On the West Kimberley coast, Aboriginal artists fashion beautiful ornaments from valves of the pearl oyster. Pearl shell—nacreous, gleaming with a subtle play of colours—is perceived to be the essence of water, life itself. The gleam of shell in the sun or by firelight represents flashes of lightning that herald rain-bearing clouds. Lightning is also one manifestation of the ancestral Rainbow Serpent, whose power may be released by the manipulation of pearl shell objects by senior lawmen.
Pearl shell can be decorated with either geometric or figurative motifs. Engraved zigzags and mazes symbolise water, tidal marks or wind rippling the surface of water. They can also represent lightning. Shells engraved with naturalistic images are often records of Aboriginal experiences in the pearling and cattle industries, while others depict more traditional themes.
Although in many areas pearl shell is used in male initiation ceremonies, men, women and children in the Kimberley also wear it on festive or formal occasions. Women also play an important role in moving shell along the extensive traditional trade routes that still exist in remoter areas today.
This shell, tied to a belt spun from human hair, probably originated within one of the Aboriginal communities located along Eighty Mile Beach, south of Broome. It was collected about 1900 by the captain of a pearling lugger. The engraved maze that covers the lustrous inner surface would once have been infilled with pigment—red or yellow ochre or perhaps crushed charcoal—that would further enhance the scintillating, almost hypnotic effect produced by the flashing shell.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010