Artist Stories

Yvonne Koolmatrie

Nooky / Corey Webster

Vicki Couzens

Yvonne Koolmatrie
Weaver

Internationally renowned Ngarrindjeri weaver, Yvonne Koolmatrie, will be presented with the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award for 2016 at the 9th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Friday, 27 May.

Yvonne Koolmatrie was born in 1944 in Wudinna, a small town in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, and grew up in the state’s Coorong wetlands and Riverland districts.

Yvonne’s remarkable career as a master weaver began in 1982 after attending a one-day workshop in Meningie in South Australia presented by elder and weaver Dorothy Kartinyeri - Aunty Dory - thought to be one of the last people practising the ancient coiled bundle weaving technique. 

Aunty Dory taught several participants, some of whom were male, to harvest the sedge grass and river rushes; which plants to choose; how to work the fibres into a form suitable for weaving; and the coiled bundle technique.  She passed away not long after the workshop, but had delivered the knowledge of this beautiful art form into safe hands.

Yvonne mastered the traditional weaving technique and began to experiment with her own ‘stitch’. She developed a distinctive style, started to research in museums to look further afield than the forms and objects she had been weaving, and began to infuse her work with Dreaming narratives such as the River Bunyip, or Mulgewanki (moolyawonk) and the Rainbow Serpent.

With her first exhibition in 1987, Yvonne’s art has been widely showcased over four decades around metropolitan and regional Australia including at 'Beyond The Pale’ (2000 Adelaide Biennale); the 'Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition’ (Art Gallery of NSW); ‘Tarnanthi’ (2015 Art Gallery of SA); and 'Off Shore: Onsite’ (Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre), which brought together Indigenous visual artists from around Australia and the world as part of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ 'Festival of the Dreaming’ in 2000.

Yvonne also has works held in collections of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan; South Australian Museum; National Museum of Australia; Art Gallery of Western Australia; National Gallery of Victoria; and National Gallery of Australia.

In 1997, Yvonne was selected, along with artists Judy Watson and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale with the exhibition ‘fluent’, an experience she describes as ‘a career highlight’.

Playing a pivotal role in the revival of a near-lost art, Yvonne has worked tirelessly to share her knowledge and has run numerous workshops to teach the rush weaving technique.  She is also teaching her four year-old granddaughter, Lurline, determined the keep the practice alive.

“Ngarrindjeri weaving should be passed down to the next generation, to preserve the culture. Weaving is vital to Ngarrindjeri culture, it sustains us. This is very important to me. In 1982, I saw an article that stated that our weaving culture was extinct. It motivated me to prove otherwise as today it is still very much alive,” Yvonne said.  

Yvonne’s son Chris Koolmatrie, who learned to weave from his mother said: “She’s a very humble person, but I’m so glad she’s being acknowledged because she has shone the brightest light on this art of weaving and helped people to rediscover it.”

Stephen Gilchrist, Associate Lecturer of Indigenous Art at the University of Sydney, said: “With her inventive and whimsical sculptural forms in fibre, Yvonne Koolmatrie has almost single-handedly rewritten the language of weaving. Her unwavering commitment to honour the spirit of the Ngarrindjeri is echoed in every coiled stitch.”

Yvonne credits the river as her inspiration, a sign of her deep connection to country.

She thought her weaving career was over after the passing in 2012 of her partner of more than 20 years, Duncan Shadrack Daniels, of the Wakka Wakka clan and Murri Peoples of Cherbourg in Queensland.

“Dunc was a wonderful support to me, especially with my weaving.  Not just encouraging me, but he helped me in practical ways, like gathering my materials from the river, because I don’t drive.  When he passed, I thought that might be the finish of my art,” Yvonne said.

Yvonne said that the kindness and support of friends inspired her to keep weaving, noting that Sydney-based installation artist Jonathan Jones and his partner, art writer and editor Genevieve O’Callaghan, and Gabriella Roy, Director of the Aboriginal & Pacific Art Gallery travelled to South Australia several times to help her collect material from the river.

Modest about her many career accolades, Yvonne said she is honoured to receive Australia’s most esteemed peer-assessed award for an Indigenous artist.

“It’s a great honour to receive the Red Ochre Award, to see the response and support from national indigenous arts and to be acknowledged as a master weaver, is overwhelming. I wish Aunty Dory and Dunc could be here to see this. I reckon they’d be very proud.”


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Nooky / Corey Webster
Lyricist / Rapper, Composer / Producer

Nowra-born, Sydney-based Yuin Nation hip hop artist, Nooky, will be presented with the Australia Council’s Dreaming Award at the 9th National Indigenous Arts Awards on Friday, 27 May.

The 25 year-old was born Corey Webster. The story behind his nickname, like so much of what defines him, leads back to Nowra and family.

“I got the name because of my Dad, Noel. He had a pet chicken called Chooky when he was young. Here he was, this little blackfella country kid going everywhere with a chicken. Someone nicknamed Dad Nooky – a cross between Noel and Chooky. So whenever I went to the football with Dad everyone called me and my brother ‘Lil’ Nooky’ or ‘Yung Nooky’. When I started my music I just used what people called me - Yung Nooky – I was maybe 19 when I dropped the ‘Yung’. Nooky’s not like a stage name or anything – people mostly call me Nooky but some call me Corey – it’s all good,” Nooky says.

Nooky said growing up in Nowra was not easy but made him the man and artist he is.

“Nowra is the place of my family and People, it’s Yuin Country and I’m proud that’s who I am.  But Nowra and I had some tricky times together as well. In the end that’s what got me into music – because of all the anger I felt.”

“Being part of Yuin Nation is everything that I am. We’re Saltwater people. We grew up diving and fishing and surfing, we lived off the water. The ocean is calm and it’s collected and it’s a beautiful thing but when it turns, it gets turbulent. I feel like that’s my personality. I’m calm most of the time, I know what I’m doing, I take it easy, I go with the flow but when there’s something I don’t like, something that frustrates me, I feel like that’s my music.  I put that energy into the words and that’s like my tsunami, my defiance,” Nooky said.

The ‘tricky times’ started in Kindergarten with a teacher’s words he can never forget.

“My earliest memory at school was this teacher talking about Aboriginals, saying they were savages and dirty people who run round the bush naked.  That afternoon in the car I said to my mum, ‘we’re Aboriginal, aren’t we?’ Mum said ‘yes’. I started crying and told her what I’d heard at school. She just lost it.  She said ‘Son, our people were warriors.’ Well, that was it. From that moment I was a warrior.  I went back to school with a different mindset,” he said.

But a different mindset did not stop the sting of racist jibes or the rising tide of rage he felt as he learned more about injustice against his People.

His parents shared stories with him about the Aboriginal resistance fighters Pemulwuy and Yagan, lighting a spark in him that would be fanned into furious flames of admiration for the many heroes of his childhood – Charlie Perkins, Eddie Mabo, Guboo Thomas, Chika Dixon, Bobbie McLeod and more.

“I was blown away. From when I was just a cheeky kid, I wanted to be a freedom fighter. Years after, when I recorded my first song, I realised hip hop is how I’ll do that. Music is my spear, my freedom ride, my tent embassy, my people’s battle cry,” Nooky said.

In Year 4, at the suggestion of his mother, Sharon, who worked at a local high school, Nooky’s school brought in two Yuin men, Cecil McLeod and Richard Scott-Moore, who taught him about Indigenous dance and culture.

“Soon they were teaching all the Koori boys at my school how to dance and we were learning about our traditions. It instilled pride in us and gave us confidence.  I felt like a warrior because of the anger, but those mentors gave me a sense of leadership that helped me look after some of the younger kids. Plus I loved dancing and we weren’t allowed to dance if we got into a fight,” Nooky said.

He said his mother’s idea to bring mentors into schools to teach Aboriginal kids about dance and culture is now part of all schools in the Nowra area, and many further afield.

When his high school years brought more trouble and anger, more ‘You People’ moments; more clashes with teachers who considered him ‘a waste of time’, Nooky said the unwavering support of his family kept him going.

“I got through that time because of my mum and dad, my grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins – my family means everything to me.”

When he left school he went to work at the local youth centre and said it became clear how important music would be in his life.

“I needed something to keep me outta trouble, an escape from the traps of small town life. I do a lot of mentoring with AIME all over the state. I share with kids that my teachers told me to my face I wouldn’t amount to anything but I got past that and I’ve done a lot of things,” he said.

Nooky has done a lot in 25 years, including dancing with a group of Indigenous singers and dancers from Australia during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He supported Indigenous hip hop group The Last Kinection for his first national tour. He was a 2011 Deadly finalist in the category of Most Promising New Talent in Music. He has composed and produced music for short films, television and theatre, including productions at the Sydney Opera House, Malthouse Theatre and Carriageworks. He completed a brief paid internship at Harvard University during which he worked on the play ‘Finding Neverland’, now playing on Broadway, in its pre-production and off-Broadway phase. He has also recorded a track in Los Angeles with the Black Eyed Peas’ Taboo.

“Working with Taboo came about when I was doing a music program at Redfern Community Centre in 2009. I had a lot of fire. Nomad Two Worlds were working with Taboo and introduced us and I ended up going to LA to record with him in 2010. I’d never experienced anything like that before, I didn’t think I could. I was in the recording booth at his home thinking, ‘Maybe I could do something with this’.  It got lots of media attention and lots of the kids in Nowra saw the stories and were blown away. I’m grateful for the experience, for sure,” Nooky said.

Nooky credits his older cousin, Ryan Selway, with getting him interested in rapping in his early teens, teaching him some techniques and providing a harsh home truth that is still the best advice he has ever received.

“I sent Ryan my first rap I’d written, just around the time Fifty Cent came out.  I waited and waited and finally he came back and said, ‘Cuz, I gotta be honest. That was sh**house’. I said, ‘What do you mean? That took me hours and hours.’ He said, ‘That’s where you went wrong.  Ya thought about it. When you write music, talk with ya heart.’ I live my whole life by that now.  If I can’t talk with my heart, I’m not gonna talk.”

Nooky listens with his heart too and acknowledges the important role that mentors apart from family have also played in his life and work.

“Mentoring has been mad important in my career. I’m lucky to have had some of the best in the game help me out along the way - Wire MC, Jimblah, Weno, Briggs and my manager”.

Nooky said he is ‘pumped’ to receive The Dreaming Award from the Australia Council and believes it shows how important hip hop is in contemporary Indigenous Australia.

“I feel empowered, I feel my community is empowered. To be selected by a group of senior people from my community means the world to me as Indigenous self-determination is one of my core values. I see it as an amazing vote of confidence for me as a young artist and validation that I’m heading in the right direction. To be honest, the cash is gonna make such a difference to my first release and give me opportunities for my music to have more reach.”

“I can do so much with this and it’s not just for me. My music’s never been just for me, it’s about my people, my community, and it’s about Nowra. Paying respects to them, giving back to them. I wouldn’t have this voice if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to tell these stories. It’s always been about them, it’s always ever gonna be about them.”

He says he hopes with his Dreaming project he can break into the industry by making the best album possible with his chosen team of mentors; make something his community will be proud of; take his artistry to new levels and break new ground for Indigenous hip hop.

As for long-term goals, Nooky said: “Ultimately a sustainable career is a major goal. I’d like to be a financially viable artist, a full-time musician with community workshops as part of my strategy to give back as opposed to an income stream. My end goal is always to give back to community. I hope to start up a centre in Nowra where local kids can come and be creative and have a studio to use, kids who can’t otherwise afford it. I’d like to start my own initiative to offer support for kids to get through school and reach their dreams whether they be music, football, acting or whatever.”

“Arts is so important for Aboriginal Culture, it’s a way of keeping our traditions alive. Wire MC said it best - ‘hip hop is a modern-day corroboree’. We are a resilient and defiant people. Our language and ceremonies were taken from us but not lost in their entirety. I want my words and music to shine a light on the part of Australia’s history that’s often kept in the shadows. I want to take all the negativity and injustice given to me and mine and use that to fuel my success and bring my people with me every step of the way.”

“It’s bigger than just hip hop for me. I want to be a Pemulwuy, that’s what I’m shooting for.”


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Vicki Couzens
Possum Cloak Maker, Interdisciplinary Artist

Possum cloak maker and multi-media artist Vicki Couzens will be presented with an Australia Council Fellowship at the 9th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Friday, 27 May.

A member of the Keerray Wooroong language group of the Gunditjmara of western Victoria, Vicki was born in 1960 in Warrnambool, living on Country until the family relocated to Geelong in 1973. She lived and worked in Geelong, Melbourne and East Gippsland before returning to Warrnambool in 1999.  In 2009 Vicki moved back to Melbourne for seven years and now lives in the Stony Rises, part of her home Country, in Victoria’s western districts.

Vicki has distinguished herself with her interdisciplinary artwork, or as she prefers, ‘creative cultural expression’ - painting, installation, visual arts, printmaking, mixed media, performing arts, language, ceremony and teaching - but is best known for her central role in the revival of the possum skin cloak making tradition which began in Victoria and is now established across south-eastern Australia.

In 1999, Vicki attended a printmaking workshop with Lee Darroch and other Aboriginal artists from across Victoria, hosted by the Melbourne Museum. They were shown various cultural objects from the Museum’s collection as inspiration for creating copper plate etchings. Staff showed the group the historic nineteenth-century Lake Condah possum skin cloak and it was during this encounter that Vicki underwent a profound and transformative experience.

Vicki experienced a vision, which she said was given to her by the makers of the cloak.

“It was a call from the Ancestors to re-awaken the songlines of Possum Cloak Story, to return the cloaks to our People, to reclaim, regenerate, revitalise and remember – that is the Old Peoples’ story and our journey is to carry this vision forward,” Vicki said.

“The Lake Condah cloak is from my grandmother’s Country in Victoria’s western districts, near Heywood. Much later I learned that six men from six families from Lake Condah mission made the cloak and my great-grandfather was one of them,” Vicki said.

Melbourne Museum holds two historic cloaks - the Lake Condah, and the Maiden’s Punt, or Yorta Yorta Cloak.  Vicki spoke to Yorta Yorta artist Lee Darroch about the vision she had experienced and it was from the sharing of this that Lee and Vicki joined together, along with Vicki’s sister Debra and Lee’s cousin and fellow Victorian Indigenous artist Treanha Hamm, to set out to create reproductions of the two old cloaks; produce a body of contemporary artistic responses through prints and drawings; build an 'old’ and 'new’ cloak making toolkit; and harvest knowledge about the protocols, songs and ceremonies surrounding cloaks. This body of work - Tooloyn Koorrtakay: Squaring Skins for Rugs – marked the beginning of the contemporary revitalisation of the Possum Cloak Story.

Amanda Reynolds was so impressed with Tooloyn Koorrtakay: Squaring Skins for Rugs she acquired it in 2003 as curator of the National Museum of Australia and it remains part of their permanent collection. Amanda left the National Museum of Australia in 2008, and has worked ever since with Vicki and Lee as an independent curator on the Possum Cloak Story.

Following on from this first body of work, Vicki served as the Artistic Director of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Possum Cloak Project, involving 35 communities across Victoria. She collaborated with artists Lee Darroch, Maree Clark and Treanha Hamm on this project.

“We worked with local artists, community and traditional owner groups to create possum skin cloaks to be worn at the Opening Ceremony. This project sparked a major cultural phenomenon, and ignited a renaissance of a cultural knowledge and practice whose continuance was jeopardised by colonisation. It brought together the largest gathering of Aboriginal people in cloaks in over 150 years to represent their People; clans and communities – all there in unity. It was a healing journey for all, with an all-encompassing sense of belonging, togetherness, pride and strengthening of identity,” Vicki said.

Yorta Yorta Elder and recently retired Monash University Professor, Henry Atkinson, wore a cloak at the Opening Ceremony and commends the work of Vicki, Lee and fellow artists.

“We’ve got to keep that tradition alive for the younger generations, for their self-esteem and to help them be proud of who they are and where they come from,” Henry Atkinson said.

Today the Possum Cloak Story continues its revival journey across south-eastern Australia and is deeply rooted in ritual, with cloaks used at Welcome To Country ceremonies, community events in Aboriginal and mainstream communities, as well as everyday uses such as bedding and baby carriers, naming ceremonies, births, deaths and burials.

Vicki is undertaking a PhD at RMIT on possum cloaks and the story of the contemporary cultural reclamation and revival journey and its impact on Indigenous communities.  She is also jointly developing a research project to chronicle the Possum Cloak Story.  

Over the past 16 years of her possum cloak journey, Vicki’s artistic works have proliferated. Some feature in the collections of the National Museum and National Gallery.  In 2005, Vicki co-created the birrarung wilam installation featured on the banks of the Yarra River behind Melbourne’s Federation Square, with Treanha Hamm and Lee Darroch.More public art installations followed, including collaborations with renowned Victorian artist Maree Clark.

Vicki has worked in the Aboriginal community for more than 35 years in various roles, serving on the Boards of Banmirra Aboriginal Arts, Victorian Housing, Koorie Heritage Trust and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL). She was Language Advisor and worked with the curatorial team on the First Peoples Exhibition at Melbourne Museum and has taught extensively across Victoria and south-eastern Australia.

She is considered a Senior Knowledge Holder of Language and Possum Cloak Story. Vicki is proud that her father, senior Gunditjmara Elder Ivan Couzens, served Aboriginal communities for more than 45 years at local, state and national levels, and established the first Dictionary of the Gunditjmara Languages in 1996. Vicki said: “Dad is my Elder, my mentor and my inspiration – he is a gentle, humble, wise man and I aspire to be more like him.”

Vicki says her Fellowship work is titled yunggama (to give and receive) and is “a cross-art form body of interconnected creative cultural expressions exploring women’s business.”

Yunggama will have four primary elements: a soundscape comprising song and/or spoken word in her language; projection comprising dance and movement; made cultural objects such as possum cloaks, weavings, adornment objects and tools; and a publication-illustrated anthology of her writings. These elements will combine to depict specific themes of family cultural stories: women’s business - birth, life, children, kinship; identity - belonging, cultural rebirthing, language, song and dance.

“I’m humbled and deeply thankful to those that decided I was worthy of the enormous honour of this Fellowship. I feel a great responsibility and gratitude to my Elders and Old People without whom I know nothing. I look forward to having real time, mental space and clarity, and spiritual and cultural space to extend and challenge my creativity, to create new individual works and in particular, significantly explore writing in my mother tongue. I want to leave a legacy for my family, community and future generations,” Vicki said.


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