Despite the ravages of colonisation, Palawa people have made necklaces of lustrous strings of pearlescent shells collected from the cool waters surrounding Lutruwita (Tasmania) and its islands in a cultural practice extending back thousands of years.
Though for most of us a shell necklace captivates with its beauty and mystique, for the makers it is a profoundly meaningful emblem of their integration with the land and with history 1
Like many Palawa women, Lola Greeno first learnt to string shells in the classic style from her mother. Their creative partnership lasted for over 20 years, during which time Greeno mastered techniques and absorbed cultural wisdom and precise protocols around the making of shell necklaces. Growing up on Cape Barren and Flinders Islands in Bass Strait off the north-east coast of Tasmania, collecting shells was an intrinsic part of her childhood. It was later in life that her deep knowledge of the shells’ habitats — and of the tides and seasons when they could be found in abundance — enabled her to develop a rich repertoire of unique designs.
Lola Greeno ‘Green maireener necklace’
Lola Greeno collecting maireener shells
Reflecting the brilliant colours of the sea, multiple strands of each species included in the artist’s works in ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) emphasise the shells’ particular characteristics. The translucent green/blue of maireener shells, the icy tones of pointed silver kelp, the iridescence of abalones, and the patterned warrener, contrast with ten long strings of dense black crow shells, which act as a foil for the others’ brilliance.
Lola Greeno ‘Winnya’
Perhaps the most spectacular is the aptly named king maireener (rainbow kelp shell), found amongst slippery jagged rocks, where leathery kelp fronds undulate beneath the water’s surface. Taking as long as a year to collect enough for one work, their rarity and preciousness is acknowledged by Greeno in Teunne (king maireener shell crown) 2013, a ‘crown’ of the large shells threaded on stainless-steel wire.
Lola Greeno ‘Netepa menna’
In ancient Palawa tradition, shell necklaces, given as gifts to those arriving and departing, and as a mark of esteem, are often presented to important visitors. Over a two-year period, Greeno sourced 143 shells for a 2014 commission for Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art to honour performance artist Marina Abramovic. After meeting Abramovic, Greeno was satisfied that the intensity of the visiting artist’s personality matched the brilliance of the stunning neckpiece.2
The essential beauty of Greeno’s work lies in the natural materials she uses, enhanced by the artist’s selection, and in the centuries-old cleaning and polishing processes involved. Greeno’s intimate knowledge of shells and her inherent sense of design are evident in the harmonious pairings of luminous colours and perfect forms that require only minimal presentation to highlight their subtle elegance.
Greeno’s shell necklaces speak to our essential need for stillness and simplicity — states of being implicit in the meditative process of threading shells — and maintain the artist’s connectedness with her island home. As a Palawa Elder, she ensures that their ethereal light shines through the generations, teaching others with great patience and dedication, and engaging the support of her family to continue ancient traditions. It is little surprise that Lola Greeno was the first Indigenous artist to be recognised as a ‘Living Treasure – Master of Australian Craft’ in 2014.3
Diane Moon is former Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA
1 Julie Gough, Lola Greeno: Cultural Jewels, Object: Australian Design Centre, Surry Hills, NSW, 2014, p.113.
2 Lola Greeno, interview with Diane Moon, Launceston, 21 November 2017.
3 An initiative conceived in 2004 by the Australian Design Centre, Sydney; see ‘Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft’, Australian Design Centre, <https://australiandesigncentre.com/explore-promo/pastexhibitions-and-events/living-treasures/>, viewed June 2018.
Lola Greeno making her shell necklaces