Selling Yarns 2

Innovation for sustainability



All that glitters … : an exploration of Aboriginal women's knowledge production in shell-art practise on the South Coast of NSW

Session: Mentoring between communities Friday 6 March 2009 10:40 – 12:05pm

Daphne Nash

PhD Candidate, Research School of Humanities, ANU


For many years the shell art of Aboriginal women on the South Coast has been an icon of Indigenous knowledge in that region. It is on the record since the 1880s that Koori women have been engaged in the manufacture and sale of shell work objects. Throughout this time, some commentators have criticised the shell work for being neither ‘sufficiently nor unambiguously Aboriginal’. The recent revival in shell art practice further tests the categorisation into simple binary oppositions such as Aboriginal and Western, traditional and contemporary, art and craft. In many ways these binaries are not sustainable as contemporary artists explicitly connect with their cultural heritage in new ways.

Some South Coast Koori women are concerned that their cultural practices are in danger of fading away and are acting to prevent the loss of shell work knowledge. At the beginning of June this year, Koori women held a workshop at Wallaga Lake to pass on their knowledge while they met to shell, to yarn and generally enjoy each other’s company. The women expressed their motivations for doing shell work and demonstrated their commitment to the expression of particular ideas and values. This paper explores their agency in a process of cultural revitalisation and sustainability. It examines the explicit and implicit knowledge contained in these works, emphasising the complex, contingent, collaborative and innovative nature of contemporary modes of knowledge production.

See also: Daphne Nash's biography