Last week, Northern Health hosted the first possum skin workshop, open to both staff and the community.
Once an everyday item for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia, possum skin cloaks were worn for warmth, used as baby carriers, coverings at night, drums in ceremony and for burial. Incised and painted with ochre, possum skin cloaks also mapped the identity of their owner, holding stories of clan and Country.
Today, possum skin cloaks are of continuing importance to Aboriginal people across the south-east of Australia, with new uses and contemporary ways of making.
Joanne Quinn from the Koori Maternity Service explained the idea for the workshop came because the team saw the Treaty Possum Skin Cloak that Gina, the workshop facilitator and artist helped create.
“We knew the community out here would love to have a possum skin cloak and baby wrap. That is why we have invited the community to work on the skins with us,” she explained.
Joanne and her team are looking at creating a healing cloak for patients and families to use and a baby wrap for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies and families to use.
“It’s not just for Koori Maternity Service patients, but for the whole hospital. People in palliative care will be able to use it and it’s very traditional for babies to have the possum skin wrap when they are born,” she explained.
The artist and facilitator, Gina Bundle is a Yuin/Monaro woman and the Program Coordinator of Badjurr-Bulok Wilam – meaning ‘Home of many women’ in the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri Peoples – at the Royal Women’s Hospital.
She explained how back in 2006, her sister-in-law and mentor, Vicki Couzens, along with a group of women, revitalised the making of the traditional possum skin cloaks, sharing the craft and the story of cloak making.
“Today is my very first solo possum skin cloak making workshop. It has been really wonderful and people and interested in the process. I use lots of colours, and the skins are full of imagery. It’s a mix of traditional and contemporary cloaks,” she said.
Gina explained how the design part is the most important part of the cloak, as the the images tell the story.
“That is why I like to do the images first and then sow the parts together. A lot of people say they can’t draw – but they can. Once all these cloaks are done, we will lay them on the table and put them together like a jigsaw, telling our story through the drawings and images,” she explained.
These workshops are open for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“It is though these workshops that we are learning about the beautiful culture we have here. Healing cloaks are different than personal or aesthetic cloaks and I am glad these be usable cloaks for patients, on display here at Northern Health,” she said.
At the invitation of the Victorian Treaty Advancement Commission, Gina facilitated the Treaty Possum Skin Cloak. The cloak is a symbol for the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria and path to treaty and ushered in the historic first meeting of the Assembly at Victoria’s Parliament in December 2019.
“It was 72 skins big, and had 288 artworks. We travelled all around Victoria and people drew images,” she added.
Featured image (left to right): Joanne Quinn, Seneka Bowen, Kate Dawson, Gina Bundle (facilitator), Jakara Elian, Maja O’Connor.
Additional sources: https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/possum-skin-cloak and https://www.vic.gov.au/gina-bundle