Maree Clarke has been an important culture worker in Melbourne for decades. She is from the Mutti Mutti, Yorta Yorta Wamba Wamba and Boon Wurrung. I’ve been looking for the right word to describe what Clarke does and I think that ‘culture worker’ says it all.
Some people might think that ‘culture worker’ sounds clinical and neutral, without the romance that the word ‘art’ brings with it. Culture is a broader word, a wider set that includes art and a lot more. It doesn’t restrict, as a narrow definition of ‘art’ would, what kind of objects or actions should be included.
Clarke calls herself a cultural ‘revivifier’. Working to resuscitate and revive a culture is a heroic effort given that it had been on the brink of cultural genocide. Bring a culture back to life is not a terminal goal, it is an act of cultivation and growth as Clarke reclaims, re-thinks, re-imagines and re-interprets this culture.
I first encountered her work in public art in the city and Footscray (she was one of the artists in both Scar by the Yarra and Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom in Footscray). More recently I saw Clarke’s “Ancestral Memory” exhibition at University of Melbourne Old Quad.
In this exhibition Clarke explores the waterways of the Kulin Nation. The exhibition directly referencing the waterways of the university and the eels that still traverse them; next to the quad used to be a small lake and a creek. It is a contrast the sandstone 1856 building in its gothic revival style with cloisters around the quadrangle to create the impression of medieval England.
Two sets of elements hang over a large circular mirror each with their wall of interpretive information; evidence of ownership of land and a welcome to country. There is a huge glass sculpture in the form of a segmented eel trap at one end. At the other woven eel traps and necklaces of feathers and river reeds. The materials for the necklaces are local; the feathers from road kill and the reeds from the Maribanong river. The eel traps represent the aquaculture and ownership of the Kulin Nation, necklaces a welcome to country and the mirrors the reflective still water.
In 2018 I saw a lot of necklaces by her but I still don’t think of Clarke as a jeweller. I saw her necklaces at Craft Galleries, at Deakin Uni Campus in Docklands, and a whole display of her work in “Blak Design Matters” exhibition at the Koorie Heritage Trust. These long powerful necklaces that would be worth paying attention to for their cultural significance alone. Clarke has been studying the necklaces in the Melbourne Museum’s collection and creating her own versions. Thung-ung Coorang (Kangaroo teeth necklace) in 3D-printed form. (For more on Clarke see The Design Files.)
The scale of the eel traps and the length necklaces in “Ancestral Memory” is both an aspect of contemporary art and acts to emphasise the continued presence of Indigenous people.
Although “Ancestral Memory” is curated and created by Clarke it is acknowledged that it is a work in collaboration with cultural advisor Jefa Greenaway, several weavers and numerous glass workers. Culture work is always a group project.