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Artist UNKNOWN

Tasmanian Aboriginal people

Australia unknown – unknown

Shell necklace c.1920

  • AM 239/02
Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, Australia
Jewellery, green maireener shells, thread
Technique: green maireener shells, thread
length 140.0 h cm
Purchased 2003
Accession No: NGA 2003.16
  • Shell necklaces are made and worn by Tasmanian Aboriginal women. A late nineteenth-century photograph of the renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Trugannini—popularly and racially defined as ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’—portrays her anguished yet dignified face, a maireener shell necklace wound around her neck. A similar shell necklace also appears in Benjamin Law’s nineteenth-century bust, Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy.

    The shell necklaces represent much more than simple jewellery or decorative art. For the women who created them, the practice of collecting the shells from their traditional lands, and watching and learning from their matriarchal elders, is part of the cycle ensuring that cultural traditions are maintained and serve as links between the generations. Today the tradition is continued by many Tasmanian Aboriginal women.

    This shell necklace is representative of the Indigenous traditions that have been in existence over thousands of generations of Aboriginal people of Tasmania. These exquisite objects convey the collective determination of the 7000-strong Indigenous community of Tasmania in overturning the long-propagated myth that all their ancestors were effectively wiped out in the nineteenth century.

    Franchesca Cubillo


    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

  • Description

    This is a shell necklace (c1920) made by an unknown Aboriginal artist from the Tasmanian region of Cape Barren Island. The necklace is shown as an enlargeable image and in a video. Text onscreen gives information about the history and importance of shell necklaces, representative of much more than simple decorative art. The video soundtrack tells of other artworks in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection that depict the shell necklace, affirming its importance as a symbol of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, and the strength of their traditions. The shell necklace is 140.0cm long and is made out of green maireener shells and thread.

    Educational value

    • This is an excellent resource for the Responding strand of the visual arts curriculum in the upper primary years, especially for those content descriptions that refer to considering the broader context of works of art, such as their social, cultural and historical context and role of the artist and of the audience/s. It may also be useful for teachers of history in year 4, particularly in relation to content descriptions about the importance of connection to Country for Aboriginal peoples and the nature of contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans and the effects and outcomes of this contact.
    • This resource is of considerable significance for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures cross-curriculum priority. It exemplifies one of the priority’s organising ideas in relation to Aboriginal peoples: their special connection to Country. This resource also highlights that Aboriginal experiences can be viewed through historical, social and political lenses.  In this case, the making and wearing of shell necklaces are a long standing and active tradition identified with Tasmanian Aboriginal women, contrary to the notions of the complete eradication of their ancestors in the 19th century.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010