INTERVIEW: MAREE CLARKE BY OLIVIA POLONI
Yorta Yorta/Wamba Wamba/Mutti Mutti/Boonwurrung artist, designer and curator Maree Clarke is a celebrated leader in reviving south-east Australian Aboriginal art and practices through her own artmaking and workshops. Maree’s multimedia practice includes photography, glass, jewellery and mixed-media installation, and she often collaborates with community in the making or as subjects to create the work. Likewise, her public programming work is steeped in community collaboration and the passing on of Aboriginal knowledge.
In 2015 Maree Clarke joined the curatorial team at Wyndham Art Gallery, co-curating exhibitions with megan evans. Maree and megan already had a longstanding relationship collaborating on artmaking, curatorial thinking and art programming. Their symbiotic working relationship and collaborative approach quickly translated into the exhibitions and programs at Wyndham Art Gallery. As co-curators, they prioritised ‘representation’ in all its forms and, in turn, created some truly groundbreaking exhibitions.
Maree left the role in 2019 to dedicate herself to her art practice.
OLIVIA POLONI: In this publication, David Cross writes, ‘[The curators] have built a method for exhibition-making that brings together a commitment to radical alterity or difference and an ethos that art should function as an instrument for change …’ Was this a conscious aim for you during your time at Wyndham Art Gallery?
MARIE CLARKE: When I first started out at the gallery, there weren’t a lot of people of colour so me being there brought a different audience into the gallery and into the space. Being physically visible was so important. Once our office was changed from being hidden in a little passageway to where it is now – our working space is visible to the public through large windows – we were approachable. So, we could directly start engaging with the public and talk to them about the work that was on exhibition. This was so important as some people didn’t even know they could come into the space. That’s pretty crazy.
Was this a reason you were drawn to working at the gallery alongside dr megan evans as co-curator? And what curatorial work had you done before?
Before working at Wyndham, I’d worked with a lot of different artists and on travelling exhibitions. When I was at the City of Port Phillip [Victoria], I worked on the first big visual arts festival called We Iri We Homeborn Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Festival in 1996. It held five exhibitions around Melbourne and was co-curated by me, Kimba Thompson and Len Tregonning. I had been curator at the Koorie Heritage Trust for nearly ten years, and curated shows with Chris Pascoe for the Adult Multicultural Education Services’ 50th anniversary in 2001.
In 2015, a couple of weeks before Zanele Muholi’s exhibition VISUAL ACTIVISM was to open, megan had a family crisis that she had to attend to, so I came in at the last minute as a contractor to help install the exhibition. At that time, megan had been trying to get another position created at the gallery and it was like ‘watch this space’, because soon enough there was three-day-a-week position. Because I’m a practising artist, I didn’t want to work any more than that – it was perfect.
I love that we were able to create some amazing shows out there. I love the whole planning stage of developing exhibition programs and seeing all the new audiences that you could bring in. I think what would have been the next step for Wyndham Art Gallery, we were hoping, was taking over the old Melbourne Water Western Treatment Plant offices building which was a beautiful building and a gallery waiting to happen. There we could have been creating an amazing space for local artists and craft people, as well as organising travelling exhibitions.
The RACE exhibition and public program in 2016 is a timestamp in Wyndham’s creative and cultural history. Do you have any specific memories from this time that you would like to share?
One of my most favourite memories was having all the different people and cultures from the community reading the Declaration of Human Rights in their own language. It was just absolutely brilliant. Watching people wait until it was their turn to go into the room to be recorded and seeing these connections being made by people who didn’t know each other. People from different backgrounds and cultures just coming together to read the Declaration of Human Rights. That was pretty amazing. It was really moving. We did have a grand plan of having it happen across the road in the piazza and having the kids read sections, but it was brilliant the way it unfolded anyway.
You are a practising artist and well known within the community as someone who collaborates with and mentors the younger generation. Did these connections come through your work at the gallery?
I hope so. We had interns [working with us] and that was pretty amazing and fantastic. There was one intern in particular, who we ended up connecting with and continuing a friendship with afterwards.
Your physical presence in the gallery is sorely missed but your insight and years of contribution are still very much present. What do you think your legacy is at Wyndham Art Gallery?
I love spaces that bring lots of different people and cultures together. One of the amazing things about art is that you can tell those really tough stories that are really hard to verbalise. Art is another way of engaging people to tell those stories – whatever they may be – and I think Wyndham does that really well. I helped to create that.
In 2018 we had a weaving exhibition with Lee Darroch, Vicky Kinai, Kui Taukilo and Donna Blackall. As part of the public programming, we worked with the Wyndham Community Learning Centre who worked with the Asian diaspora community to come and do workshops with Aboriginal artists and the wider community. That was another pretty memorable thing I was involved in.
Do you have any final highlights from your time at the gallery?
Bringing lots of Aboriginal artists into that space was pretty fantastic. It was pretty incredible working with megan and helping to contribute to her vision to grow the gallery. The RACE exhibition in particular was a pretty special show.