The tradition of shell stringing in the Aboriginal community Pakana in the Bass Strait Islands, between Tasmania and mainland Australia, has been maintained and continued unbroken through invasion, war, missions and incarcerations.
A practice which ties the community to their sea country, closely intertwined with their knowledge of weather patterns and sea tides; shell stringing remains a source of connection between the people and the land and their ancestors.
Celebrating this tradition kanalaritja: An Unbroken String exhibition, currently touring the country, offers programmed workshops which have been developed by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery after senior stringers from the Pakana community raised concerns about the future of this closely held work.
Featuring for the first time side-by-side are rare and original shell necklaces made by Pakana ancestors from the 1800s, a collection of 1970s and 1980s pieces by women of the Cape Barren community, as well as more contemporary, acclaimed makers of today. Many of these women have learnt the art through collaborative community-driven, cultural renewal project: luna tunapri (women’s knowledge).
Jenny Bisset, Director of Blacktown Arts Centre, who will be hosting the exhibition through February-April told NITV that the value of this kind of exhibition extends beyond it's originating community.
"Apart from exhibiting exquisite works which profile the excellence of Aboriginal arts practice, the exhibition has relevance to the many nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Blacktown, all of who are interested in the reclamation, preservation, and continuation of their own cultural practices," she said.
"This is particularly pertinent to the Dharug People, who were at the frontline of dispossessions, and have challenges asserting their identity and survival even on their own Country. We are hoping that the exhibition will be an inspiration in this context."
Cape Barren Community elder, Lola Greeno, a qualified practising artist, began shell stringing with her mother around 35 years ago when she in her late 30s.
Her mother taught her how to find, clean, pierce and thread to make patterns and to this day she loves the process of sourcing the shells to threading new designs.
"I love going to different beaches, walking in the water, gathering shells from the sand. It is very therapeutic. I also love going with my family to gather shells as it is a real family practice. I also really enjoy showing other women in workshops how thread to make a shell bracelet," she said.
"I love going to different beaches, walking in the water, gathering shells from the sand. It is very therapeutic."
Her necklace featured in the exhibition is made of black crows, blue gulls, penguins and oat shells, some of which are not easy to find.
"These shells are quite rare to find in very special beaches. Quite often where there are black rocks but sheltered from the strong winds that blow in from the sea.
"The black crow shells are very strong shell, but found on open sandy beaches, and I use these in lots of shell necklaces to make different patterns as they highlight the colour, shape and texture of the shell necklace."
Aunty Lola is one of a handful of shell stringers who has maintained the practice to and has often been concerned that it would not survive without a great effort to pass on the luna tunapri (women’s knowledge) to others.
"It was my dream to enable other Aboriginal women from around Tasmania to learn and revive this important cultural practice within their families," Aunty Lola said.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) has been working closely with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community since 2010 and helped facilitate workshops where women from the community who had not had shell stringing passed down through their families were guided through the delicate processes of collecting, cleaning and stringing.
kanalaritja: An Unbroken String is both a culmination and celebration of the revival of this practice.
Kanalaritja: An Unbroken String opens at Blacktown Arts Centre exhibits 22 February – 20 April 2019 and will continue on to Hurstville and finally Launceston. For details on the exhibition and workshop programs head here.