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For more than a thousand years, shell stringing has endured as an integral symbol of identity and connection within the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. It is a time-honoured skill passed down through generations of women, its techniques closely guarded and exact locations of shells protected from common knowledge. Even amidst the devastating annihilation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population under colonial invasion, shell stringing has remained an art form deeply connected to history, memory and tradition.

kanalaritja: An Unbroken String marks the culmination of the luna tunapri (women’s knowledge) workshops, an initiative led by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community in association with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery to facilitate skill sharing.

Women who had not been taught shell stringing within their families were guided through the making process and encouraged to develop new traditions. “There is an expectation for us, as a group of Aboriginal women responsible for maintaining such an important part of our culture for future generations, to follow cultural protocol,” says contributing artist Jeannette James. “To look after Country, understand the environment and how to sustainably collect the shells and protect the seaweed beds.”

The purpose of the shell stringing practice is to create necklaces of delicate intricacy. In kanalaritja, there are examples made by Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestors in the 19th century right through to the work of today’s makers. Lucy Beeton’s delicate strands of rice shells have survived since the 1800s, while contemporary stringer Ashlee Murray’s king marina shells gleam with pearlescent hues as they catch the light. As one of the youngest shell stringers, Murray feels a deep connection to history as she hones her practice. “We are one of the only peoples in the world stringing shells like this, so I think it is quite defining of Tasmanian Aboriginal people.”

With modern tools and materials eventually replacing the sharp wallaby incisors used to pierce holes in the shells and the lengths of animal sinew and twine they were once strung upon, the necklaces in kanalaritja reveal how techniques have evolved. Over time, necklaces have become longer with multiple strings and it is clear makers have experimented with colour and pattern. Most necklaces possess hundreds of delicate shells and stringers – the acclaimed mother and daughter-in-law duo, Lola and Dulcie Greeno, use the contrasting size, texture and colour of di erent shells to create strikingly individualistic designs.

Working with such tiny and rare materials, the making process inevitably takes time. Shells must be collected, cleaned and sorted before they are ready for stringing. Makers search the coastlines of Cape Barren, Flinders and Bruny Islands for shells with descriptive names like ‘toothies’, ‘stripy buttons’ and ‘rice shells.’ With many shells literally no bigger than a grain of rice, some are gathered directly from the beach while others, like the prized maireener (rainbow kelp) shell, are collected live as they cling to seaweed drifting in low tide. The shells are so elusive; it can take months to fill a glass jar with enough to complete a necklace.

Liz Tew, co-curator of kanalaritja alongside Zoe Rimmer, is a descendent of Fanny Cochrane Smith, a well-known Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestor. Tew is the first in her family since Cochrane to be taught the skill of shell stringing and her experience with the luna tunapri workshops has been pivotal on both a personal and cultural level. “I feel proud that my family can once again continue this tradition,” Tew says. “When I’m out collecting, the connection I feel is hard to put into words. My mind slows down; I feel calm and content with a sense of belonging to my Country.”

The significance of an exhibition like kanalaritja: An Unbroken String is extraordinary. Projects like luna tunapri forge a strong sense of cultural renewal that has subsequently been shared with the wider public, broadening knowledge and recording history. Since 2009, stringers have been recognised by the National Trust of Australia and the Tasmanian shell necklace is now listed as a Tasmanian heritage icon. Without doubt, each necklace is an object of unmatchable beauty that holds the story of a life lived and a history endured.

kanalaritja: An Unbroken String
Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery
9 December – 21 May 2017.

Briony Downes