Harvested in the warm tropical waters, Australian mother-of-pearl shells (Pinctada maxima) have been highly sought after by coastal Aboriginal people for thousands of years and more recently by the rest of the world. The once-living shell has an innate beauty that for the people of the Kimberley echoes the life, spirit and colours of the ocean. Once engraved, they were often made into pendents worn by Aboriginal men, women and children.
The shimmer of light reflecting off a mother-of-pearl shell is said to emulate the lighting strikes during the monsoons caused by the Rainbow Serpent. The zigzagging and angular interlocking designs of the engraved riji mirror the receding tidemarks of the ocean or the wind-whipped ripples on the surface of the water or the ripples caused by the Rainbow Serpent moving below the surface. These designs are highlighted by the red ochres and black charcoal rubbed into the carved grooves.
The 65 riji comprising this group of works were collected from the Kimberley and the Great Sandy Desert in the 1950s and 1960s. The group includes works by well-known artists, such as Nyikina man Butcher Joe Nangan, and unknown artists. Nangan’s mastery of the technique is evident in this fine collection—the exaggerated movements of a fish and fine detailing of its scales, men captured mid-movement during ceremonies. Nangan and other contemporary pearl-shell artists from the Kimberley continue to follow their customs of engraving shells for trade and sale.
These stunning, engraved riji add historical and cultural value
to the Gallery’s small but important collection of pearl-shell pendants from Western Australia’s Kimberley region, and they are currently on display in the Kimberley Gallery at the National Gallery of Australia.
Tina Baum Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012