Hands across the water: Australian artists join Mount Holyoke students to make traditional Aboriginal art

  • Mount Holyoke student Daisy Boyd learns how to sew a possum-skin cloak as part of a project with visiting artist Maree Clarke from Australia and members of her family. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mitch Mahoney of Australia gives Mount Holyoke College student Nora Sylvester some pointers on sewing a possum pelt, part of a course called “Decolonizing Museums” taught by Professor Sabra Thorner. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mount Holyoke College student Fred Bird works on a possum-skin cloak, part of  project led by Aboriginal artist Maree Clarke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Artist Maree Clarke, left, is working this month with Mount Holyoke College anthropology professor Sabra Thorner and her students on a project to sew a traditional possum-skin cloak used by Indigenous Australians.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Australian artist Mitch Mahoney works with, from left, Mount Holyoke College students Kaia Brem and Madison Stover on the basics of sewing a possum-skin cloak. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  •  Australian artists Molly Mahoney, in center, works with Mount Holyoke College students Nora Sylvester, left, and Meg Bonilla on the basics of sewing a possum-skin cloak. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mount Holyoke Professor Sabra Thorner, in back at left, with Australian artists Maree Clarke, center, and members of Clarke’s family: grandnephew Mitch Mahoney, grandniece Molly Mahoney, at right in back; and niece Kerri Clarke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Australian artist Maree Clarke, center, works with Mount Holyoke College student Sarah Lancaster on the basics of sewing a possum-skin cloak. In the background, student Kaia Brem works with Mitch Mahoney, a grandnephew of Clarke’s. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mount Holyoke College students are working this month with Australian artist Maree Clarke and members of her family to create a possum-skin cloak, a traditional garment worn by Indigenous Australians. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2022

Centuries ago, Aboriginal people in the cooler climates of southeastern Australia made possum-skin cloaks to keep warm in winter and as a means of preserving ties to their communities and land, etching the insides of the garments with decorative art and maps that were designed to tell something of each person’s history.

The cloaks would start small, matching the size of a child, and more pelts would be added as the wearer grew; some were handed down as heirlooms to younger generations, while others would be wrapped around deceased owners at their burials.

But like many other aspects of Aboriginal culture, possum-skin cloaks largely disappeared as Indigenous Australians saw their lives uprooted and their land taken after white settlers moved into Australia beginning in the late 18th century.

Now Maree Clarke, an acclaimed Indigenous artist in Australia, is doing her part to revive the practice of making these cloaks — and this month, she’s enlisted the help of some Mount Holyoke College students to put one together.

It’s a collaboration based on a long-term friendship between Clarke and Mount Holyoke anthropology professor Sabra Thorner, who met Clarke about 15 years ago when Thorner was doing doctoral research in Australia; her work focuses on Australian Indigenous culture and art, in particular the revitalization of Aboriginal arts in southeastern Australia.

That’s what brought Thorner, some 20 Mount Holyoke students, and Clarke and some of her extended family members to a classroom in the “Makerspace” facility in Prospect Hall on campus on a recent evening.

A partially finished cloak lay on a long table; small strips of possum pelts were piled on another table; and on a wall to the rear of the room, a hand-drawn design was mounted on paper, displaying the symbols and figures that would eventually be etched onto the finished cloak.

All around was the buzz of conversation as students took on a variety of tasks, including sewing some of the smaller pelts together as practice for work on the cloak.

“You want to loop [the needle] over that stitch there to the right and bring it around again,” Mitch Mahoney, Maree Clarke’s grandnephew, said to student Nora Sylvester, who was learning to sew two small pelts together. “Then bring it in tight.”

The evening workshop, one of four that Clarke and her family members would oversee in April, was part of Thorner’s spring semester course, “Decolonizing Museums,” which examines ways that Indigenous peoples preserve their cultures, while also looking at how modern museum collections might be reimagined to reflect the effects of colonization on Indigenous societies.

Last year — “In the depths of the pandemic,” as Thorner puts it — she and Clarke also created a Zoom-based class at Mount Holyoke on the anthropology of Indigenous Australia that Thorner says proved very popular.

“It was really like a light in the darkness, and we wanted to build on that,” she noted. “We didn’t want it to be a sort of one-off.”

So for this year, Thorner, with assistance from others on campus, secured a $62,000 grant, funded jointly by the Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies program and the Mellon Foundation, to bring Clarke and her family members (husband Nicholas Hovington, niece Kerri Clarke, grandniece Molly Mahoney, and Mitch Mahoney) to Mount Holyoke for four weeks to oversee a possum cloak workshop as part of Thorner’s current course.

The reason is simple, said Thorne: “Maree has been instrumental in reintroducing the making of these cloaks. She’s highly skilled at going into archives of museums, and using old photos, some text, early drawings and other resources to recreate the process.

“She combines cultural knowledge with this very specific kind of research, and she brings that to all of her art,” Thorner said. “It’s just so impressive.”

Restoring a traditional practice

Clarke, who began her artistic career designing jewelry and then branched into photography, sculpture and other fields, says the knowledge of making possum-skin cloaks “never got completely lost. It lay dormant, like it was sleeping … but it wasn’t widely known. I didn’t know about it when I was growing up.”

In fact, says Clarke, there are only six known historical possum-skin cloaks left in the world (one is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., she notes).

That prompted Clarke, beginning about 16 years ago, to begin her research into making the cloaks, and not just on her own: She enlisted family members, in part to revive a sense of the communal work of original Aboriginal communities in southeastern Australia, in the modern states of Victoria and New South Wales in particular.

She’s since led workshops on the cloaks in Australia, Canada and now the U.S., with a special focus on getting Aboriginal groups in southeast Australia involved with the work.

“I’ve been interested for years in restoring traditional arts and cultural practices and creating a living archive of Aboriginal art,” she said. “It’s all about taking on this knowledge and information and passing it on to the next generation.”

Clarke has won wide recognition in Australia and other parts of the world for that work, including making historic necklaces of kangaroo teeth. A leading Australian museum, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, staged a major retrospective of her art from June 2021 to February of this year — the first retrospective ever in that museum for an Indigenous artist from Victoria, Thorner says.

Family members have been happy to join her in making cloaks.

“I’ve been working on them since I was 16,” said Mitch Mahoney, who’s now 24. “But I’ve been been around the process since I was a little kid, watching and hanging out while it’s done, so I’ve grown up with it.”

At the Mount Holyoke workshop, Molly Harper, a senior majoring in anthropology and art history, was standing alongside Mitch’s sister, Molly Mahoney, as the two separately sewed small pelts together. Harper said she’s interested in Aboriginal culture and history, and she’s also interned at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums in Plymouth.

“This class seemed right up my alley,” she said.

Harper, it turns out, is very handy with a sewing needle — she said she makes many of her own clothes — so she soon “graduated” from working on small practice pelts to sewing larger pelts onto the cloak itself, as Clarke sat watching.

Other students wove bracelets from raffia, another type of Aboriginal art, if they didn’t feel comfortable handling the animal skins.

That work, Thorner wrote in a follow-up email, was part of another goal of the class: to have students engaged with their hands while they chatted so that they could realize “learning doesn’t just happen from a lecturer at a podium, or even from reading books/articles and then talking around a seminar table — but also from sitting around, making-together, listening attentively to each other’s stories, and sharing your own.”

Just outside the classroom, a smaller group used wire-nib pyrography tools — “burners” —  to scorch small designs onto the skins of some of the pelts. It’s a more accessible method than that used for cloaks in the past: using a sharp hand tool fashioned from an animal bone or tooth, or a seashell, to scrape a design onto the skin.

When its designs are completed, the cloak at Mount Holyoke will be finished by painting it primarily with a mix of resin and ochre brought from Australia. Then, Thorner said, Clarke will take a number of “high art” photos of students wearing it in turn; Thorner hopes those and the cloak could then be displayed at the college’s art museum and possibly other area exhibits in the fall.

For her part, Clarke says she believes making possum-skin cloaks not only restores history and connection to Indigenous Australians, it also offers a glimpse of that culture to the whole country, and in doing so helps reckon with the fraught history of white settlement in Australia.

“Our culture was devastated by colonization,” she said. “We lost our land, we were forbidden to speak our languages, we couldn’t keep our cultural practices. But art gives us a really good starting point for talking about those things that are so difficult to talk about.”