Vicki Couzens. Australia Council for the Arts – National Indigenous Arts Awards 2016.
Possum Cloak Maker, Interdisciplinary Artist
Possum cloak maker and multi-media artist Vicki Couzens was presented with an Australia Council Fellowship at the 9th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Friday, 27 May 2016.
A member of the Keerray Wooroong language group of the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, Vicki was born in 1960 in Warrnambool, living on Country until the family relocated to Geelong in 1973. She lived and worked in Geelong, Melbourne and East Gippsland before returning to Warrnambool in 1999. In 2009 Vicki moved back to Melbourne for seven years and now lives in the Stony Rises, part of her home Country, in Victoria’s western districts.
Vicki has distinguished herself with her interdisciplinary artwork, or as she prefers, ‘creative cultural expression’ – painting, installation, visual arts, printmaking, mixed media, performing arts, language, ceremony and teaching – but is best known for her central role in the revival of the possum skin cloak making tradition which began in Victoria and is now established across south-eastern Australia.
In 1999, Vicki attended a printmaking workshop with Lee Darroch and other Aboriginal artists from across Victoria, hosted by the Melbourne Museum. They were shown various cultural objects from the Museum’s collection as inspiration for creating copper plate etchings. Staff showed the group the historic nineteenth-century Lake Condah possum skin cloak and it was during this encounter that Vicki underwent a profound and transformative experience.
Vicki experienced a vision, which she said was given to her by the makers of the cloak.
“It was a call from the Ancestors to re-awaken the songlines of Possum Cloak Story, to return the cloaks to our People, to reclaim, regenerate, revitalise and remember – that is the Old Peoples’ story and our journey is to carry this vision forward,” Vicki said.
“The Lake Condah cloak is from my grandmother’s Country in Victoria’s western districts, near Heywood. Much later I learned that six men from six families from Lake Condah mission made the cloak and my great-grandfather was one of them,” Vicki said.
Melbourne Museum holds two historic cloaks – the Lake Condah, and the Maiden’s Punt, or Yorta Yorta Cloak. Vicki spoke to Yorta Yorta artist Lee Darroch about the vision she had experienced and it was from the sharing of this that Lee and Vicki joined together, along with Vicki’s sister Debra and Lee’s cousin and fellow Victorian Indigenous artist Treanha Hamm, to set out to create reproductions of the two old cloaks; produce a body of contemporary artistic responses through prints and drawings; build an ‘old’ and ‘new’ cloak making toolkit; and harvest knowledge about the protocols, songs and ceremonies surrounding cloaks. This body of work – Tooloyn Koorrtakay: Squaring Skins for Rugs – marked the beginning of the contemporary revitalisation of the Possum Cloak Story.
Amanda Reynolds was so impressed with Tooloyn Koorrtakay: Squaring Skins for Rugs she acquired it in 2003 as curator of the National Museum of Australia and it remains part of their permanent collection. Amanda left the National Museum of Australia in 2008, and has worked ever since with Vicki and Lee as an independent curator on the Possum Cloak Story.
Following on from this first body of work, Vicki served as the Artistic Director of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Possum Cloak Project, involving 35 communities across Victoria. She collaborated with artists Lee Darroch, Maree Clark and Treanha Hamm on this project.
“We worked with local artists, community and traditional owner groups to create possum skin cloaks to be worn at the Opening Ceremony. This project sparked a major cultural phenomenon, and ignited a renaissance of a cultural knowledge and practice whose continuance was jeopardised by colonisation. It brought together the largest gathering of Aboriginal people in cloaks in over 150 years to represent their People; clans and communities – all there in unity. It was a healing journey for all, with an all-encompassing sense of belonging, togetherness, pride and strengthening of identity,” Vicki said.
Wolithiga Elder and recently retired Monash University Professor, Henry Atkinson, wore a cloak at the Opening Ceremony and commends the work of Vicki, Lee and fellow artists.
“We’ve got to keep that tradition alive for the younger generations, for their self-esteem and to help them be proud of who they are and where they come from,” Henry Atkinson said.
Today the Possum Cloak Story continues its revival journey across south-eastern Australia and is deeply rooted in ritual, with cloaks used at Welcome To Country ceremonies, community events in Aboriginal and mainstream communities, as well as everyday uses such as bedding and baby carriers, naming ceremonies, births, deaths and burials.
Vicki is undertaking a PhD at RMIT on possum cloaks and the story of the contemporary cultural reclamation and revival journey and its impact on Indigenous communities. She is also jointly developing a research project to chronicle the Possum Cloak Story.
Over the past 16 years of her possum cloak journey, Vicki’s artistic works have proliferated. Some feature in the collections of the National Museum and National Gallery. In 2005, Vicki co-created the birrarung wilam installation featured on the banks of the Yarra River behind Melbourne’s Federation Square, with Treanha Hamm and Lee Darroch.More public art installations followed, including collaborations with renowned Victorian artist Maree Clark.
Vicki has worked in the Aboriginal community for more than 35 years in various roles, serving on the Boards of Banmirra Aboriginal Arts, Victorian Housing, Koorie Heritage Trust and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL). She was Language Advisor and worked with the curatorial team on the First Peoples Exhibition at Melbourne Museum and has taught extensively across Victoria and south-eastern Australia.
She is considered a Senior Knowledge Holder of Language and Possum Cloak Story. Vicki is proud that her father, senior Gunditjmara Elder Ivan Couzens, served Aboriginal communities for more than 45 years at local, state and national levels, and established the first Dictionary of the Gunditjmara Languages in 1996. Vicki said: “Dad is my Elder, my mentor and my inspiration – he is a gentle, humble, wise man and I aspire to be more like him.”
Vicki says her Fellowship work is titled yunggama (to give and receive) and is “a cross-art form body of interconnected creative cultural expressions exploring women’s business.”
Yunggama will have four primary elements: a soundscape comprising song and/or spoken word in her language; projection comprising dance and movement; made cultural objects such as possum cloaks, weavings, adornment objects and tools; and a publication-illustrated anthology of her writings. These elements will combine to depict specific themes of family cultural stories: women’s business – birth, life, children, kinship; identity – belonging, cultural rebirthing, language, song and dance.
“I’m humbled and deeply thankful to those that decided I was worthy of the enormous honour of this Fellowship. I feel a great responsibility and gratitude to my Elders and Old People without whom I know nothing. I look forward to having real time, mental space and clarity, and spiritual and cultural space to extend and challenge my creativity, to create new individual works and in particular, significantly explore writing in my mother tongue. I want to leave a legacy for my family, community and future generations,” Vicki said.