Vicki Couzens has worked for more than 25 years to revive the Aboriginal tradition of making opossum skin capes.
Artist and researcher Gunditjmara has crafted a new cape especially for the Naadohbii: To Draw Water exhibition at the Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre.
Naadohbii brings together First Nations artwork from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, to examine Indigenous peoples’ relationships with water.
“Sometimes we make them for a ceremony, sometimes we make them for people to be buried, sometimes they’re gift capes, honor capes,” Dr. Couzens told AAP.
A joint project of Museums Victoria, Pataka Art + Museum and Winnipeg Art Gallery, the title comes from the Anishinaabemowin language of Winnipeg, Canada.
“The works in the exhibition generously share the strength of ongoing cultural practices and the connection to water and ask the public to reflect on their relationship to this important part of our lands and how we must all work for the respect,” Yorta Yorta woman and Museums Victoria said curator Kimberley Moulton.
The exhibition features works by more than 20 artists, including a paperbark canoe made by master craftsman Uncle Rex Greeno from Tasmania, which is part of the Melbourne Museum’s collection and is on display for the first time.
Uncle Rex Greeno and Dr. Couzens both worked for decades to revive their respective ancient practices, the latter re-enacting cloakmaking by talking to elders and examining museum collections.
Thanks in large part to his efforts, opossum-skin capes even featured at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where they were worn by elders from Victoria’s 37 language groups.
“Opossum cloaks have flourished and become part of our culture and lived experience across South East Australia, so it’s a fairly recent revitalization of cultural knowledge and practice,” a- she declared.
Dr. Couzens’ garment specially designed for Naadohbii tells a dream story of an eel (kooyang) from his country in the Western District of Victoria, about the animal’s journey from inland waters to the Coral Sea and back.
Despite the coat’s message of native Australia, it is actually made from skins imported from New Zealand where opossums are a pest.
“In this crazy, mixed up world, we kind of help, I like to think, redeem skins and clear them out,” she said.
Capes can take weeks or months to prepare and sew by hand, using kangaroo sinew the traditional sewing material.
Naadohbii: To Draw Water lasts until March 2023.