Maree Clarke amid her exhibition Ritual and Ceremony
Image: James Henry
Source: Museum Victoria
Maree Clarke is a Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta and Boon Wurrung/Wemba Wemba woman from north-east Victoria.
Maree’s working life as an artist has seen her develop as a pivotal figure in the reclamation of south-east Australian Aboriginal art practices and as a leader in nurturing and promoting the diversity of contemporary south-east Aboriginal artists.
In 1988 Maree established an outlet for local and national Aboriginal art through the Mildura Aboriginal Cooperative that allowed artists and other community members to learn and sell their artworks within an Aboriginal community controlled organisation.
During this period Maree also worked on developing her remarkable jewellery designs. Her endeavours to reclaim her cultural heritage also contested the general public’s misconception that real Aboriginal people and authentic Aboriginal art could only be found in the more remote regions of Australia.
By the early 1990s, Maree was a pivotal figure in the Victorian Aboriginal arts scene, involved in introducing the diverse talents of Indigenous artists from around the State and in 1994 City of Port Phillip established the Koorie Arts Unit in St Kilda where Maree was pivotal to the initial success of this program, becoming the first Koorie Arts Officer from 1994–1998.
In 1996, Maree initiated one of the most inspirational exhibitions of Victorian Aboriginal art co-coordinating and co-curating the We Iri We Homeborn – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Festival.
The We Iri We Homeborn is renowned as the largest collection of south-east Australian Aboriginal artworks in one exhibition and demonstrated the diversity of art practices throughout Victoria.
During late 1990s Maree’s own art practices continued to develop. This period marked the beginning of her exploration of south-east Australian Aboriginal art and its impact on her identity as an Aboriginal artist. Her interest in exploring her own family designs and markings, and the totems connected with her links to the Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti, Wemba Wemba and Boon Wurrung language groups were increasingly revealed in her own work.
Between 2004 and 2009 Maree studied and completed a Masters of Arts titled Reflections on Creative Practice, Place & Identity, RMIT University, Melbourne. This research continues to be significant in providing information to Melbourne Museum about the material culture of her Ancestors.
Among the most inspirational projects to develop from this period of Maree’s artistic career has been her work in reclaiming possum skin cloaks with fellow Koorie artists Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm.
The artists, through their research of the designs and the practice of cloak making, were involved in a state wide, possum skin cloak project which produced contemporary designed cloaks being worn by thirty-five Elders and community representatives at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The significance of the project was in the revival of cloak making skills and the first time in over 150 years that possum skin cloaks had been worn for ceremonial purposes.
More recently Maree’s continuing desire to affirm and reconnect with her cultural heritage has also seen her exhibiting contemporary designs of kangaroo teeth necklaces, along with string headbands, adorned with kangaroo teeth. These items, based on nineteenth century kangaroo teeth necklaces and headbands held at Melbourne Museum, were exhibited at Nga Woka, Woka Nganin: I am the land and the land is me. This exhibition enabled Maree to emphasise her continuing connections to Country as well as reinforcing her family and kinship connections which included passing on knowledge of this practice to her family.
The capacity for art to enable people to reconnect with their cultural heritage and to assist in their recovery remains central to Maree’s philosophy concerning the power of art to heal and inspire people to positively identify with their Aboriginality.
Today, in her role as the Senior Curator and Exhibition Manager at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne, Maree continues to curate exhibitions showcasing the development of contemporary south-east Australian Aboriginal art and culture and remains one of the key figures in the story of south-east Australian Aboriginal art and the practice of cultural reclamation.