Rex Greeno is helping to revive traditional canoe-making skills, which have not been seen in Tasmania since the early 19th century.
by Carol Cooper, Senior Curator, Collections Development
This modern Tasmanian paperbark canoe, featured in the Museum's Hall, was made to an ancient blueprint by Rex Greeno. At 4.7 metres in length, it is an impressive example of the canoes made by Aboriginal people in the 19th century to journey around coastal Tasmania and its offshore islands.
Born on Flinders Island in the Bass Strait, Greeno's Aboriginal heritage comes from his mother, Dulcie Greeno, a noted shell necklace maker, and his grandfather, Silas Mansell, who taught him muttonbirding, kangaroo and wallaby snaring, and how to make craypots and boats. A fisherman like his father, Greeno drew upon his background to make traditional Tasmanian paperbark canoes.
After his retirement, Greeno used his knowledge of the sea as inspiration for reconstructing the canoes, which have not been seen in Tasmania since the early 19th century. He taught himself the craft of canoe making by reading extensively and experimenting with collecting and processing various raw materials and ways of constructing the canoes. This is the fifth canoe that Greeno has constructed, and was specially commissioned by the Museum. Greeno made it with the help of his son Dean and grandson Harrison to pass these ancient skills on to new generations. 'It is an important Tasmanian Aboriginal people's craft practice that needs to be revived, and for us to do this, we need to learn the knowledge and practise the skills,' said Greeno.
French explorers visiting Tasmania in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and other early European settlers to the island, made frequent references to bark canoes that were paddled around southern Tasmania and its offshore islands. The canoes were said to be strong enough to carry up to six men across stormy seas, and often included a hearth at one end, which carried fire from one place to another. As well as allowing travel across water, they were used in the search for swan and duck eggs and for hunting seals. Models of the canoes were made for Europeans by Aboriginal people at the time, and rare examples survive in museum collections including the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London.
Greeno researched early historical information, including late 18th and early 19th century accounts by maritime explorers such as Labillardiere, Freycinet and Peron. He also read the 1829–34 field journals of conciliator GA Robinson, first published by NJB Plomley in 1966. Their descriptions and drawings of canoes greatly influenced Greeno’s ambition to create a larger family-sized canoe with a fire hearth. Robinson's journal entries describe the skill and ingenuity of their makers:
These catamarans are ingeniously constructed of the bark of the tea-tree shrub, and when properly made are perfectly safe and are able to brave a rough sea. They cannot sink from the buoyancy of the material and the way in which they are constructed prevents them from upsetting. The catamaran is made of short pieces of the bark … which when collected in a mass are tied together with long grass.
In 2007 Greeno became involved with a project at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery to develop a new Tasmanian Aboriginal Gallery, ningenneh tunapry, which focused on cultural renewal and contemporary connections with traditions stretching back thousands of years. This included the renewal of the practice of making bark canoes, not seen for over 170 years. Scans of one of the original 19th century canoe models in their collection showed that internally the three bark hulls, which when bound together formed the distinctive canoe-shaped vessel, consisted of many smaller bundles of cut and rolled paperbark.
This insight gave Greeno and other community members the ability to experiment with the construction of the canoes. Greeno's first attempt was a successful model, which gave him the confidence to build his first full-scale canoe in 2008 for the Museum of Victoria. In 2010 his second canoe was selected for the 27th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin and was purchased by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. A third canoe was made for the National Gallery of Australia.
The Museum is extremely proud to have secured the fourth and largest in Greeno's series of remarkable Tasmanian bark canoes.
The Tasmanian bark canoe is on display in the Museum's Hall.