20 January - 1 March 2014
For centuries, every Aboriginal baby born in southeastern Australia was wrapped in a possum skin marked with symbols telling the stories of its family and land. The cloak grew with the child. Pelts would be added to explain the their place in the tribe, map boundaries, mark places for good hunting and to record tribal laws. When the person died, the cloak became a burial shroud, depicting their full life story. The Smithsonian’s online magazine described the possum skin cloak as a pictographic dictionary, a geographical map, an autobiography and an educational tool.
Traditionally, cloaks were made in southeastern Australia (from northern New South Wales down to Tasmania and across to the southern areas of South Australia and Western Australia), where there was a cool climate and an abundance of possums. In the 1820s, when Aboriginal people began living on missions, they were no longer permitted to hunt and were given woollen blankets for warmth. The blankets, however, did not provide the same level of waterproof protection and the traditional functions of the cloaks were lost.
As they were used as burial shrouds, there are now only a handful of historic cloaks remaining. A Gunditjmara cloak from Lake Condah and a Yorta Yorta cloak from Maiden's Punt, Echuca, are held in the collection of Museum Victoria. Reproductions of these cloaks are held at the National Museum of Australia. A number of international institutions also hold historic cloaks, including: the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, the British Museum in London and the Pigorini Museum in Rome.
In 1999, a group of Aboriginal women including Melbourne-based Yarrawonga artist Treahna Hamm (Yorta Yorta) and possum women Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta), Vicki and Debra Couzens (Gunditjmara) and Lee Darroch (Yorta Yorta) were the force behind the revitalisation of the cloak-making tradition. They invited the communities in each of Victoria’s 36 language groups to make a cloak for an Elder to wear at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
The Games cloak project has been highly influential, inspiring a possum skin cloak-making movement that is energetic and passionate. The possum women run workshops across Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia to facilitate spiritual healing and to support the continuation of this traditional practice. These cloaks are now used regularly by the communities for Welcome to Country, baby namings, university graduations, funerals, and in schools as an aid to teaching Aboriginal culture.
In 2011, art and social documentary photographer Sarah Rhodes made portraits of eight Victorian Elders at Home and On Country wearing the cloaks they either made for or wore to the opening ceremony. In 2013, AlburyCity commissioned Sarah to add to this series with a portrait of Wiradjuri Elder Nancy Rooke, in the cloak that she wore to the Games. Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm was also photographed in her apology cloak, which became a national icon when, it was worn by Matilda House-Williams, during the historic apology made to the Stolen Generation by Prime Minster Kevin Rudd in 2008.
Home / On Country (2011–2013) celebrates the connection between Aboriginal people and their land. It emphasises how the soil they tread is as much a part of their identity as the tapestry of decorated skins they sew. The pictures, many presented as diptychs, also highlight the challenges in negotiating two cultures.
Culture Victoria (Arts Victoria) supported the making of Home / On Country. More information can be found at