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The economy of shells: A history of Aboriginal women at La Perouse making shellwork for sale

Maria Nugent, National Museum of Australia, 9 November 2009

MARIA NUGENT: This work actually came out of working at the Museum and particularly being involved in a collective project at the Centre for Historical Research which had the title ‘Material Histories’. But it does come out of work I’ve done at La Perouse, which some people might know of, over quite a long period of time in which I looked at shell-work really in the context of community history. The paper’s really coming out in response to some contemporary interpretations of shell-work and what I think those interpretations are missing. So the opportunity to talk in a kind of conference around economic values seemed really timely, actually.

So shell-work of the kind that Aboriginal women at La Perouse in Sydney make is not to everybody’s taste. I recognise that and I’m not even sure it’s to my taste. Enduringly popular forms of it are heart-shaped, lidded trinket boxes and little ornamental baby shoes that you can see here [image shown]. The one on the far side is from the Museum’s collection, and I own this little pair here. Now it’s often described as kitsch, and in some ways I think it sits quite uneasily alongside other contemporary objects fashioned by Aboriginal women like the shell necklaces from Tasmania or the coiled basketwork which was exhibited here in the Museum quite recently.

Some shell-workers I think have not really helped much to counter its kitsch reputation, displaying a liking for the gaudy in their designs. They’ve been experimenting of late with applying glitter between the shells in place of shell grit that their mothers and grandmothers once used, of dyeing small white shells in bright, lurid colours and of favouring fluorescent faux fur as backing instead of the traditional velvet, corduroy or satin.

So these are pieces [images shown]. The piece I showed you before is held by the Powerhouse Museum [in Sydney] and was collected as part of a social history project. The pieces I’m showing you here are held by the National Gallery of Australia [in Canberra]. And they’re by a woman called Lola Ryan.

Now some of these recent developments in design are the result of collaborations between art collectors and individual shell-workers. So these pieces were commissioned from Lola Ryan by art collector Peter Fay, who describes himself really as a collector of outsider art. And he worked with Lola to kind of produce, you know, curious objects. And they were displayed as part of an exhibition based on his collection in about 2003, 2004, alongside a whole quite eclectic group of things.

Now this is just one example of the ways in which Aboriginal women’s shell-work has recently begun to acquire the status of art; a process helped along, I think, mainly by art curators who included La Perouse shell-work in exhibitions of contemporary urban Aboriginal art they’ve acquired for public and private art collections and ensured its entry into art competitions. So as though in endorsement of all their efforts, in 2005, a blue velvet, shell-encrusted Sydney Harbour Bridge made by Esme Timbery won the inaugural Parliament of New South Wales Indigenous Art Award.

So commenting on this, the Aboriginal art curator Tess Alice said in an article, ‘No longer were shell-works mere souvenirs for tourism consumption, they began to be regarded as art objects worthy of discussion and collection.’ And I think since then there’s been this continual development of shell-work as a kind of accidental art, I think, an accidental art object. And Esme obviously was the subject of an artist-at-work documentary recently, which seems to be broadcast repeatedly on ABC television.

The fraught relationship, I think, between so-called ‘tourist art’ and high art - and we’ve heard mentions of it today - is of course a very old story, and one that’s been explored quite thoroughly in histories of Indigenous Australian art in Australia and elsewhere.

But what actually interests me as I try to write a history of Aboriginal women’s shell production in coastal New South Wales is the ways in which this familiar narrative about an object’s liberation from the world of tourism to the art world, as I think is exemplified by Alice’s quote, obscures much more than it reveals.

In particular, it fails to appreciate earlier, perhaps more quotidian meanings of shell-work, including, importantly, its economic value to the women who made it, however precarious that value might have been at times over quite a long period of time. These new, celebratory and, one might add, essentially progressive accounts about shell-work rely upon staging a disjuncture between past and present; no longer mere souvenir for tourism consumption, now art objects worthy of collection and discussion.

You know, I want to say that a historical perspective on Aboriginal women’s shell-working practice actually reveals important continuities between past and present, much more than disjunctures I think; not least, the ways in which new and sometimes surprising markets seem to regularly open up for these commodities.

Considered historically, the most recent transformation of shell-work into art object is really just one more example of shell-work entering into a new marketplace, appealing to a different cohort of consumers and acquiring additional meanings and value in the process. So as unexpected as this latest incarnation might have been to the handful of remaining practicing shell-workers at La Perouse, the way in which they responded to the opportunities, economic and otherwise, that this brought, I think should not be underestimated. That too, that ability to respond to those new markets has some historical depth as well. And I’ll hope to show that in this paper.

Aboriginal shell-workers, women shell-workers, have long been adept at modifying their commodities to cater to or to attract different buyers. And I want to say that shell-work is a commodity from the outset; it’s not, I think a kind of pre-contact practice which then is changed, I think it emerges in the context of colonial relations. As Ruth B Phillips and Christopher B Steiner observed, ‘Neither the speed and acuity with which Indigenous artists responded to changes in taste and market nor the dialogical nature of their creative activity has been adequately recognised, particularly in histories of so-called tourist art.’

Now I don’t think that claim is as valid today as it was when they wrote it a decade ago, you know; as we know, many studies are now attentive just to those very issues. But it does remain, I think, quite muted in contemporary discussion about Aboriginal women’s craft objects, particularly craft objects like shell-work which were produced in the intensely settled south-eastern part of the country and which, as I’ve already said, originated in the kind of colonial mid to late nineteenth century with fairly continuous or continued production throughout the twentieth and indeed into the twenty-first.

So the history of shell-work, perhaps surprisingly, spans about 130 years, and I think to some extent that sets it apart from some other examples of commodity production by Aboriginal women. And it surprises me that the length of that history means it hasn’t been picked up very much in sort of histories of Aboriginal women’s participation in colonial economies which still tends to concentrate, I think, on their services, domestic and sexual services. I want to suggest that this curious little object is a quite good way into telling a long and quite complex history about Aboriginal women’s engagement with colonial economy.

So I think a historical study of shell-work lends itself quite nicely to Arjun Appadurai’s classic called the somewhat overused notion of The Social Life of Things. And it allows us to look at its changing, moving, shadowing, which is what I’m trying to do - shadowing shell-work through the archive. Looking at it as it moves in and out of marketplaces which are local, close to La Perouse, domestic, Australian, metropolitan, Sydney, global, and indeed across centuries, allows one to study its meanings and value over time, even as it remains sort of relatively unchanged in form.

So what I want to just do in this paper, and quite briefly, I think, is to map out what those markets are, over about a century or so. And as I do, I’ll try and comment a little on the modifications to the objects, the way in which the women did slightly modify them, in order to try and make this a material history, because it’s in the Material History session.

By the early 1880s certainly, and no doubt by the 1870s if not earlier - because this is dependent on archival research, and so I can’t tell whether or not … I haven’t found records earlier than the early 1880s - the main market for shell-work was the city’s streets and private homes. Reporting to the newly appointed New South Wales Protector of Aborigines in early 1882, the local policeman at La Perouse informed him that Aboriginal women and girls then living at La Perouse made shell baskets for sale in Sydney and suburbs. So it’s a one-liner in the colonial archives, but nonetheless contains some useful details. He says, ‘The objects made were shell baskets, decorative items, perhaps used nominally for holding trinkets.’ Later accounts talk about letter baskets. And so fitting, I think, into the category of what the American scholar Ruth B Phillips refers to as ‘tidies’, which were characteristic of the Victorian era.

I’m not sure how they were made. Some descriptions from around this time in women’s craft magazines suggest that they used wire or cane to shape the baskets, but there’s not enough description and there’s no surviving examples to be able to work out what these baskets might have been. They drop out of the repertoire, it seems to me, by the 1920s.

So the marketplaces were the city, where the shell baskets, I think, were probably sold by hawking them on the streets, and they were sold in the suburbs, where they might have been sold door-to-door. And [historian Ann] Curthoys has noted that in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of almost complete absence of organised support either from the state or from missionaries in Sydney, New South Wales, Aboriginal people in Sydney survived mainly as mendicants. And so in this context, possibly commodity production like shell baskets was a small part of Aboriginal peoples’ precarious means of livelihood.

I was interested in what Mike [Smith] was saying, where we look at the material culture that Aboriginal people are using. And also shell-work poses a kind of interesting example of Aboriginal women making these commodities in that period.

So who were buying them? Who were buying these decorative items? In the suburb[s] it was no doubt sort of white Victorian women, among whom there was apparently a fashion or a craze for shell-work, as Anne Stephen and Grace Cochran have shown. In the city I think it’s worth entertaining the idea that the buyers were not only locals. Sydney was a maritime city and visiting sailors are a plausible market for shell-work.

I think Aboriginal women’s shell-work warrants comparison with sailor’s valentines. I don’t know if people know about sailor’s valentines. They were decorative shelled objects made by local women in port towns in the Caribbean to sell to crews of visiting ships. And they were, until relatively recently, thought to have been made by sailors, until it was learned that they were actually made by local women to sell to sailors who would then take them back to their girlfriends or whatever.

It’s essential to remember that some of the Aboriginal women and girls mentioned by the policeman as living at La Perouse in 1882 had been shifted there only a matter of months earlier from the government boat sheds at Circular Quay [on Sydney Harbour], which is clearly the hub of maritime activity. Some of them had also been moved from the Botany government boatsheds closer to La Perouse.

Throughout the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening ones of the twentieth, the city and suburbs remained a main marketplace for shell-work, with Aboriginal women selling directly to buyers. So for instance when a new policy to make Aboriginal people pay fares on trams was introduced in 1903, there was some outcry, with one supporter writing that, and this is a quote, ‘The Aboriginal people at La Perouse are in many cases but half fed and clothed. And they are still to be further impoverished by demanding from their already limited incomes, procured in some instances by selling shell-work, et cetera, in the city, fares for tram tickets.’ So it’s clear, I think, by 1903 and during the early part of the twentieth century that Aboriginal women was making shell-work and going into the city and the suburbs to sell it.

But around the same time, around this sort of early twentieth century period, some other markets began to open up for these curious little objects. And these were particularly missionary markets. It’s sometimes assumed that missionaries were actually responsible for introducing shell-work to Aboriginal women, but it’s clear, I think, from the historical record that it was in existence before they became involved in the lives of the La Perouse people, which was really in the early 1890s.

What missionaries are responsible for, though, is actively fostering the practice, providing context and conditions for its continuation and, most importantly, facilitating access to new markets. I think comparisons here with what’s happening at Corranderk, which Diane Barwick has talked about, and then later in the north in terms of object production, are worth [undertaking]- we need to do those sorts of comparisons.

As well as becoming part of a lively gift-giving economy - and shell-work is really central as gift-giving - lots and lots of references to that - which involved Aboriginal people and missionaries mainly, through which relationships of obligation and reciprocity were created and enacted - shell-work was regularly included in missionary exhibitions, mainly, in those contexts, as evidence of missionaries’ own influence or work among Aboriginal women and the women’s ability to make these delicate items.

For instance, in 1903, the same year that the introduction of tram fares was jeopardising the everyday custom of shell-work in Sydney’s streets, shell-work was included in a display of the handiwork of Aborigines in New South Wales in the Church Missionary Society’s mission loan exhibition held at Sydney Town Hall. That included items made by men, women, and children from across New South Wales as well as men, women, and children themselves being displayed in those stalls. And this became a regular, annual event.

Now missionaries not only facilitated occasional markets close to the place of production, but they also provided access to markets much further afield. In 1910 it was reported that La Perouse shell-work was included in an exhibition of Australian manufactures in London. According to one newspaper report, ‘The Lady Rachel Bing and the Hon. Mrs Schaumberg Bing were large purchasers, the latter buying the beautiful New Zealand cot blankets,’ –which could be made by Maori women, but I’m not sure - ‘and shell-work from Sydney, made by Queen Emma at the Aboriginal camp at La Perouse.’ Now this time shell-work is on display with women’s work, including items made I think by Maori women as well as work made by white missionary women from La Perouse and elsewhere.

Back in Sydney the same year - that’s 1910 - you could also find Aboriginal women’s shell-work on sale at the Royal Agricultural Show, the Royal Easter Show. There it was included as part of what was known as the Aboriginal Exhibit which could be found in the Industrial Pavilion, although as one newspaper article pointed out, ‘in a quiet corner of it.’ Apart from shell-work again, the exhibit included mats and articles made by mission children. But the proceeds apparently, according to the accounts I’ve been able to read, were distributed among the people who made the objects. In 1910, that came, reportedly, to 30 pounds in total.

I think it’s just worth noting at that point that there was quite a lot of description of shell-work in the metropolitan press and that the discussion of it centred on its artistic qualities. And I just wanted to say that because I think it tempers this idea that discussing shell-work as art object is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Now, I’ll just do this bit briefly. In the same early twentieth century period, Aboriginal women’s shell-work was beginning to circulate in a local tourist market. So if Aboriginal women had somehow found a market for their handiwork in metropolitan missionary exhibitions, in international exhibitions of Australian manufactures, and in the Industrial Pavilion at the local agricultural show, then it seems they were also turning their hand to modifying their wares to cater to the tourist market that was emerging and expanding in their own backyard at La Perouse.

The point I really wanted to make in this paper, in a way, where I’m seeking to counteract this new narrative of ‘at last shell-work has become art’, is that all of these various markets were operating in similar periods and they clearly overlapped for some time. It’s a malleable and quite mobile little object which moves in and out of markets.

But it is true that it’s mainly a souvenir, that shell-work continued to be produced from the 1930s onwards, and that the tourist trade became the most important for it and that’s been the emphasis in the histories of it.

While shell-work made in this period from the 1930s onwards and for this market never really lost the vestiges of its Victorian decorative origins - apparently the little baby shoes and the heart-shaped trinket boxes remained the most popular items - new items like shelled miniature boomerangs, kookaburras, maps of Australia and Sydney Harbour Bridges of course began to be made.

Now it seems to me this has been underplayed because it’s a story about women’s work and women’s objects. But women in this period, as it moves into tourism, begin to adapt the iconography that Aboriginal men are using on their Harbour Bridges. And so this is moving from being, say, made in the female world, into becoming part of shared Aboriginal souvenir industry.

So I just want to show the ways in which the kookaburras, the boomerangs, the shell-work is actually the sorts of images being used on the souvenirs made by Aboriginal men. And then there’s a crossover in terms of the women making shell-work using the same iconography.

So what happens in the tourist context is that Aboriginal woman’s shell-work is displayed not alongside other women’s or children’s handiwork so much; rather it’s sold in company with souvenir boomerangs and other identifiably Aboriginal objects. And somehow this Victorian era women’s craft becomes identifiably Aboriginal. It stops being made mainly by white women and continues to be made by Aboriginal women. I think critical to that is the rise of Aboriginal family-owned tourist enterprises and businesses. And it’s a whole area I think that requires much further study.

So as you see in this image [image shown], Joe Timbery in the postwar period develops his own store at the La Perouse mission and actually also has a stall at the Royal Easter Show each year. And there you can see at the back, the shell-work being sold alongside the wooden objects made by men.

So, just to finish up, what I wanted to do is give a broad picture of some of the markets - local, domestic, metropolitan and international - in which Aboriginal women’s shell-work circulated over about a 100-year period from the 1870s to the 1970s.

In an effort to counteract what I see as an overly progressive narrative currently emerging about shell-work, I wanted to stress the ways in which these different markets overlapped or were blurred at least for a time and to outline also the relatively long history that precedes shell-work’s transformation into souvenir and then into contemporary art object.

My concern has been largely to draw out continuities between past and present, and not least this includes shell-work’s enduring economic importance to Aboriginal women, although at times more lucrative than at others. I’ve also wanted to show the ways in which the makers have consistently adapted, with some acuity, their designs and ways of working to suit the markets that become available to them, even as the shell-work they made stubbornly retained something of the quality of a Victorian-era feminine decorative craft. Thanks. [applause]

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Maria, I was really interested in what you said about the trade in the shell-work perhaps to ships, because I believe that a lot of the Tasmanian necklaces are overseas in America because they went there. I think it would be worth while looking at where the main shipping routes for visitors were going at certain times and looking in collections, and even on eBay there might be material emerging from America, for example - some of the 1880s material, maybe.

MARIA NUGENT: I agree. I think one of the problems with the shell-work is that it doesn’t last terribly well. It is made with paper, cardboard and glue, and the cloth starts … I mean, I’ve had pieces where the cloth gets eaten by insects. I did try to follow a piece that had been given to a missionary who was visiting from Canada, who actually has quite a large collection of African art held in the national museum in Canada. I wrote to the family and asked, because there’s a reference that he was given a piece as a gift, but they didn’t have any record. I think it’s not kind of held on because it doesn’t look kind of recognizably - the thing about the sailors’ pieces is that they are made of wood so that might be an advantage.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: I just wondered, Maria, if you had any thoughts about why the contemporary work has got this full volume texture and colour to it?

MARIA NUGENT: I think probably the old work has colour to it in terms of the choice of, say, the fabrics that are used. I mean they do use kind of red velvet and red cloth. I’m not sure where the idea of dyeing the shells comes from. I spoke to Lola’s daughter the other day, and she said that her mother would often dye shells in order to make yellow and black cockatoos, not just the kookaburra which lends itself to brown and white shells, and that she would dye those black and yellow in order to do it. They say that one of the things about making shell-work is the availability of materials. I think what happens in the war and post-war period is that they’re picking up fabric from local clothing factories. La Perouse is close to clothing factories, and women are working in them. So one of the jobs that women do, as well as working in the hospital, is actually working in the clothing industry. I think maybe the colour comes from being able to access [cloth]. What I’d really like to know is who thought of glitter.

The other issue there, of course, is the availability of shells. Some of these colours and brightness is compensating for the variety of shells that are now available, which is far less than it used to be. So you don’t have the range of shells to play with.

MICHAEL PICKERING: I’m going to wind you up there. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 7 June 2010