Hurstville Museum & Gallery recently got to chat to Sarah Rhodes, the photographer behind the current main gallery exhibition Home/On Country, toured by MAMA, Albury. This exhibition features indigenous Elders wearing their language group’s possum skin cloaks and examines the ideas of cultural identity and connection to Country.
When and how were you first introduced to possum skin cloaks?
I was working at the Powerhouse Museum telling stories about collections online in 2010. I came across the cloak in the Powerhouse collection and then discovered MAMA’s (Murray Art Museum Albury) rich collection of cloaks. Soon after, I had a dream I was photographing an Elder at the Sydney Opera House wearing the cloak and decided I needed to find out more about the cloaks and show the important role they play in strengthening connection to culture.
How long have you been a photographer? What is it about this medium that you are drawn to?
I was dissuaded from studying photography at high school and so I followed my peers and enrolled in a liberal studies degree at Sydney University. While I was there, I found the Tin Sheds Gallery photography workshops. After university, I worked at Tim Goodman’s fine art auction house. Rex Dupain used to photograph the catalogue in return for the rent of his studio. Meeting Rex and visiting his studio gave me the final push to fall in love with photography. I left my job and enrolled in photography at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. I have tried to escape photography several times for a more mainstream career but I see the world in pictures. All of my ideas I need to translate through images and so it is very frustrating trying to do anything else but make pictures. My first degree majored in psychology so I feel photography is a tool to tell stories about people’s lives and satisfy my curiosity about the world.
When photographing these Aboriginal Elders in their homes and on Country, did you select the scene/backdrop, or was this chosen by the Elder?
I wasn’t sure how I would approach the project initially so I tried a few different things. The first Elder I photographed was Aunty Esther Kirby and we played around with different backdrops –– inside her home, outside her home, on Country. I invited each Elder to take me to their special place on Country. During the editing process, I noticed that there were very different emotions felt standing in their home and on Country. I decided the work needed to be about the challenge of negotiating two cultures.
Home/On Country is an exhibition of black and white photographs. Is there a reason why you chose black and white and not colour?
Initially I tried both colour and black and white. Colour was too distracting. It lacked the power to command a viewer’s attention. Black and white conveyed the emotion much better as it simplified the image. I love black and white images but was concerned that I didn’t want to the work to be anthropological but at the same time I wanted to honor the tradition of the cloaks.
For you, what was the most rewarding part of this photographic journey?
I feel proud that the Elders always use these images when they are involved in public events. Vicki Couzens led the revitalisation of the possum skin cloak movement. She used the picture of her father Uncle Ivan Couzens on the front of his funeral service booklet. Other Elders have used their images when interviewed in Vatican Ethnological Museum and British Museum catalogues. The show has been touring for three years and has reached people on a cultural and artistic level. The pictures have a life beyond this show.
Home/On Country will be on display until Thursday 13 April 2017.
This Q & A article was first published in the LMG Current Magazine, March – June 2017, p . 20.