Over the years, Maree Clarke’s practice has ranged across jewellery, sculpture, photography, printmaking and video. Clarke is a Yorta Yorta / Wamba Wamba / Mutti Mutti / Boonwurrung woman who grew up in regional Victoria and now lives in Melbourne, and a large part of her work involves reclaiming cultural knowledge, such as making kangaroo teeth necklaces and possum skin cloaks.
Clarke spoke to Jane O’Sullivan about her drive to tell First Nations stories through art, in whatever form that takes, and her major show at the National Gallery of Victoria, Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories, which surveys 30 years of her diverse practice.
Jane O’Sullivan: You’ve worked across many mediums, finding different ways to tell stories through art. You seem to have such a clear sense of purpose, but where does that story start? What was your path to art?
Maree Clarke: I didn’t go to art school or even finish high school. I pretty much wagged as often as I could. I would catch the bus to school and when I got there, I would cut through the school and meet the other black kids down the channel… When I was in my teens, I used to just about turn myself inside out wondering what my purpose in life was.
Then I was an Aboriginal Educator at the local primary school from 1978 to 1987. And after that, the local Aboriginal Corporation wanted to set up an Aboriginal art shop in Mildura and my brother Peter, who was a brilliant artist, started making jewellery for the shop. He gave me my first pair of earrings and it took me about 15 goes before I was happy with the end design, to actually show people and sell. And basically, I haven’t stopped making jewellery since.
JO’S: Community figures strongly in this survey. Can you tell me about the Ritual and Ceremony photographic portraits from 2013? It’s such a large body of work.
MC: I was invited to be part of an exhibition around life, death and spiritually, curated by Bindi Cole, at the Art Centre in Melbourne in 2010. I didn’t know anything about our traditional mourning practices so I went about researching and talking to my friend Jill Antonie from Mildura. Jill told me about the Kopi mourning caps and found that both men and women would wear gypsum on their heads weighing up to seven kilograms. This would be worn for a few weeks or until the Kopi fell off your head. They were called Widows Caps or Kopi mourning caps. I wanted to make 38 caps to represent the 38 tribes of Victoria.
I decided to work with women in the first iteration of the work and then went on to work with about 48 men. For both pieces, I worked at the Koorie Heritage Trust when it was based in King Street in Melbourne. I talked to the participants about the process of making the cap and what it was used for.
You could sometimes see a transformation in their eyes when I was painting them up and some people got quite emotional. It was a pretty powerful process. I then got their stories of loss, sorrow, and mourning. People talked about loss of land, language, and cultural practices. Some people couldn’t talk to me at all about their mourning because it was still too raw for them to talk about, so I included images of their loved ones that had passed to represent them and their stories.
JO’S: A big part of your practice is reclaiming and honouring cultural knowledge. Can you tell me about the possum skin cloak that was commissioned for this NGV exhibition?
MC: Well, I love to super-size things. Most cloaks are like 30 skins, mine is 63. I was going to make a 60-pelt cloak, because I had that significant birthday this year, but it was square so by adding 3 more pelts, it became a rectangle that I could work with.
I have basically mapped countries my family and I are connected to, including Ireland and the United Kingdom. That’s painted on the skin-side. It’s ochre. I’ve had this very small amount of green ochre that I’ve had for 11 years, just waiting for the perfect thing to use it for. It’s from Queensland. Pamela Croft, one of the women in mourning, gave me the green ochre and I’ve been holding onto it since 2010.
JO’S: The eel traps, Ancestral Memory I & II, 2019, are stunningly beautiful. Why did you decide to make them in glass?
MC: I was asked to make a work for the opening of the Old Quad at Melbourne University. I knew that there used to be a lake there, filled with fish and eels. Well, they drained the lake. But the eels still come back. They can sometimes be seen poking their heads through the drainpipes, so I decided to make a glass eel trap. I wanted that watery feel when you looked through it.
JO’S: The NGV exhibition will also include historical material from Museums Victoria, which sounds really powerful in light of the ideas around cultural honouring and respect in your work. What have you chosen to include?
MC: We’re borrowing a Kopi mourning cap, a possum skin cloak and a kangaroo teeth necklace from Museums Victoria. For me, it’s about continuation of culture and cultural practices.
I had the privilege to work with 84 Aboriginal men and women for the Ritual and Ceremony exhibition to make their Kopi mourning caps and get their stories of loss, sorrow and mourning and it was a pretty incredible thing to do. It’s a very emotional piece. And for me, the process of making is just as important as the end product. With a lot of my works, I like to include my family and friends. That way they are all learning about culture, practices, knowledge, and respect.
Most of that work was made in my little backyard in Yarraville. The cloak was mainly painted in my tiny loungeroom on four tiny trestle tables. I basically live in my studio, my whole house and backyard is dedicated to making memories, art, and passing on cultural knowledge and creative art practice.
JO’S: The last time we spoke, when Piinpi was about to open, you had a million things on with public art commissions, collaborative projects, and the Metro Tunnel Commission. Is that often how you work, across lots of things at once?
MC: I like to get up early and have a couple of coffees while checking emails, and think about my day and how it will unfold. I’m always trying to think about new ways to tell stories through art and what that might look like using different materials and mediums. It’s all a bit busy in my head sometimes.
I feel that what I can achieve in a year, most people would take a couple of years to develop. I like to be busy. And so long as you have a great team around you to support you and your practice, you can do anything. I don’t plan to slow down anytime soon. There are still too many stories to be told.