Possum skin cloaks

Capes of Good Hope
The Art of creating cloaks made of possum skins was almost lost. Now these ancient skills are being revived, using modern tools.

Dawn Townsend drapes the long possum skin cloak gently over Sharon Edgar-Jones’ shoulders. The cloak, hand sewn from dozens of possum skins, is decorated with a skeleton and separate images for women, men and the old people, and painted with red ochre that has faded to a purple sheen.
Sharon straightens her back, her fine profile lifts slightly and an ancient cast falls across her face. She is with the group of Aboriginal cloak makers standing under the shelter of an old Moreton Bay fig in Newcastle, but she is also in the presence of unseen others. She has sorry business: in three days time she must bury a beloved aunt, and today she is wearing the mourning cloak. Afterwards she explains she felt very empowered. “It felt like my mother and my grandmother were with me.”
The maker of the cloak is Vicki Couzens, a Keerray Woorrong woman from western  Victoria. She says that, in her thirteen years as a possum skin cloak maker and teacher, she has seen the cloaks bring healing. “People, when they put one on, they just change. It seems inadequate to describe it as strengthening people’s identity and spirit, but that is what they are doing. They are very powerful.”
Traditionally, Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia wore cloaks stitched together from possum skins. Most people had their own cloaks that grew from small three-skin baby blankets to perhaps a 50 pelt adult cloak. The skins were incised and painted with images of clan and country. People used the cloaks throughout their lives, both daily for warmth and comfort, as well as in ritual and ceremony. At the end of life, people were buried wrapped in their cloak.
The possum skin cloak making revival began in 1999. Vicki and Lee Darroch, a Yorta Yorta woman, were attending a printmaking workshop for Aboriginal artists that included a visit to the Melbourne Museum. “They took us out the back to look at the collection,” Vicki says. “We were looking at the different objects, baskets, really beautiful stuff. Then they brought out the Lake Condah possum skin cloak. Lake Condah is where my grandmother is from, down near Heywood in Victoria.
“I was just moved to tears, and everyone else was. There was just this sense that when we were looking, the ancestors came and we were enfolded by this group of old people.”
The Museum has two cloaks. The other, known as the Maiden’s punt or Echuca cloak, is from Lee’s country. “I said to Lee ‘we have to make possum cloaks, we have to make copies of those old cloaks, and we have to teach the rest of the communities’. That idea didn’t come from within, it came from the old people to me and to us as a vision,” Vicki explains.
Their first cloaks were reproductions, now housed in the National Museum.
The modern revival of possum skin cloak making really took off in the lead up to the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. Vicki suggested possum skin cloaks be made by each of the 35 language groups, to be worn by elders at the opening of the Games.
Internationally acclaimed artist Maree Clarke, a Mutti Mutti woman from the Murray River, joined the team, along with Lee and Maree’s cousin, Treahna Hamm. Vicki says there was a huge transference of knowledge, along with a growth in pride and culture as elders brought their stories and young people their skills and enthusiasm to the community projects.
The Games saw the largest gathering of Aboriginal elders wearing traditional cloaks in over 150 years. Those cloaks are now used in their communities for events like Welcome to Country, naming ceremonies, births, deaths and burials, as well as providing comfort and healing.
Today, with funding from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, Vicki, Lee and Maree run possum skin cloak healing workshops with resource co-ordinator Amanda Reynolds.
It is a carefully-considered process, deeply respectful of tradition, a shared community experience that draws on the knowledge of elders and their stories, but is also open to the reality of contemporary indigenous lives.
The original plan was to replicate the old ways. The first problem is that it is not legal to kill possums in south-eastern Australia. That was overcome by importing skins from New Zealand where imported Australian possums have become a pest.
Vicki says the traditional cloaks were incised with a sharpened mussel shell or a possum jaw tool, “but when you incise the skins that we had, you couldn’t see the lines, they are so soft”. Treahna had seen a kangaroo cloak with patterns burnt into the skins using a pokerwork method, so they adopted that technique instead.
Early plans to use kangaroo sinews for stitching were soon scuttled. “We discovered that you have to chew it, and we went right off the idea,” Lee laughs. With advice from Lee’s boat builder husband and a local horse shop they settled on sailmaker needles and waxed thread.
Last December [2011] the cloak makers were revisiting Newcastle, holding a second workshop for Awabakal and Wonnarua and Lake Macquarie people. Laurie Perry, CEO of the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation, and his brother Lee, brought the cloak the group had sewn together at the last workshop.
In the middle of the Wonnarua cloak stands Baiame, a significant figure in the creation story of the region, holding out his arms. Above, an eagle hawk spreads its wings. Lee Perry draws, while Laurie burns in designs on the men’s side of the cloak. Lee Perry thinks the cloak will be something to be proud of. “It has been nearly 200 years since the tribes have actually done a cloak, the past coming forward, and going back again. It is just packed”.
At the next table Dawn works with her partner Neil Goolmeer and her daughter, artist  Cherie Johnson who has brought along her children, Gabriella, two, and Tobias, one.
Dawn and Cherie both contributed to the Lake Macquarie cloak. Today they sew the skins for a baby cloak. “I would probably make one of these for each one of my grandkids”, Dawn says.  For her, it about cultural revival and sharing. “That is part of the culture, sitting together and talking and laughing and laughing about something that is really quite painful.”
Cherie describes sharing the experience of cloak making with her mother as ‘priceless’. “We, as a community, are hungry for our culture. We are reclaiming our culture, we are claiming the knowledge and piecing it together.” But she is also very much a modern young woman, and that is reflected in her cloak making. “I am influenced by my tradition, I am influenced by my culture but when I create art it is always contemporary,” she explains.
Sharon, sitting next to Dawn, is also making a baby cloak. She draws an eagle. “He is the totem who encompasses all our mob. His wings will be outstretched so the wings will wrap around bub.”
In the next room Sharon’s two younger children, Ruby, 8, and Jed, 6, learn to mix ochre and make possum skin dancing belts and armbands. “They are making me proud today,“ she says quietly.
At the end of the table, Jacquie Allen and Kathryn Piper pore over images of a nineteenth century cloak, believed to have been collected in the Hunter Valley and now  held in the Smithsonian in the US. They study the fine lines, the repeated close diamond shapes of a cloak not seen in the area for perhaps 200 years.
Later, as Jacquie handles a possum skin, she says ” I do feel the healing within myself when I am working on it, when I am touching it, when I am making it.”
Lee says cloak making is returning a deeply sacred object to the community and putting on the cloak is deeply healing. “People cry and that is what is needed, to release some of their  pain and loss and mourning, not being able to do it with grandmothers and aunties and not knowing about it earlier, or just happy because they are getting it back. It is a really powerful healing.”
Maree points out cloak making is also reviving cultural practices, particularly the use of traditional designs. She loves seeing people put on the cloak for the first time. “You could almost see the power of the cloak once they put it on. Jacquie’s face took on this ancient look. Sharon just stood up and looked as proud as punch and you could just see the energy in these women. The power it gave them was just incredible.”
In 1999 there were just five known cloaks, all in museums. Today there are at least 80, and soon Vicki estimates there will be 100. The possum skin cloak making tradition has been revived.  Lee is only partly joking when she says, “we will probably be making cloaks til we die and get buried in one. It is a lifelong spiritual journey for us.”

pics by Sarah  Rhodes

Australian Geographic, May June 2012 (108) pp 78 -85

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