Viewing an object, or a practice, away from its elemental home can be both destabilizing and illuminating. Attuned to the ultimate confluence that this kind of disruption often provides, Aboriginal artist Maree Clarke has made a career of accentuating contradiction. Ritual is culturally universal but Clarke, by employing a variety of artistic methodologies, is able to reclaim and represent her people’s specific and unique histories. Her first retrospective is now on view at NGV Australia.

Mutti Mutti/Wamba Wamba/Yorta Yorta/Boonwurrung born 1961, Jack Charles, 2012; printed 2018 inkjet print, (58.0 × 58.0 cm) (image) (70.0 × 70.0 cm) (sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2018 © Maree Clarke

Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist and curator Maree Clark was born in Swan Hill, a region in northwestern Victoria. She lives in Melbourne, but it is her ancestral connections that feed her practice of using present-day technologies and contemporary art methods to reclaim and affirm the ritual customs, language and heritage of her people. Hers is a unifying approach to art making, where the conflation of tradition and artistic license serve to both reflect upon and revive what she sees as the loss of Aboriginal ritual.

Clarke’s work is multidisciplinary, with pieces that include printmaking, sculpture, jewellery, fashion, and video. She was widely recognized for the eighty-four photographic portraits of Aboriginal men and women in her 2011 exhibition, Ritual and Ceremony. These photos represent “the mourning practices of Aboriginal people along the Murray/Darling rivers,” stated Clarke, where the participants were able to “share their stories of loss, sorrow, and mourning.” Their reflections are included as text alongside their images.

The first retrospective of Clarke’s work, Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories, is now on view at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia through 3 October. In addition to the Ritual and Ceremony portraits that are both inside the space and projected onto the building’s exterior, the exhibition includes other works from Clarke’s thirty-year career, as well as loans from Museums Victoria’s collection of southeastern Aboriginal cultural material.

Installation view of Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories open from 25 June – 3 October 2021 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne. Photo: Tom Ross

Installation view of Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories open from 25 June – 3 October 2021 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne. Photo: Tom Ross

Installation view of Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories open from 25 June – 3 October 2021 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne. Photo: Tom Ross

The inclusion of these comparative pieces is important to the understanding of Clarke’s work, as her research into the Aboriginal holdings of museums in Australia and abroad is of a particular interest to her. By showcasing the materials that were collected in previous and decidedly less benevolent times, Clarke is able to present her audience with a contradiction, as well as with some substantive food for thought as to how collecting entities regarded southeastern Aboriginal artists and their material culture. Much of this material was amassed with the intention of “capturing” Aboriginal culture before it became—as was popularly expected—extinct. Through this correlative spotlight, Clarke shepherds her history into the present day, engaging and reclaiming these collections as complicated inspirations for her contemporary art and design.

In 2019 Clarke worked with Canberra Glassworks to produce two suspended glass sculptures, Ancestral Memory I and Ancestral Memory II. These pieces are installed in the current exhibition and reference the migratory paths that short-finned eels take from their breeding grounds in the Coral Sea to the sewers and underground waterways beneath Melbourne. Along their journey, the eels metamorphose from larvae into clear and tubular “glass eels” before taking on their final pigmented form. Southeastern Aboriginal people have traditionally observed and interacted with eels as signs of seasonal change as well as for sources of food.

Physicalized in clear glass, Clarke’s Ancestral Memory I and II draw attention to the fragility of both Aboriginal stories and the wildlife ecologies of these sacred animals. As with much of her work, these pieces displace historical practices from their temporal and physical contexts, pushing audiences to think about how Indigenous knowledge can shape the future. “As Aboriginal people we are connected to place, yet we may live away from place; we are connected to stories and people from the past, yet they continue to resonate in our lives today.”

Much of Clarke’s work is made from and about memory, whether it is a personal memory—of sleeping as a child in a suitcase on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River or visiting her nan’s house—or a cultural memory inscribed in the landscape, written on Country. Ancestral memories, echoes across time, are found in forgotten objects and in new renditions of ancient crafts. These memories forge and reinforce connections that are at the heart of contemporary Indigenous art.

Maree Clarke, artist and designer working in her studio. Photo: Julian Kingma

Maree Clarke, artist and designer working in her studio. Photo: Julian Kingma

Maree Clarke: Ancestral Memories, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, until 6 February, 2022 ngv.vic.gov.au