DETAIL : Jimmy BAKER 'Katatjita' 2006 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery, � Jimmy Baker
Treahna HAMM | Barmah nurrtja biganga (Barmah Forest Possum Skin Cloak)

Treahna HAMM | Barmah nurrtja biganga (Barmah Forest Possum Skin Cloak)
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HAMM, Treahna
Australia 1965
Barmah nurrtja biganga (Barmah Forest Possum Skin Cloak) 2005
Fibre object
common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) skin pelts, thread and natural earth pigments
94.0 x 162.0
162.0 (h) x 94.0 (w) cm
Purchased 2007
NGA 2007.193
©Treahna Hamm

Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm was born in Melbourne in 1965. Her customary lands are along the Murray River around Echuca, in northern Victoria. From an early age Hamm has been inspired by the Murray: the stories it cleaves to, the ancestors residing there, the animals it harbours. A renowned printmaker for over fifteen years, Hamm has also been active in the resurgence of making biganga (possum-skin cloaks).

Nestled along the cool waters of the Murray River floodplain, Barmah Forest is a site of enormous cultural significance to the Yorta Yorta people. With evidence of ancient middens, canoe trees and burial sites, the forest is testament to thousands of years of Aboriginal tenure and custodianship.[1]Suffused with the intense spirituality of place, on the inside of the immaculately prepared possum-skin cloak, Hamm has depicted the Barmah Forest and the meandering path of the Murray River. Populating this landscape is the Yorta Yorta totem, the long-necked turtle, the broad clawed yabby and the Murray Cod. Materialising from the river are the slender forms of sentinel-like Spirit Beings reaching out tenderly in contrary motion, seemingly guiding and welcoming visitors home. Celebrating this powerful site and its spiritual custodians, Hamm avows her own connection to this country and explores its regenerative possibilities. She also invests the site with intense political significance, eloquently contesting Justice Olney’s patently false comments in the Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim that the ‘tide of history had washed away’ Yorta Yorta people’s connection to their land and that it was ‘not capable of revival’.[2]

The revival of evanescing customary practices has been fundamental in Hamm’s practice, and the art of making cloaks from possum-skin pelts sewn together with kangaroo sinew is rapidly being revitalised and renewed in Victoria and parts of New South Wales. Specific to south-eastern Australia, possum-skin cloaks were ubiquitous quotidian objects used for clan identification, as slings for cradling babies, blankets for warmth and bedding, burial shrouds for the deceased and even making music in ceremony.[3] In 1999, Hamm and fellow Yorta Yorta artist Lee Darroch, with Kirrae Wurrong/Gunditjamara artists Vicki and Debra Couzens, resolved to revive this tradition by reproducing the two nineteenth-century possum-skin cloaks still extant in Australia and held in the collection of Museum Victoria.

The first collaborative biganga that Hamm created was a faithful reproduction of a Yorta Yorta cloak collected from Maiden’s Punt in 1853.[4] Liaising with community representatives, museum staff and Indigenous artists, and poring over historical records, Hamm learnt the arduous craft of cloak making. Synchronous with this technical expertise was the successful identification of the hitherto unknown meanings of many of the designs incised into the original cloak. Hamm’s practice draws heavily not only on listening to the teachings of elders, but also listening to the voices in the land.

In 2001, Hamm and Indigenous elders from around Victoria participated in a weaving workshop facilitated by the celebrated weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie, at Gas Works in Melbourne. Recognising the importance of educating through the stories of the weavings, Hamm’s aim was to create animals and objects evocative of the Murray, revealing the palimpsest of Yorta Yorta history. By giving life to these woven articulations, Hamm gives life to the ‘myriad of stories not yet told in Australian history.’[5] Hamm’s whimsical woven Yabby 2005 demonstrates her command of the coiled bundle technique of Indigenous weaving, and despite the exaggerated size of the crustacean, sensitive detailing is not sacrificed and the artist highlights its irresistible tactility.

Unerring in her commitment to reigniting customary practices, Treahna Hamm’s work, irrespective of the media used, cherishes and replenishes cultural traditions. Yoking together her knowledge of Yorta Yorta history and her intuitive artistic verve, she produces work of aesthetic, cultural and political power. For Hamm, the creation of works of art resonant with cultural memory is a pressing imperative. It inscribes her indelibly in the physical and spiritual worlds of the Yorta Yorta, strengthens cultural associations, and ensures that which was nearly lost is never lost again.

Stephen Gilchrist


[1] Parks Victoria, viewed 10 March 2007,

[2] Quoted in Amanda Jane Reynolds, Wrapped in a possum skin cloak, Canberra: National Museum of Australia, 2005, p.51.

[3] Reynolds, p.14.

[4] Reynolds, p.1.

[5] Interview with Stephen Gilchrist, by email, Saturday 10 March 2007