Maree Clarke and Mitch Mahoney: Translating Tradition. Canberra Glassworks. Until August 25.
Maree Clarke is a Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba Boonwurrung woman from north-eastern Victoria. Clarke is a mentor to her nephew, the artist Mitch Mahoney, a Boonwurrung and Barkindji man, who has also collaborated in this project.
Clarke is a multi-disciplinary artist who is immersed in the culture of her people. It is what inspires and motivates her life as an Indigenous artist. Her home has become her studio and the hub of her art practice which involves all her wide family. The exhibition includes items that are traditional cultural objects like possum skin textiles, eel traps and kangaroo teeth necklaces. Clarke has researched the skills employed in their construction and translated these skills into a contemporary aesthetic language.
The dazzling eye-catching necklaces are scaled up so that they fall in loops down the height of the gallery wall. By exaggerating the size of these necklaces, Clarke has given them a new contemporary sculptural form. They stand as the artist's affirmative statement that her people are still here. In River Reed Necklace, Clarke has used hollow reeds from the river as links and ornamented them with colourful little tufts of parrot feathers. In its pairing, Glass River Reed Necklace with Cockatoo Feathers, the links are made from translucent glass that brings a new lightness and weightlessness to its looped form.
Clarke uses traditional skills to make other necklaces from kangaroo teeth and sinew scavenged from road kill and coloured with ochres. In one version the kangaroo teeth have been reinterpreted in glass, making a fluid transition between a contemporary use of materials and traditional cultural objects.
Breastplates have come to symbolise the difficult relationships between white colonists and Aboriginal peoples. Clarke has reclaimed the traditional metal version and reinterpreted it in ceramics with Aboriginal designs scooped with a finger into the clay before firing. These are adorned with beautiful feathers from crows and eagles. Clarke has mastered the art of making possum skin rugs and has been active in community groups discovering this traditional art.
Mahoney has used the symbol of a possum in his work Lines on Country by casting the form of a possum in glass and etching it in his own significant family markings.
The outstanding work in the exhibition is Clarke's beautiful glass eel trap Ancestral Memory 2 that inhabits the space in the Smokestack Gallery.
The outstanding work in the exhibition is Clarke's beautiful glass eel trap Ancestral Memory 2 that inhabits the space in the Smokestack Gallery. It relates to another work Clarke has made for the Quad at the University of Melbourne which references the return of eels to their ancestral home. The eel trap is constructed of separate concentric glass sections suspended by thin steel wires. They form a snakelike curve which provides differing viewpoints as the trap appears to be moving as if in flowing water.
Clarke's works exemplify her skill in orchestrating the merging of cultural tradition and contemporary art practice, making a thoughtful comment on both.