Maree Clarke travels home to Mildura – a large town in Victoria’s oft-forgotten north-west – regularly by car, stopping whenever she can along the way. Here, by the side of the road, she pulls teeth from the various dead kangaroos that adorn the highway, the immediate reality of Maree’s practice a striking contrast to the definitive design of her final creations.
Maree uses the teeth, alongside echidna quills and crow feathers that she also collects, in her carefully crafted neck pieces, headbands and cloaks. Most recently she has begun to combine organic materials with new and different technologies, exploring the ‘relationship between modernity and the past’; her latest neckpieces feature gold plating, supersizing and 3D-printed forms, alongside the teeth, quills and feathers.
Meditation on the relationship between tradition and modernity is a central element of Maree’s oeuvre. Her cultural practice as a Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta and Boon Wurrung/Wemba Wemba woman is enhanced by new technologies, ensuring that her practice is contemporary and current, and the next step in the continuum that is the oldest living culture in the world.
‘That’s what my practice is all about, it’s not about me, it’s about passing it all on,’ says Maree, clear and articulate about her life’s work. She wants to ensure that traditional cultural practices, used to create adornments and clothing, continue as contemporary culture.
She takes her nieces and nephews along with her for the long drive home, sharing her art with them. Through her work with the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, she inspires other young people to take up art and cultural practice for themselves. Maree tells them, ‘you can take anything from this and make it your own.’
Maree’s legacy is apparent in the changing nature of the national Indigenous arts sector. Over the last 30 years, she has seen south-eastern Aboriginal arts come to the fore, and has had a strong hand in ensuring this visibility. In the late 1980s, she instigated support for local Aboriginal arts in Mildura; she is also credited as one of a handful of cultural practitioners pivotal in the reclamation and maintenance of local Koorie cultural practices.
Importantly, Maree has been central to bringing south-east Aboriginal arts to prominence within the national arts sector. In the mid-1990s, she mounted several initiatives that gave the likes of Reko Rennie and Bindi Cole some of their first shows, and in speaking about the work of fellow south-east Aboriginal artists and cultural practitioners her passion is evident: ‘[a lot of our art is] based on traditional designs from our own areas…[in the beginning] I saw the markings on our shields – it gave me goosebumps.’
Maree Clarke’s photographic works are currently on display as part of Colony: Frontier Wars, one of two exhibitions exploring Australia’s colonial history alongside Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861 at NGV Australia, Federation Square.
Clarke’s new jewellery collection Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) is available in 3D-printed form exclusively at the NGV design store at NGV International and NGV Australia.
A special thank you to Hannah Presley for connecting us with Eugenia Flynn, and several other amazing writers who will be contributing to this column over the coming months.