Australian Aboriginal and Canadian Indigenous artists team up to make traditional robes

Ten Indigenous artists have come together from across Canada and Australia to create two traditional robes with the community of Ottawa—a Blackfoot buffalo robe and an Australian Aboriginal possum cloak.

The project hopes to sew together the distinct cultures of the Aboriginal Australians and Canadian Indigenous artists, as well as the non-Indigenous community of Ottawa, who are invited to come and help with the process throughout the three-week period.

An artist talk was held on Nov. 8 in Morisset Library in preparation for the ‘creative sessions,’ which begin on Nov. 15, where members of the public will be able to help in the creation of the robes. The creation process involves cutting and sewing panels, choosing and creating designs, and painting the robes as a community.

Buffalo robes are made of thick, stretched-out hide, with the animal’s fur on one side. Since possums are considerably smaller, a possum cloak is made up of many panels that are sewn together. The robes were most often painted with decorative designs of geometric patterns, religious symbols, winter counts, and rituals records, but most commonly pictographs of warriors and battle scenes.

“It’s the telling of stories, the transfer of knowledge. The warrior would have on their robe a depiction of their battles, and then wore it within the camp—like a walking encyclopedia for the tribe,” said Blackfoot artist “Buffalo Boy” Adrian Stimson. “It’s the regeneration of culture because the children would see their history all around them and they would remember it, and pass it on.”

Historic buffalo robes have become highly sought after, and are found in collections across the world, distant from their places of origins. Their value largely lies in the community in which they were created. Having them displayed in museums means that they become “static things to look at,” as Stimson said, and no longer feed back into the community where they are needed.

Mitch Mahoney, a 20-year-old artist explained his possum coat design, saying,  “The eggs in the centre represent society and the patterns all around them symbolizes what nurtures society. This water pattern represents women because of the connection to the ocean, [and beside it], this earth pattern represents the men, the hardness and those who work under the sun.”

“The idea is that the women and the men who are in our society help protect what is sacred. But here, this pattern is scales—in Australia we have these giant lizards that are armoured and practically bulletproof. That’s the idea of being able to withstand the negative things in life,” said Mahoney.

Creation sessions are open to public participation and will be taking place at Carleton University Art Gallery through Nov. 15–17 and 21–22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with artist talks on Nov. 13 and 20 at 6 p.m. The final product will be on exhibit at the Ottawa Art Gallery in 2018.