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.
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