VICKI COUZENS BY EMMA IRVING
Born: 1960 in Warrnambool, Victoria
In the middle of winter 2016, I spend a week at Lake Condah mission, on Gunditjmara country in western Victoria, as part of a university intensive subject. As the train pulls out of Southern Cross station, a brilliant sunrise blazes across the sky and a flying V of pelicans soars overhead. I try to capture the moment with my iPhone camera, but of course the beauty is non-transferrable, forcing me to settle back and soak it in, device-free. The day before had been alive with discussions of colonisation, artistic and cultural appropriation, leaving me unsettled in my whiteness. I had been to this part of Victoria before, but never with this new awareness of whose country I was on.
The first days are a hard, emotional slog for the group. It is uncomfortable to be face-to-face with your white privilege hearing a direct impression of the devastating history of the Gunditjmara people since European invasion. Later the organisers tell us they deliberately structure it that way: the first few days break our spirits and then we are pieced back together on days four and five.
So when Vicki Couzens appears, frank and approachable on the Thursday afternoon, at the site of the very same mission that her grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents had lived, banned from speaking their language and practicing their culture, it was as though hope was being restored. Couzens is a Keeray Woorroong Gunditjmara woman, a prominent multi-media artist and possum-skin-cloak maker. Her preferred description of her practice is ‘creative cultural expression’, rather than artist, as her passion is the reclamation, regeneration and revitalization of cultural knowledge and practices.
Vicki introduces herself with a family tree. She is a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother, a grandmother. She is part of a long line that stretches back, with deep roots in Gunditjmara country. Stretching the other way, out forward, the future, is the family made up of her own five daughters and their children. These precious faces are displayed on a slideshow. The family is an artistic dynasty, all five daughters are artists and dancers, and there was a painter uncle too. I can’t think of a time I’ve been at a university talk and family has been so central. Imagine a lecturer starting semester not by listing their publications, but by saying, this is me, this is where I come from, this is why I do what I do.
Her appearance: long, silver hair, black t-shirt and jeans, blundstones, gives an impression of pragmatism that is also evident in her attitude toward what she does, telling us that for her “art is about working in community rather than just making a pretty picture”.
Indeed, her artistic practice is underpinned by the vital work of reviving culture, language and traditions. This idea that there is so much going on that is deeper than surface level, the unseen, is something that Vicki speaks and writes about often. In an ABC radio interview from 2011, she says “the thing that I get, sort of, frustrated with is the lack of awareness and understanding that, you know, mainstream (culture) has of Country, and where they’re living… you get people coming to Tower Hill, locals and tourists, and they don’t necessarily have that deeper sense, because they think they own their houses and their land, but it’s the other way round, the Country owns us”.
She talks about her father’s work in publishing a Gunditjmara dictionary twenty years ago. She smiled almost gleefully as she reminded us that they tried to extinguish language, but it is still here, there are people working to restore it, singing it, speaking it. Vicki speaks proudly of her father, and has said “Dad is my Elder, my mentor and my inspiration – he is a gentle, humble, wise man and I aspire to be more like him.”It is only at the time of writing this piece that I discovered he passed away less than a month earlier. She says that as a teenager, her parents valued education very highly, so they weren’t that thrilled when she dropped out of high school. This detail thrills me though, I identify with people who have forged their own path. Vicki now has plenty of study under her belt with a Masters done and PhD at RMIT in the works.
Vicki shows us slides of her extensive body of work, which includes sculptures, paintings, installations. She has created numerous public art projects across Victoria, both solo and in collaboration with other artists. One of which is Birrarung Wilam, a sculpture and sound installation just behind Federation Square at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne, created in collaboration with two other artists, Lee Darroch and Treahna Ham. With this project the artists were asked to celebrate all the Aboriginal community groups of Victoria.
There is a little white cross on a highway near Port Fairy, Vicki tells us. It says ‘George Watmore – speared by blacks 1842’. You can drive right past it. This little memorial for a white man that has remained, while so many Aboriginal lives taken or dispossessed during colonisation have been left unrecognised. The Gunditjmara people fought back, they didn’t surrender. In 2010, Vicki created works responding to this, superimposing the same white cross over photographs of country that were known to be massacre sites and memorialising Gunditjmara names. Alongside these images was a burial possum skin cloak with a skeleton design inscribed. This deeply provocative work is presented to us in Vicki’s matter of fact manner, and somehow that amplifies its power.
In 1999, Vicki was attending a workshop at the Melbourne Museum with some other Indigenous artists. It was here that she was shown the Lake Condah possum skin cloak, collected in 1872. Vicki felt the presence of the Old People there with her in the room. This profound spiritual experience came with a message: she knew that she must learn to make the possum skin cloaks again, and share the knowledge with other communities who had once had this tradition. This moment led to 35 communities creating possum skin cloaks, which were worn at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in 2006 – the largest gathering of Aboriginal people in possum skin cloaks in 150 years. The cloaks are used in ceremony, as wrappings at birth and death, and provide a powerful link to culture, belonging and pride.
Later, I find a video on youtube where Vicki talks about spending time on her grandmother’s country, getting to know it and waiting for messages to come to her, from an encounter with place, an animal. A recurring image was that of the ‘unseen’. So much of what country has to offer is missed by those without knowledge, whether it is bush food or medicines, or the significance of particular sites to the local Indigenous community. Vicki used this theme when designing a possum skin cloak based on her grandmother’s country.
As she finishes up her talk Vicki says we can all take the cloaks out and have a go trying them on, “take some selfies in them”, she suggests with a smile.
Wrapping that garment around my shoulders, hefty but soft and luxurious, alive with meaning, is every bit as powerful as promised. To be invited to do so by a descendant of the people who wore those cloaks for thousands of years on the very country on which we now stand, taking selfies, is magical, restorative and an experience I will never forget.
Australia Council for the Arts. “Vicki Couzens artist profile”. http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-arts/national-indigenous-arts-awards/artist-stories/(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Centre for Indigenous Story. “Vicki Couzens”. http://indigenousstory.com.au/works/93/vicki-couzens/(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Couzens, Vicki. “Kooramook yakeen: possum dreaming”. Culture Victoria. http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/possum-skin-cloaks/kooramook-yakeen-possum-dreaming-by-vicki-couzens/(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Couzens, Vicki, “ (Masters Thesis, RMIT university) https://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/eserv/rmit:10223/Couzens.pdf(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Couzens, Vicki. “Ponponpoorramook”. Culture Victoria.
http://www.cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/meerreeng-an-here-is-my-country/ponponpoorramook/ (Accessed 29 October 2016)
Couzens, Vicki. “Vicki Couzens artist profile”. Footscray Community Arts Centre. http://footscrayarts.com/profile/vicki-couzens/(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Cuthbertson, Debbie. “Vicki Couzens awarded Australia Council National Indigenous Art Award fellowship”. The Sydney Morning Herald website. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/vicki-couzens-awarded-australia-council-national-indigenous-art-award-fellowship-20160526-gp46gg.html(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Gibbins, Helen. “Possum Skins Cloaks: tradition, continuity and change”. State Library of Victoria.http://www3.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-85/t1-g-t10.html(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Filmmaker unknown. “My Grandmother’s Country – Vicki Couzens”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZwEB_fB3PU(Accessed 29 October 2016)
Nets Victoria. “Vicki Couzens”. http://netsvictoria.org.au/artist/vicki-couzens/(Accessed 29 October 2016)
The Lowitja Institute. “'Koorramook Yakeeneeyt’ (Possum Dreaming): Cloaks, cultural traditions and wellbeing in Aboriginal communities”.
http://www.lowitja.org.au/vicki-couzens-sc(Accessed 29 October 2016)