Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
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Tasmanian Aboriginal people

Australia unknown – unknown

Shell necklace c.1935 Place made: Cape Barren Island, Tasmania, Australia
Materials & Technique: jewellery, rice shell, string

Dimensions: length 153.0 h cm
Acknowledgement: Gift of John McPhee 1988
Accession No: NGA 88.373
  • Shell necklaces are made and worn by Tasmanian Aboriginal women. A photograph taken around 1866 of the renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Truganini—popularly and racially defined as ‘the last Tasmanian Aborigine’—portrays her anguished yet dignified face, a Maireener shell necklace wound around her neck. A sculptural portrait bust by Benjamin Law, Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy 1836 (National Gallery of Australia), depicts her as a younger woman wearing a similar shell necklace.

    The shell necklaces represent much more than 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.

    Shell necklace is representative of the Aboriginal 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 Aboriginal 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 2014
    From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014