Local Time: Paihamu

Local Time: Paihamu was a workshop first conceived during a 2014 project at Footscray Community Arts Centre, where we discussed the potential visit of Gunditjmara Keerray Woorroong artist Vicki Couzens to share her knowledge of the brushtail possum with the community at Tikapa, Ngati Porou. Local Time have been visiting Omaewa / Port Awanui and Tikapa regularly over the past two decades, due to member Natalie Robertson’s whānau connection to the area and under the care of Graeme and Makere Atkins.

The paihamu, or brush-tailed possum, was first introduced to Aotearoa New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to stimulate a fur trade. Lacking their usual predators, they were officially declared a pest in 1946, and continue to present a major environmental problem where they cause catastrophic dieback in rata, pohutukawa, or kamahi-dominated forests, causing immense damage to these culturally and environmentally significant species.In their original home possums are spiritually and materially significant to Aboriginal Australians of the South East who use possum skin in ritual and ceremony from birth to death. Practitioners of customary possum-skin cloak making have been prohibited by colonial governments from hunting the native possum in their own territories for generations, requiring Aboriginal artists to source possum skins from Aotearoa New Zealand in order to produce their customary cloaks, bands and other sacred objects. Many Māori have gained employment from trapping and preparing possums to service the international market for possum skins. However, few Māori involved in the trade have had access to Australian Aboriginal customary knowledge about the possum; nor have many Australian possum artists been able to have direct exchange with communities in Aotearoa where the exported skins are harvested.

In 2020, Local Time were able to invite Couzens and two other artists to visit Tikapa to share their knowledge with the community. Tiriki Onus, a visual artist, curator, performance artist and opera singer Yorta Yorta man and Head of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University of Melbourne, joined with Gina Maree Bundle, a Yuin/Monero artist and cultural leader based in Melbourne. All three artists have extensive experience in possum skin cloak-making, and all were keen to learn from locals involved in the trapping and processing of possums in Aotearoa.

The Paihamu workshop opened the potential for many new exchanges, not only among our collective but in the broader communities connected to Indigenous knowledge in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia. A film documenting the project is currently under development.

Local time: Paihamu is supported by a grant from the Centre of Visual Arts at the University of Melbourne; with further support from the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland and AUT University.