In a live conversation recorded during Melbourne Design Week 2019 between Yorta Yorta designer Lee Darroch and NGV Curator of Indigenous Art Myles Russell-Cook, Darroch spoke about creating the first possum-skin cloak in the NGV Collection, the community and metaphysical ties that the cloak represents and correlations between traditional Aboriginal design and contemporary design thinking.
Myles Russell-Cook: Instead of the run-of-the-mill acknowledgement, I’d like you to just take a moment and imagine over two thousand generations – mothers and fathers, to daughters and sons – an unbroken lineage connected to the land; the land on which we meet tonight. And even as we sit here above metres of concrete and steel, and beneath our feet runs countless kilometres of cable, we still stand on unceded Aboriginal land. And it’s to the owners of that land that we pay our acknowledgement.
Lee Darroch is a Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung woman who has worked as an artist, designer and a community cultural worker her whole life. Her work is inspired by the need to continue cultural, spiritual and artistic practices in Australia’s South East. Lee runs her own business Gurranyin Arts, and has done for over twenty-three years.
Lee is going to speak with us not just about her business, but also about her design practice, and in particular about her work making the NGV’s first ever acquired possum-skin cloak. Perhaps we could start with you telling us the story of how you first started making possum-skin cloaks.
Lee Darroch: Back in 1999 a group of thirteen Aboriginal artists were invited by the Melbourne Museum to go into their collection and view some of the items, then make prints from that at the Australian Print Workshop. As part of that process, they (Melbourne Museum staff) actually pulled the Lake Condah cloak, which is from 1872, out of its box. You could never see it anywhere other than in the box, covered in tissue paper, or in a glass cabinet under low lighting.
It was quite an amazingly spiritual, strong experience for all of us – we all cried – and then Vicki Couzens, who was with us, said to me afterwards ‘We’ve got to teach cloak making, we have to remake both of the cloaks that are in the Melbourne Museum’. The other cloak in their collection is from my Country; it’s a Yorta Yorta cloak from 1853. We decided to teach cloak making across all of the Country where cloaks were worn. Which was, as it turned out, from Southern Queensland right across to the border with Western Australia and including Tasmania. So we became cloak makers and we remade those two cloaks in the Melbourne Museum.
That was in 1999, but before us many, many generations of Aboriginal people have been cloak makers, back into time immemorial, because possum cloaks were worn by everyone. They were a cultural item, they were highly sacred, they contained everyone’s stories. They were our encyclopaedias, they had cultural sites, they had family information, and most of them had what we call the Waribruk, which means the makers mark.
Everyone made cloaks together; there wasn’t one cloak maker in a community. So the men did the hunting and got the possums, and in that process they had to make axes and smoke possums out; then they had to peg them out on a hardwood board, dry them and cure them from the sun and from the eucalyptus smoke going into the skin so they were really tough.
MRC: These cloaks are extraordinary to think of within the context of contemporary design and the idea that they were sustainable and multi- purpose. There’s a misnomer that all Aboriginal people were nomadic, which just means that they moved around and timed movements to move with seasonal abundances. But if you’re going to move around and you’re going to carry stuff it needs to serve lots of different purposes. So the cloaks were like maps and they obviously also kept you warm. But what other functions could the cloaks have?
LD: People slept under them – a whole family could sleep under a big cloak. For the first cloak that we made, Treahna Hamm and I got permission from the Yorta Yorta Council of Elders and we remade the Yorta Yorta Cloak, which had seventy-one skins in it – it was bigger than a king-size doona and it covered the entire lounge room floor when we laid it out.
MRC: How do you go about starting to make a cloak? I know possums are protected here, for example.
LD: We spoke to Uncle Wally Cooper, because he had made a cloak before us and he had painted his with ochre (it’s in the Koorie Heritage Trust now), and then to Kelly Koumalatsos because she made cloaks. We discovered that possums are protected in Australia but that Australian possums ended up in New Zealand in colonial times, a bit like how we got rabbits from Europe. Now there’s something like eighty million brush-tailed possums in New Zealand. They’re eating their trees and plants and endangering their wildlife. So they’re classified as vermin and are hunted, and we were able to get the ones that were humanely hunted.
We lay out the pelts, cut out the pattern, sew them together and then we do a design, worked out on paper. If it’s working with a community everyone puts in, if it’s just a cloak for a special occasion it depends on the theme. Usually if I’ve got the job they (community) will come up with the story and work with that group on how they want it presented. And then we’ll make bush glue and we teach the kids how to do that, and then we will glue the ochre that we find onto the cloak. We have taught this process to about seventy-eight communities now.
MRC: One of the things that I find so fascinating about the old cloaks is that they were designed to grow with you. How many pelts would typically be in a newborn’s cloak?
LD: What we discovered and I suppose we’ve continued this cultural tradition, is that when babies were tiny they were put on the mother’s back and they were held under a possum cloak by a woven string. When they were a bit older they’d be given one pelt. Then when they were a toddler and walking, you would make about three pelts and that would also tell that child’s story. The cloak would grow as the child grew. I’ve made a few baby pelts that families have now taken on. And as those children grow the families take on the responsibility of the cloak and they get a wood burner and ochre and make their own glue.
My own daughter is going to have a baby in twenty weeks so I’ve cut out and sewn a cloak and now I’ve said to her, you’ve got to do the design because it’s your family story, so she’s drawing. I collected some ochre from home so we’ll put that on, and we’ll make glue together.
MRC: What do you use to stitch the two pelts?
LD: Traditionally it was kangaroo-tail sinew. Treahna and I found when we tried to remake the first cloak, the Yorta Yorta cloak, that the men kept barbequing the kangaroo tails, so there was no sinew. We had about six tails lined up and we lost the lot. So I went down to the horse shop and they sell waxed thread, polyester thread, which was brilliant. It looks just like sinew and works just like sinew and nobody barbequed it. So we use that now, we’ve updated the technology today, in a design sense.
MRC: Before 1999, how long would it have been since cloaks had been made?
LD: It’s sort of like Uncle Henry Atkinson said, the cultural tradition was asleep and we just continued it on. But as far as we know there were no cloaks made for maybe 220 to 250 years, in any community we’ve worked in. We have worked in seventy-eight Aboriginal communities teaching cloak making to communities with a cloak-making tradition. Thousands of people have been taught our method of cloak making and now cloaks are used for all kinds of purposes. They’re put on a coffin at funeral services and they’re taken off. Recently a friend was buried in a cloak, which was a traditional practice – when you died you were buried in your Country.
MRC: Can I ask you to talk a little bit about the specific cloak that you made for the NGV? It’s the first cloak in the Collection and we are now committed to commissioning more cloaks and building that Collection. Can you tell me a little bit about what that means to you and about the particular story that this first cloak tells?
LD: It was a big deal for me and the timing was sort of strange because when I was asked to do it my mother had just died, and I thought: what will I put on it? I thought it could be a chance to tell my parent’s story. So the cloak tells a personal story; it’s like a family story. There are panels – two shield shapes for my father and then two for my mother – telling different parts of the family history and story. And then we made a film about the process of making it. A whole lot of stuff sat with that cloak, not just the cloak itself. Since then I’ve made a few other items that could be put together to make one outfit.
MRC: Can you talk about the way you used different coloured fur, because one of the things I find so interesting about this cloak is that when we installed it (in the exhibition) you said it could be worn either way. There’s the fur side and the fleece side and they both tell different stories. So, what’s the story of the furry side?
LD: On the first side is red/brown possum skins in a horizontal line. And then there’s silver/grey possum skins in a line underneath, then red/brown, then silver/grey. This represents my Country, where my parents are today. Where we’ve grown up there are three rivers, the Yorta Yortas. There’s [Gaiyila] or the Goulburn River, there’s [Tongala] or the Murray River, and there’s Yalooka, which is the Campaspe River. My dad was a big fisherman so he dragged us to all three – most weekends we were there fishing and having a picnic. So I decided to put the rivers on the first side because as well as talking about our Country – which is river Country, we’re river people – it’s also about my family story because that’s where we grew up.
MRC: You also made a document, which you had inside the cloak, and it was called ‘How to care for your cloak’. What to do if your cloak goes through a stressful event, who can wear the cloak, what to say to your cloak when you’re alone. All of these things that a conservation department, which is used to dealing with the physical object, were charged with taking on; to deal with the metaphysical and to have that responsibility as a conservator. LD: Cloaks have sort of got a mind of their own. Because they’ve got so much of the cultural knowledge and information embedded, it’s not just an inanimate thing to us, it’s actually a living thing. At one stage, this is a true story, we made a cloak at the Festival of Pacific Arts; my cousin Maree and I and an Australian contingent of about forty people. When we got back to Australia with the cloak, the plan was for the cloak to go to the Australia Council for the Arts in Sydney but instead it just took off on its own. It just took off and it ended up at the Queensland border and I had trouble getting it back for a while. It wanted to be on display. The cloak ended up visiting all these communities on the way down and all these places where the people who had been involved in making it lived. Finally I got it to Sydney, to the Australia Council. It was a very active cloak.
MRC: I find it fascinating that conservators are used to dealing with the physical risks to an object, but when there have been no cloak makers or no cloaks worn in 200 years, the biggest risk to that object is that it ‘falls asleep’ again. So it is about keeping them associated with culture, and it might get a bit roughed up from being worn but that’s actually part of the life of the object.
LD: That’s what happens. You might lend them to a dance group and they come back all different colours. Or we have small rips, but we do running repairs. Also, if they’ve been used for going on a coffin at a funeral, then we’ll smoke it when we get it back home so that it can be used for, say, a baby naming day, or a community welcome to Country or the elders might request that they want it for special ceremony. Smoking it is a way of cleansing it to us.
MRC: As a sort of living, breathing, growing object, does a cloak ever stop growing? Is your personal cloak still getting bigger?
LD: I’ve got a family cloak that’s got my father’s stories on it. When my dad turned seventy he told me all the family stories about shield trees, canoe trees, and all kinds of stories to do with how many burials there were at certain places: lots and lots of cultural information, all in one night. And I wasn’t allowed to write a word down; I just had to work out how to transcribe it. I stayed up all night after that doing paintings and drawings and sketches and keeping each thing fresh in my mind about what it all meant so that I could redo it. Then I made a cloak, up in New South Wales somewhere. I stayed at Bundanon, which was great because there was no one around. It was boiling hot and it was working with possum fur so no-one wanted to help. And that’s how I made my personal cloak.
This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 17 Jul–Aug 2019.