Pictured above is the bust made in Truganini’s likeness that is held in the Australian Museum in Sydney. It is a copy of an earlier one made by Benjamin Law but there is an obvious difference between it and the original. In the copy the sculpted shell necklace, a prominent feature of the original, has been removed. Its absence begs numerous questions, not least of which is why anyone would go to the trouble of redacting the shell necklace from the original sculpture when Truganini has such a strongly identificatory and immediately recognizable connection with maireeners.
The museum’s notes attempts an answer:
The Australian Museum has two sets of busts of Wouraddy and Truganini. One set is made to imitate the bronze sculpture as originally intended by the artist and Robinson. The second set is painted to reproduce natural colours, although Truganini’s shell necklace is absent. The reason for this omission is not known, we can only speculate that the extra work required to remove the necklace from the sculpture was justified. It probably was not for an aesthetic reason. The ‘last minute’ rush for documenting the physical characteristics of the original Tasmanians in the second half of the 19th century created a market for images, casts and even human remains. It is therefore possible that this bust of Trugunini was intended as an equivalent of a ‘human specimen’ where decorations were not needed, even if their removal diminished personal and cultural identity.
The suggestion seems unlikely. If the necklace was removed to turn the three-dimensional image into a ‘human specimen’, why would whoever did so leave the cloak in situ? The pelts cover far more of the figure than a necklace does. It makes little sense. The notes also refer to the “fact that the sculpture was purchased from Thomas Peter Anderson Stuart, a prominent administrator and educator in the field of health and medicine” who was professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Sydney, and who had a long-standing interest in the cicatrices of Aboriginal people. In 1896 he published a widely cited paper on the subject . Given his expertise, it seems highly unlikely that he could have thought that Truganini was hiding her scarifications under her necklace. And we should bear in mind that Stuart was the last private owner of the piece, not the original commissioner of the re-crafted bust. Whether or not the necklace was there when he acquired remains unknown.
In any case, for me a more interesting question is what the absence of a necklace does to image of Truganini. Other images of Truganini that include a necklace, either sculpted or added as an accessory, seem more “real” and without one the bust seems like a death mask rather than a celebration. Perhaps it’s simply that the necklace is an item that is so closely identified with her that it almost seems to be a part of her. In fact, sometimes the shell necklaces are called Truganini necklaces, even though they are not hers alone. Perhaps they weren’t hers at all.
Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Lenna Maynard’s bust of Truganini features a real shell necklace, beautifully made and added to the sculpture as an accessory. Subsequent to that placement, a part of the creation of the bust, who does the necklace belong to? Having been placed there by the artist, can (rather than ought) it be separated from the sculpture without changing it? If the owner decides that a necklace-less sculpture is more appealing can it be removed, as in the sculpture mentioned above? If whoever owns the piece, having bought it from the artist with her blessing, decides that the necklace is more valuable than the sculpture, can the two be separated? Is such a cleft more than artistic vandalism? Is it cultural sacrilege?
Artist, jeweler and cultural researcher, Ray Norman in a paper called Truganini’s Necklaces, delivered in January 2010 at the ‘Oceanic Passages Conference’ organised by the Centre For Colonialism and Its Aftermaths (CAIA) at the University of Tasmania, refers to David Hansen’s paper Seeing Truganini:
Dr. David Hansen in his recent essay ‘Seeing Truganini’ among other things talks about the ways we might look at Benjamin Law’s bust of Truganini and says:“Representations of Aborigines are not calibrated against the lie of the land, the history of the invasion, the character of the parties involved, the specific sequence of particular incidents or the sensitivity and technical accomplishment of the artist. Instead we are presented with an abstract zone of retrospective judgement, a killing field of theory, a terra nullius where imported European aesthetic stock – the Picturesque, the Sublime, the Grotesque, the Melancholy – may safely graze”.
Hansen proposed another way to look at Truganini, one that allows us to speak about everything that we can see in how she is represented but for Norman there is no comfort in the Postmodernist belief that truth is myth, and myth is truth. He clearly defines what he means by the term “necklace” – which is entirely appropriate, given that in some international contexts the word has horrific connotations. Instead, Norman stresses the concept of a necklace includes its giving and receiving:
Necklaces are given their meaning once possessed and by their possessors. Typically they wait to be given a social function or perhaps some personal significance once they move out of ‘the market place’ and are contextualised as a possession.
And Norman adds another dimension to the action, perhaps one related to his background as a maker of jewelry as much as it is to his expertise as a cultural geographer. He argues that there is a meaning within the making of a necklace:
The making of one clearly seems to connect people to place. Likewise, the receiving of one seems to connect people to a set of beliefs and imaginings to do with a place and its stories. In so many ways a maireener seems to be something like a symbolic umbilical cord that connects people to both place and culture – ways of believing and being.
Norman proposes that mairreeners are signifiers of a cultural practice that goes beyond the creation of them as pieces of art or jewelry. As a contemporary exercise, the making and the giving of shell necklaces connects the receiver to contemporary beliefs, stories and places, given that the maker is Aboriginal. However, nowadays the recipient also has agency in the exercise. Non-Aboriginal people who are given a necklace have no obligation to imbue the gift with characteristics of something that they are not invested in because the necklace has potency as jewelry regardless of its umbilical symbolism.
In mass consumerist cultures, jewellery seems to have become for the most part an adornment that indicates a personal aesthetic. There are of course exceptions, remnants of earlier times such as wedding rings, which still convey more meaning by their wearing than only what is inherent in them as objects. It is a tangential but interesting observation then, that many Tasmanian Aboriginal people who are married wear a wedding ring, apparently at ease with the European practice of stylizing exclusivity and commitment in institutionally sanctioned relationships.
Before Tasmanian Aboriginal people were exposed to and eventually overrun by European cultural practices, it seems likely that they made shell necklaces that were worn primarily as adornments. Their fabrication was a complex, time-consuming process that required aesthetic finesse as much as physical dexterity. A shell necklace is an evolving cultural ritual as much as it is a beautiful artifact, resulting in a gift worth giving and the giving as significant as the gift. Giving and receiving gifts is a cultural ritual that reinforces social cohesion. Norman argues that the giving, receiving and wearing of necklaces is a cultural ritual that has evolved from past to the present and enhanced its agency as the Community has evolved within the cultural landscape it now exist in.
Not everyone is prepared to accept such an evolution without question. For example, the English novelist Nicholas Shakespeare in the rambling account of his attempts to secure a place for himself In Tasmania, describes a meeting with a new-found cousin during which she shows him a “halo of green Mariner shells, each the size of a child’s tooth” When he asks her where it came from, she replied that it was Truganini’s.
And she told how Truganini used to call at the kitchen of her grandmother’s three-storey house in Battery Point, and ask for food and grog, usually hot ale and ginger, and in return Truganini gave the daughters of the house necklaces. “Granny kept the necklace in the china cabinet and we would play dressings-up with it. It was so long that I would wind it two or three times around my neck.”
I lifted the frail circle and imagined the hands that had polished and strung these tiny shells. .
Shakespeare assumes the guise of an innocent everyman to ask questions of the contemporary Aboriginal community in Tasmania. Specifically, he asks how they can refer to themselves as Aborigines when Truganini was the last of the race. Despite being repeatedly told that Truganini was not the last of her race, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal people have a community that is shaped by Aboriginal genealogies, Aboriginal cultural practices and Aboriginal relationship to their country, none of which has anything to do with Truganini per se. But that is not to say that she, physically or symbolically, does not play any part in contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples’ relationship with, to and within the past. Her reach is far too wide for that and her association with shell necklaces too ingrained in both black and white Tasmania. Shakespeare’s is simply too narrow a view of the contemporary Aboriginal community to accommodate the evolution of shell necklaces as cultural signifiers, one that sees the necklaces as no more than artefactual relics of an inaccessible past.
As a counter, Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough uses a representation of an Aboriginal shell necklace with arresting directness in her prize-winning 2008 work “Fugitive History”, and lest anyone not understand what she is referring to, she hangs it the shape of Tasmania. But her large, imposing necklace is made from the deliberate opposite of frail and tiny shells. Hers is made from big lumps of coal. In her exhibition notes, she sums up the context and purpose of the work:
Fugitive History is a triptych of works that together present a codified reading of Van Diemen’s Land. The frontier of early Tasmania is full of truncated stories of escape and violence. Interactions in this colonial landscape were uneasily shared by Aboriginal people, convicts, the ‘landed’ and the desperate. … Fugitive History in part reflects the pressure on Aboriginal people to conform culturally with the West in order to survive. The chair is an abacus – able to quantify change, difference, and loss between then and now; the spear/oar is both and yet neither – uncertain of its status; the necklace formed from basal earth and strung with the darkest coal of central Tasmania reflects the sadness of my distance from the shell necklace tradition once worn everyday by Tasmanian Aboriginal women, and now maintained by precious few .
It is striking that Julie Gough uses a “shell necklace” to refer to her personal sadness at the loss of the common-place; the normal, everyday, take-it-for-granted immersion into her ancestral culture. Not only does that absence make Truganini a personally influential as well as a culturally significant ancestral figure, it also (and in this context more importantly) makes the purpose of shell necklaces strikingly relevant to the contemporary Community as it interacts with and defines itself within the mainstream society, and the making, giving and receiving of a necklace is an immediate rather than historical interaction even as its significance subsumes a traditional practice.
Gough also refers to another aspect to shell necklaces that warrants comment. For a while they were a business. Bass Strait Islander women made them to sell along with mutton-bird oil and feathers and other products that were sent to Launceston in the first half of the twentieth century. On the one hand it may seem to be an abuse of one of the few remaining traditional cultural practices but on the other it provided a meagre but desperately needed income. Although turning the necklace into a handicraft allowed the skills to remain current, it also assigned a non-Aboriginal and grossly under-valued worth to the necklaces. Conflating necklaces with Truganini allowed a veneer of exotic otherness to be added, even if the conflation was dubious.
Nonetheless, and as Ray Norman noted, so strong is the association that Tasmanian Aboriginal shell-necklaces are also known as Truganini necklaces. But actually, Truganini wears a shell necklace in relatively few of her representations, with the Law bust and the Woolley photographs the best-known instances. The latter may well have been posed for exhibition purposes because in other photos taken by him, she does not wear one. Nor does she wear one in the photo of her and the Dandridge family with who she lived in the last years of her life. She does wear her red woolen cap – but that is probably not exotic enough for a general public that demands “traditional realism”.
There is a tradition of imposing perceived notions of reality on images of “the exotic other” and the portraiture of many of the world’s indigenous peoples, whether through words, painting or photography, has a profound influence on how the general public regards them. For example, the famous photographs of “American Indians” made by Edward Curtis around the turn of the previous century coloured the attitude of mainstream Americans towards their indigenous peoples in a positive if unrealistic way, even though the portraits were staged and the subjects wore “traditional” clothes that were in actuality costumes provided by the photographer himself.
The same thing happened in Australia. J.W. Lindt’s photography of Australia’s indigenous people was artificially posed to conform or create a stereotype of Australia’s first nations people in much the same way as Curtis posed America’s. While it is obvious that such images are fictions and in some senses “deeply untruthful”, they paradoxically reinforce aspects of their existence that are considered as acceptably genuine. The general public recognises the boomerangs, the possum cloaks and the body art as familiar and appropriate cultural signifiers – even if they are not truthful representations of that culture.
The notion that Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces were jewellery and therefore relegated to women was a comfortable notion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but in fact, not everyone has always agreed that it were the women who wore them. For example, in support of his contention that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were “not without refinement”, the English geologist William Johnson Sollas wrote in 1911 that the
… men, especially when young, were also careful of their appearance: a fully dressed young man wore a necklace of spiral shells and a number of kangaroos’ teeth fastened in his woolly hair.
It should be noted that Sollas had never been to Tasmania and seems to have taken his information from Ling Roth, who is the only one of his references who actually set foot on the island. But on closer inspection, rather than a verifiable and carefully documented field study, Ling Roth’s account is mostly unsubstantiated and contradictory hearsay. For example, on the one hand he recounts a meeting between the French explorer Billardiere and a party of young Tasmanians. One gives him a “few shells of the whelk kind, pierced near the middle and strung like a necklace. … This ornament was the only one he possessed” and Billardiere returns the favour by giving the young man a handkerchief. When the Frenchman ties it around the Tasmanian’s head the latter is reported to be extraordinarily pleased. On the other, he cites an observation of the women that notes “they wore a fillet of gay flowers, of festoons of showy berries, or strings of shells upon their bare heads” while the young men “fasten to their woolly locks the teeth of the kangaroo, short pieces of wood”. Sollas ignores the fact that Ling Roth also cited Leigh, who observed that “they wear necklaces formed of kangaroo sinews rolled in red ochre, and also others of small spiral shells” without specifying which gender wore what.
Neither Billardiere nor Sollas comment on the exchange rather than what is exchanged. Did the Frenchmen value the necklace? Did the Pakana man value the handkerchief, especially when it was fashioned into a headdress? Did either man treasure the received gift? As a shared experience between two disparate cultures, each ignorant of the other’s traditions, aesthetics and conceptions of worthiness, it is a significant event, one of the first that precipitated (albeit unequally) the contextualisation of an entirely new intersection of hitherto unrelated cultural practices.
When the Pakana man gave the French sailor a shell necklace there was obviously no monetary value attached to gift. Perhaps there was none attached to it by the Frenchman either, perhaps it was no more than an amusing trinket. Equally there was no great monetary value attached to the kerchief the sailor gave to the Pakana man. Perhaps his delight came from having it tied around his head. We have only one side of the exchange recorded but it seems to have been a mutually enjoyable experience, the giving and receiving of gifts without regard to value of worth.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition on Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, ningennneh tunapry, includes a substantial section on shell necklace making. Included is a small display of the work of pakana shell-maker Joan Brown. The display includes two poems written by one of her daughters, the poet Karen Brown. The first, written in 1994 and titled ‘the gatherers’, describes how the women go about collecting the shells:
they lie on the sand and weed
these shell necklace makers
keepers of our tradition
their hands sweep across the sand
gathering in the shells
discarding the unwanted
patiently they repeat the ritual
until their jars are full
The poem gives a good indication of the painstaking work collecting the small un-polished shells is. It is something that can be done only when the weather allows and shell-gathering expeditions, especially when the women return to country, become important cultural as well as social occasions.
The second poem, written after Joan Brown’s sudden passing in 2001, adds a reflective note. Karen Brown puts her mother into an ancient and unbroken tradition amongst Aboriginal women and into a non-linear past, an amalgam of people and events that she has direct and immediate access to.
My Mother, the shell necklace maker
I have an image of my mother
a memory of many years sitting on a beach
whose location often varied in time and place
head bent, body stooped, hands gently sweeping the sands
for the tiny perfect shells that she would collect into glass jam jars
their fullness taking weeks or many months, of searching through
the wet, pungent smelling sea weed seeking out even tinier shells that formed the basis of her many strings along with the cultural jewels
Maireeners, green and blue strung into strands
across the years continuing a tradition
Of ancestors past. My mother
a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman
of Cape Barren Island
but never forgotten,
Her strings remain,
A cultural reminder
Of her artistry
Joan Brown was a highly regarded shell necklace maker: her necklaces are held in private collections, museums and galleries around the world. Whatever the purpose of making and giving shell necklaces was and now is, they also exist as art; with the attendant attribute of being evaluated, bought and sold because they are, with authentication, not only beautiful objects but also pieces of highly desirable and therefore valuable art. But, as Norman proposed, when mairreeners have cultural practice and meaning in its generation it is the giving and receiving of them that facilitates transcendence of their function as art.
In 2001 June Brown, the younger of Joan Brown’s daughters, made for and gave to me a shell necklace. The event is the combination of June’s making of it, her giving it to me and my grateful acceptance of it as a meaningful gift, one that links the context of our personal relationship and the occasion to the on-going history of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklace making. None of the individual elements can be taken from it without changing the necklace. Was I to lose it and someone else to find it, that person would have a different necklace to the one I was given. And, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I’d be a different person if I lost it.
It is of no small significance to me that some of the shells June Brown used to make my necklace were collected and cleaned by her mother. I met Joan Brown years ago; me towering over her, she somewhat concerned about being towered over by an inelegant foreigner. Things improved remarkably when we sat down, and we chatted for a while. I don’t remember what we talked about, probably her children and how life was on the island. In the room where the mairreener exhibition is housed, looking at a larger-than-life photograph of her wearing a necklace around her head like a tiara brought the encounter to mind. It was impossible not to be moved by the fact that the necklace I was given to commemorate a particular occasion incorporated shells collected by the woman in the photograph.
Two decades after having received it, I consider what it now connects me to. It certainly connects me to particular people and events that happened at very specific places and times, and thereby to a set of stories. It connects me as an observer rather than as participant to what will always be an alien culture to me, with an alien way of receiving and believing. Nonetheless I am a participant in its meaning because the mental structure that underlies my ability to understand who (where, when and why) I am positions the giving and receiving of it as a particular instance, regardless of the necklace itself. It exists as more than an object; it also exists as a past event with an endless imbroglio of ongoing connections in the present.
Compared to a maireener, a handkerchief may seem to be a paltry gift but the giving and receiving of each seems more balanced. The various diaries of the Frenchmen mention the Pakana man being well pleased, and while we have records of only one side of the exchange, it at least suggests a mutual respect. There is an intimacy both in tying it around the man’s head and allowing it to be tied. For me, that is as much part of the gift as the necklace itself.