HOME / ON COUNTRY (2013)


For centuries, every Aboriginal baby born in South-eastern 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 child’s place in the tribe, map boundaries, places for good hunting and mark tribal laws. When the person died, the cloak became a burial shroud, depicting a full life story. The possum skin cloak is a pictographic dictionary, a geographical map, an autobiography and an education tool.


In this story, Sarah Rhodes photographs eight Victorian Elders and one from New South Wales at Home and On Country in cloaks that they either made or wore at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony.


Home / On Country (2011 - 2013) emphasises Aboriginal people’s connection to their land. How the soil they tread is as much part of their identity as the tapestry of decorated skins they sew.  The pictures, presented as diptychs, also highlight the challenges in negotiating two cultures.


Yarrawonga artist Treahna Hamm (Yorta Yorta) and the Possum Women Maree Clarke (Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta), Vicki Couzens (Gunditjmara) and Lee Darroch (Yorta Yorta) were the force behind the revitalisation of the cloak-making tradition for the Games. They invited the communities in each of Victoria’s 36 language groups to make a cloak for an Elder to wear in the opening ceremony. These cloaks are now regularly used by the communities for Welcome to Country, baby namings, university graduations and funerals; and in schools as a teaching aid about Aboriginal culture.


The Games cloak project has been highly influential, inspiring a possum skin cloak-making movement full of energy and passion. 


The Possum Women run workshops across Victoria, NSW and South Australia to facilitate spiritual healing and to support the continuation of this traditional practice.


Traditionally, cloaks were made in South-eastern Australia (from northern NSW down to Tasmania and across to the southern areas of South Australia and West Australia), where there was a cool climate and abundance of possums. From the 1820s, when Aboriginal people started living on missions, they were no longer able to hunt and were given blankets for warmth. The blankets, however, did not provide the same level of waterproof protection as the cloaks.


There are few original cloaks remaining. A Gunditjmara cloak from Lake Condah and a Yorta Yorta cloak from Maiden's Punt, Echuca, are held in Museum Victoria's collection. Reproductions of these cloaks are held at the National Museum of Australia.


A number of international institutions also hold original cloaks, including: the Smithsonian Institute (Washington DC), the Museum of Ethnology (Berlin) and the British Museum (London).


Culture Victoria (Arts Victoria) supported the making of Home / On Country. More information can be found on cv.vic.gov.au/stories/possum-skin-cloaks/

Elders wearing possum skin cloaks. Thunder Point, Warrnambool, Gunditjmara Country.
Esther Kirby is passionate about keeping her culture alive. She consults on Koorie culture and heritage for native title and works closely with young people in her community. She was quoted in The Australian on March 22, 2011 after shaking Prince William’
Esther Kirby is passionate about keeping her culture alive. She consults on Koorie culture and heritage for native title and works closely with young people in her community. She was quoted in The Australian on March 22, 2011 after shaking Prince William’


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Work must not be reproduced without permission from the artist Sarah Rhodes. The artist must be credited at all times.
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