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Kelp armour, possums and political activism

6 AUGUST 2004

The stories of Aboriginal people from Victoria and Tasmania who are reclaiming lost cultural traditions go on show at the National Museum of Australia on Monday to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

We're Here looks at the revival of Tasmanian culture and political activism through a collection of contemporary indigenous works. Tooloyn Koortakay or Squaring Skins for Rugs traces the journey of four Victorian women who imported possum skins from New Zealand to reproduce possum skin cloaks from the 1800s.

The two new exhibits are being launched in Canberra by Aboriginal filmmaker and playwright Richard Frankland at 11am this Monday, 9 August.

"These stories of creative revival, country and spirituality echo the important themes of our Gallery of First Australians, which continues to resonate with visitors," said National Museum director Craddock Morton.

Curator Amanda Reynolds travelled last year through Tasmania, working with Aboriginal communities to produce works for the exhibition, We're Here - named after a poem by elder Phyllis Pitchford.

On show are traditional crafts with a modern take, including a stunning piece of kelp armour crafted by Vicki West as a comment on Aboriginal resilience and the traditional use of kelp for carrying water. Kangaroo skin drums, paintings, shell necklaces and poetry also reinforce the message that Truganini was not the last Tasmanian Aboriginal.

Tasmania's recent political activism is also highlighted by ATSIC Commissioner Rodney Dillon's wetsuit. Dillon has been fined $12,000 for abalone diving and faces a new court case - but continues to argue for traditional fishing rights and the return of human remains.

Tooloyn Koortakay follows the spiritual journey of four Victorian women who have revived the lost art of making possum skin cloaks, once worn by their own warriors and women before the days of government issued blankets. The Koori women, including two sisters, researched the meaning of the intricate designs which they reproduced on the 50 skins in each cloak.

The two new exhibitions are part of a regular changeover in the National Museum's Gallery of First Australians, which the Carroll Review praised as "uplifting to the visitor's experience and conducive to study and reflection".

NOTE: A series of free talks and workshops by the artists and people featured in the exhibits will be held at the Museum this weekend, 7-8 August.

For interviews, images or more information please contact Public Affairs Director Martin Portus on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or m.portus@nma.gov.au