Lola Greeno: Reviving the art of shell necklace making
I’m really keen to tell my story about my Aboriginal Ancestry and how shell necklaces are a part of our living heritage.
Lola Greeno, is a Pakana shell stringer from the Furneaux Islands. She was born on Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait.
Growing up the beach was a part of her backyard.
If we went to the beach as kids, without mum or dad, we were given points on the beach to say ‘well you’ve got to be home before the tide reaches this big rock’
On Sundays after church, the children would go to the beach with the elderly women to collect shells. As a child Greeno would choose shells for their colour and texture, not realising the significance to her female Ancestors. These were often sold by the Elders or exchanged for food and clothing. The women would also share knowledge of where to collect the shells.
When Greeno joined her mother Val MacSween, who had moved to live in Launceston, they would often made shell necklaces together. For Greeno this helped safeguard important cultural knowledge and maintained the close bond she held with her mother. She also learned from her mother-in-law, Dulcie Greeno. This was the catalyst for the artist’s practice.
There were a lot of women who were a part of stolen generation that didn’t get to do this… I wanted to see baskets and necklaces revived.
The collection and preparation of shells is labour intensive and integral to Greeno’s practice. Locating and collecting shells can take hours.
You can see a lot of shells on the beach, but not all of them are suitable to thread. Or [there are] certain ways they have to be pierced or threaded.
Shells collected off four different types of seaweed are left outside for several weeks, for the ants and flies to clean out the shellfish. They are then agitated in a solution with a few drops acid solution to remove the outer shell’s skin and rinsed several times in cold water and left to dry overnight.
Shells are traditionally pierced with the eye tooth of a kangaroo bone and threaded on sinew from a kangaroo or wallaby tail. However, Greeno uses modern tools and materials in her practice—each shell is held against a piece of pine or soft wood and pierced with a tailor’s awl. The shells are then pulled onto beading cotton thread.
Changes in the Tasmanian coastal environment has influenced how Greeno collects shells.
We’re always very careful… to make sure that we don’t over collect. So, we’re looking after the environment at the same time. We have to judge whether that part of the sea has changed.
When Greeno first started making necklaces over 30 years ago, they were not highly valued. Today shell necklaces are acknowledged for their cultural importance among the Tasmanian Indigenous women and the broader Australian community and beyond.
These belong to the women. All women have different stories to their necklaces… This is part of my cultural identity.
The National Gallery holds several of Greeno’s works in its collection. Search the collection to find out more.