RMIT PhD candidate Vicki Couzens has been awarded an Australia Council Fellowship at the 9th National Indigenous Arts awards presentation during Reconciliation Week 2016.
A multimedia artist and community cultural development teacher, Couzens was presented with the award at the Sydney Opera House by 2015 fellowship recipient Brenda Croft.
A member of the Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong Indigenous Australian group from western Victoria, Couzens has distinguished herself with her interdisciplinary artwork, or as she prefers, “creative cultural expression” - painting, installation, visual arts, printmaking, mixed media, performing arts, language, ceremony and teaching.
“I am humbled and deeply thankful to those who decided I was worthy of the enormous honour of this fellowship,” Couzens said.
“I feel a great responsibility and gratitude to my elders, without whom I know nothing. I look forward to extending and challenging my creativity, to creating new individual works, and in particular, to significantly explore writing in my mother tongue.
“I want to leave a legacy for my family, community and future generations,” she added.
Couzens is best known for her central role in the revival of the possum skin cloak-making tradition, which began in Victoria and is now established across south-eastern Australia. She is undertaking a PhD at RMIT’s School of Media and Communication on possum cloaks, and on the impact on Indigenous communities of the contemporary cultural reclamation and revival journey.
In 1999, Couzens underwent a transformative experience after seeing a 19th century Lake Condah possum skin cloak from the Melbourne Museum’s cultural collection.
“It was a call from the ancestors to re-awaken the songlines of the Possum Cloak Story, and to return the cloaks to our people to reclaim, regenerate, revitalise and remember,” she said.
“The Lake Condah cloak is from my grandmother’s country in Victoria’s western districts. Much later I learned that my great-grandfather was one of six men from the Lake Condah mission who made the cloak.”
Couzens is now jointly developing a research project to chronicle the Possum Cloak Story. Over the 16 years of her possum cloak journey, her artistic works have proliferated. Some feature in the collections of the National Museum and National Gallery, and in 2005 she co-created the birrarung wilam installation featured on the banks of the Yarra River behind Melbourne’s Federation Square.
Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer AO said he looked forward each year to paying tribute to eminent Indigenous artists through the National Indigenous Arts awards, the highest acknowledgement an Australian Indigenous artist can achieve for their artistic achievements.
“The awards put a spotlight on the significant contribution Indigenous artists make to the artistic vibrancy and cultural life of Australia,” he said. “They encourage us to appreciate and learn about the diverse cultures and ancient stories of our first peoples through the broad range of work created across Australia.”
The Fellowship provides financial support totalling $80,000 over two years to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist to enable them to undertake a major creative project or program in their art form.
Story: Pauline Charleston