Unknown ARTIST, Riji [pearl shell ornament] Enlarge 1 /3
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Unknown ARTIST

Bardi people

Australia unknown – unknown

Riji [pearl shell ornament] [Pearlshell pendant] c.1900 Description: (decorated pearl shell)
Place made: Broome, Kimberley, Western Australia, Australia
Materials & Technique: jewellery, incised objects, pearl shell, natural earth pigments, human hair

Dimensions: 18.8 h x 13.4 w x 1.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Jean Cummins in memory of her father John Harvey 1992
Accession No: NGA 92.276

Pearl shells, known as riji or jakuli in the Bardi language, are associated with water, spiritual powers and healing due to the luminous shimmering quality of their surfaces. Bardi equate the light reflecting off the shells to lightning flashes, which are prominent during the monsoon, and to lights flashing off the cheeks of the Rainbow Serpent, who is closely linked to water and rain.

The tradition of interlocking designs etched into the surfaces of pearl shells is distinctive in Aboriginal art. The incised designs are highlighted with a mixture of ochre and resin, which is rubbed into the grooves. Decorated and plain pearl shells are used for rain-making and magical purposes, for trade, in ceremonies and as personal adornments such as necklaces or pubic covers when they are worn attached by belts or necklaces of hairstring.

Riji originate around Broome, in the west Kimberley region. They are objects of great value and have been exchanged along ancient trade routes over vast areas of the continent. They appear as far afield as Yuendumu in the desert, south-eastern Arnhem Land, Queensland and South Australia. Often plain pearl shells are decorated further along trade routes, far from their place of origin.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

On the West Kimberley coast, Aboriginal artists fashion beautiful ornaments from valves of the pearl oyster. Pearl shell—nacreous, gleaming with a subtle play of colours—is perceived to be the essence of water, life itself. The gleam of shell in the sun or by firelight represents flashes of lightning that herald rain-bearing clouds. Lightning is also one manifestation of the ancestral Rainbow Serpent, whose power may be released by the manipulation of pearl shell objects by senior lawmen.

Pearl shell can be decorated with either geometric or figurative motifs. Engraved zigzags and mazes symbolise water, tidal marks or wind rippling the surface of water. They can also represent lightning. Shells engraved with naturalistic images are often records of Aboriginal experiences in the pearling and cattle industries, while others depict more traditional themes.

Although in many areas pearl shell is used in male initiation ceremonies, men, women and children in the Kimberley also wear it on festive or formal occasions. Women also play an important role in moving shell along the extensive traditional trade routes that still exist in remoter areas today.

This shell, tied to a belt spun from human hair, probably originated within one of the Aboriginal communities located along Eighty Mile Beach, south of Broome. It was collected about 1900 by the captain of a pearling lugger. The engraved maze that covers the lustrous inner surface would once have been infilled with pigment—red or yellow ochre or perhaps crushed charcoal—that would further enhance the scintillating, almost hypnotic effect produced by the flashing shell.

Kim Akerman

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