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At the National Museum of Australia the official opening of an exhibition from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has brought an exquisite array of shell necklaces in a travelling exhibition called ‘kanalaritja: an unbroken string’, to showcase the unique practice of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell stringing.
Fascinating stories and histories accompany the exhibition and give an insight into this craft, while the displays demonstrate the patience, perseverance and creativity of the women who collect the shells and turn them into wearable art.
From the tiniest shells, seemingly requiring a magnifying glass to find the right spot before being “pierced with the eye tooth of a kangaroo or wallaby and strung on kangaroo sinew”, with many variations in style and colour combinations to achieve these decorative necklaces and continue a craft that is “a celebration of culture and a symbol of identity”.
And then comes the interesting part where the shells are “exposed to pyroligenous acid from the smoke of brushwood during which time they were turned and rubbed to remove the outer coat”.
I remember buying pig tusks on a street in Goroka in PNG and they could have done with a scrub of pyroligenous acid- but all I had was laundry soaker that eventually did the same job but took a lot of soaking. So how did these women find that brushwood smoke would achieve a smooth shell? They found the shine for these delicate shells, many with rich luminous colours, with oil from penguins or mutton birds.
A lot of detail in the stories of the women who inherited the craft, continue to share it and demonstrate to us, the fumble fingered who only collect shells for fun and decoration, that time, patience and creativity was produced by women with no local haberdashery store in town, just found objects and the pleasure of making something so beautiful.
‘kanalaritja: an unbroken string’ continues at the National Museum of Australia