Today at the Aboriginal Community Elders Services (ACES) in Brunswick East, a group of Elders and respected Aboriginal women revealed the Possum Skin Cloak they collaboratively made under the guidance of artist Maree Clarke. The women shared the physical, spiritual and emotional journey that brought the cloak into being.
The event was the culmination of the Elders Possum Skin Cloak Cultural project led by Djirra and funded by the Dhelk Dja North Metro Action Group. Spanning over eight weeks of weekly workshops, the project saw Djirra’s Koori Women’s Place enabling Elders and respected Aboriginal women to share their personal stories through designs on individual possum skins and work together to sew the skins into a cloak.
‘The Elders Possum Skin Cloak Cultural project is typical of our specialist and holistic approach to tackle the challenges experienced by Aboriginal women,’ said Djirra CEO Antoinette Braybrook. ‘Our Elders coming together to make this possum skin cloak is about strength in Aboriginal women’s business, our cultural way.’
Possum Skin Cloaks are of great cultural significance. They embody and strengthen identity, which can be passed onto family and community. Maree Clarke, a Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta and Boon Wurrung/Wemba Wemba woman, has extensive experience in the cultural regeneration journey of Possum Skin Cloak making. The women were able to connect and share their stories and experiences in a supportive environment.
‘Once the cloak is wrapped around you it’s like being wrapped in the love and strength of everyone that has been part of making it,’ explained artist Maree Clarke. ‘Communities are now using possum skin cloaks in ceremonies, in burials, and in baby naming days. People are now making possum skin cloaks for their children – as they grow, the cloak will grow.’
Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Pat Ockwell explained: ‘The Possum Skin Cloak is very important because when you look at the cloak, you can see all the stories, and through the stories it talks about the past, it talks about the culture. When you put in on, you do feel different, everything comes back to you, your family, your ancestors, your culture. It then becomes your responsibility to pass it on to the next generation.’ Aunty Pat also confessed that she had very sore fingers from stitching the possum skins together. ‘I even dreamt about it,’ she said. ‘And it made me think about the generations of women who did it before and how they used to do it the traditional way.’
The Elders Possum Skin Cloak Cultural project is part of Djirra’s broader early intervention and prevention programs. Djirra has over 17 years of experience working with Aboriginal victim/survivors and communities across Victoria and knows that enhanced connection to culture is a key protective factor and source of strength for Aboriginal women.
‘The experience has brought back a lot of memories for my Mum,’ said Debbie a participant who attended the workshops with her mother. ‘For me, the cloak symbolises our history. It’s not just that it keeps us warm, it really provides protection to us.’ ‘When you wrap yourself in the cloak,’ furthered Leonie, ‘It’s like a hug, something that heals you. I have got one at home and I wrap it around me when I don’t feel good.’ Aunty Fay Carter was the one who suggested to hand print the women’s hands on the skin with mixed ochre: ‘It means that we are all part of this cloak forever’.
The women involved said they would keep being involved in Djirra’s workshops and programs to keep the connection with other Aboriginal women and grow in culture.
‘Drawing on community and women’s cultural strength and resilience for Aboriginal women and children to live free from violence, this is what we do at Djirra,’ concluded Antoinette Braybrook.