Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan spoke to artist Maree Clarke about her kankaroo-tooth necklace that will feature in Melbourne Now.
JR: Tell us about your production of kangaroo-tooth necklaces. How did you discover the way such objects were customarily made and re-enact all these time-honoured processes in their production?
MC: To make the kangaroo tooth necklace, I was able to have a look at the historical 19th-century necklaces held in the Museum of Victoria. I then took detailed photographs of them so that I could recreate it as closely as possible. I also read through some documents that detailed the making of the necklace with both men and women taking part in the creation of it.
JR: How do you source the animal parts for the production of such necklaces?
MC: To make the first kangaroo tooth necklace, I travelled up to Mildura, picked up my family, my sister and her kids and if my other nieces and nephews were about they would also come too. We would go up bush into NSW where my brother ran a property and stop at every dead kangaroo and pull their teeth out.
We would also go to the adjoining properties because they would get roo shooters in to cull some of the roo. We would then drive around the station, stopping at the dead roos and pull their teeth out too.
Historically of course, men would hunt the roo and would have saved the teeth. For a 75-tooth necklace you need at least 40 roos because only the two bottom incisor teeth are used in these necklaces. For one of the necklaces, my nephew shot the roo; I got the tail for the sinew so that we could bind the teeth to the kangaroo leather. We also collected ochre and wattle resin to paint the kangaroo leather.
Len Tregonning and I have since made three 75-tooth necklaces. Len learnt the process of chewing the sinew from his Uncle to make it pliable to wrap each tooth onto the leather. He also sought permission from Elders to recreate the objects because of their cultural significance. Len and I prepare the teeth after I have come home from a huge trip, he will help me clean the teeth (because I am a Vegan and can’t clean the meaty ones) and he also pulls the sinew from the tail and chews it (I can’t do that either). So at the end of the day, we are practicing cultural practices with both men and women making this very precious cultural item.
JR: Tell us about the journey through country that happens whenever you decide to embark on the creation of a kangaroo-tooth necklace.
MC: I have been collecting kangaroo teeth for about 15 years. When I’d visit my brother in NSW, I would borrow his Ute, load the back of the Ute up with my nieces and nephews and go driving in the bush looking for dead roos. The kids would get so excited when we spotted one. We would all get out like it was a CSI investigation. The boys especially liked the smelly ones that were nearly ready to explode.