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Red Case: Myths and rituals

Aubrey Tigan


Unknown artist Two flying fish 1920-35 pearl, ochre National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Aubrey Tigan Riji 2009 carved pearl shell and red ochre National Gallery of Australia, Canberra enlarge

Aboriginal people associate the iridescent lustre of pearl shells with the shimmering qualities of water, rain and lightning. Highly prized as ornaments and ceremonial objects, pearl shells were exchanged along a vast system of inland trade routes that stretched from the Kimberley region in north Western Australia to central and southern Australia.

Aboriginal men from the Kimberley region wore decorated pearl shells, known as riji or jakuli in the Bardi language, during ceremonies. Large shells were attached to hair belts worn around the waist, while smaller shells were worn around the neck.

Pearl shell comes from pearl oysters, gathered at low tides or from off-shore reefs or sourced from cultured pearl farms. After a lengthy process of cleaning, chipping and grinding the outer shell, the shiny inner face is ready for engraving. Contemporary Aboriginal artists continue to maintain cultural customs by engraving traditional geometric or figurative designs. The designs are highlighted with a mixture of ochre or charcoal and resin or fat, which is rubbed into the grooves.

Aubrey Tigan lives on the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome, Western Australia, and is a respected traditional elder and lawman from the Bardi and Djawi people. He is a trained jeweller and a renowned carver, pearl shell being his preferred medium. He engraves on pearl shell to maintain traditional culture. He uses old and new designs, which he often sees in his dreams and which draw on his deep knowledge of the coastal environment.

  • Close your eyes and turn the riji over in your hands. What does it feel like? Hold it up to the light and see how the surface changes and shimmers. Describe what you see.
  • Draw an outline of a pearl shell on shiny paper. Design a pattern that relates to water in your environment and draw it on your pearl-shell shape.
  • Can you think of an object used during a special event in your life? Perhaps it is kept in a particular place and only brought out for important occasions. Does it have any special qualities?