Skins Cloak was the outcome of collaboration (2007-2013) with the film team I directed to propose to move the Koori women’s cloak making into the discursive spaces of contemporary art. My analysis of the few exhibitions of the cloaks critiqued the ways they have been hung on the wall or put in vitrines, thereby loosing their vital relationship to their owner’s body. As a response, Skins Cloak rehearsed performances for the camera, enacted by different agents in the cloaks’ story. What follows is an analysis of the process of making the Skins Cloak (2013), a multichannel video installation. In its own construction the video project reveals a process wherein a Koori community comes to understand how a historical object, a cloak made of possum skins that was central to their society, functioned and could function again.
This project is about the ways that strategic essentialism is made useful, not as real or inauthentic, nore as contradiction solved in a conclusion. My method of open-endedness will be used to tell all the different stories I learned in the process of making a film about possum skin cloaks. The film similarly does not select one argument to make but details divergent perspectives on the possum skin cloak’s history and significance.
The sound sources heard in the video are:
1. Synchronized sound from the performances and conversations in the studio in Melbourne in 2000-2011, scripted over the period of 2007-2010
2. Children of the Wasteland, Black and White/Monochrome, 24 minutes, 1953
3. A Symphony of Australian Birds, Simtrax Studios
The Skins Cloak credits are as follows: Directors: Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll with Vicki Couzens, Alex Schweder, Lee Darroch and Maree Clarke
Producers: Arts Victoria Creative Development Fund, Koorie Heritage Trust, and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Cinematography: Kasimir Burgess
Still Photography: Melanie Wigg
Catering, Runner: Alex McLean
Props and Costume: Len Tregonning
Songs: Rob Bundle; Sound Recording: Joel Stern
Editing: Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, Alex Schweder
Performers: Kamahi Djordan King & The Bushette, Lee Darroch, Maree Clarke, Vicki Couzens, Rob Bundle, Yaraan Bundle, Kent Morris, One Fire Aboriginal Dance Group led by John Tye, Anjee Lee Solomon, Robert Bamblett, Aaron Clarke, Evie Clarke, Robert Bamblett Jnr with Anjee Lee Soloman, Manarra Bamblett, Keanu Bundle, Jarrah Bundle, Indie Bundle Bell, Ethan Bundle Bell.
Possum skin cloaks have become the Koories’ symbol of marking kinship and broader regional identity, the way x-ray painting on bark are for the Northern Territory of Australia and dot paintings on canvas are for the central desert. I explore here to what extent political struggles for cultural recognition absorb the historical knowledge that is missing about traditional craft practices, thus allowing new cloaks to be made.
The practice of possum skin making had long ended in the nineteenth century, but today another practice has begun to paint an altogether different image, for instance of death as the lifesize figure of a skeleton on Vicki Couzens’ Massacre Cloak (above). In these cases, cross-cultural issues become subject and part of the objects.
This is a still from the Skins Cloak film, which shows how, beginning with one soft pelt, the newborn Koori baby is wrapped in its possum skin cloak. Vicki Couzens and Lee Darroch tell his stories as they sew. One pelt is sewn to another as the cloak grows with their grandchild’s body; around thirty possum skins will be sewn together to make an adult cloak. In the image, the baby cloak just covers his pampers, which peeks out, plasticy in contrast to the possum fur.
The three women sewing are the core group of elders, who drew thirty of their family members into the Skins Cloak project.These are scenes in which performers refer to colonial pictures to try to understand how the cloak was used, as a babycarrier for instance, and in that and other scenes the cloak was ultimately abandoned because a titanium stroller with straps and clips is safer and easier for the mothers to carry their babies. […]
For more see Art in the Time of Colony, Chapter 1, and a forthcoming exhibition of the multichannel installation with the video material pictured above.