulpa Ngawal Indigenous Deep Listening, RMIT University, Melbourne.

© Fran Edmonds and Maree Clarke