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Arts stories

The unbroken string

The unbroken string - Lola Greeno

Against a backdrop of both raw beauty and dark history, the shell necklaces of indigenous artist, Lola Greeno, keep the stories of the Furneaux Island women alive. And for that she has just been awarded a great honour. 

Lola is preserving one of the most significant, and unique, cultural traditions of her Bass Strait home. The ancient craft of shell stringing that has been handed down through the generations.

And, on May 27, coincidentally her 73rd birthday, Lola was presented with a Red Ochre Award for lifetime achievement at the Sydney Opera House. A birthday gift she calls "one of the biggest honours bestowed on an indigenous artist".

Shell necklaces are Lola’s connection to ‘country’.

She is descended from 6 generations of shell stringers, including her great-grandmother who was one of the main shell teachers on Cape Barren Island.

“My thought was that I should carry on the legacy of my mother and my grandmother’s story, and it is important for that to be handed onto the next generation,” Lola says.

“Shell necklaces tell the story of Tasmanian aboriginal women’s cultural practices. And, once you own your story, then it’s easier to share it.”

Island stories
The unbroken string - Lola Greeno shell choker

The unbroken string - Lola Greeno shell choker

Lola was born on isolated Cape Barren Island during a time of repression. The Cape Barren Island Reserve Act was still in place and curfews enforced.

But, in her young eyes it was an idyllic childhood: “We lived on a little property of five acres near the beach and had our own vegetable garden, and my dad and the boys used to spear kangaroo and go fishing.”

Her fondest memories are wandering along beaches painstakingly searching for special shells: Shells like the ‘Toothy’ that’s shaped like a baby’s tooth. Or ones named after birds: the dark ‘Crow’; the grey ‘Gull’; the black and white ‘Penguin’ shell. 

Lola’s favourite time of the year was ‘bird season’ when the family would relocate to nearby Babel Island for six weeks in March to go mutton birding. Sunday was rest day, and the young girls would spend wonderful times with elders, collecting shells.

“I would walk along the isolated beach with my mother and other older women. That’s how I was introduced into the shells. We picked them up, and I handed them to elders,” Lola reminisces.

Tasmania’s aboriginal women have been making these delicate strands of shells for thousands of years. It’s an intricate craft with many of the original necklaces made from small sparkling maireener shells threaded onto sinew from kangaroo tails.

"What is unique about Tasmania is that the maireener shells were collected live from the water and picked one by one from the kelp,” Lola explains.

“They were then taken to the shore and placed in a larger shell, and a fire was built up around them. The smoke would clean out the shell to reveal a beautiful greeny, blue iridescent colour.”

Lost treasures
The unbroken string - Lola Greeno and necklaces

The unbroken string - Lola Greeno and necklaces

Lola has already been declared a ‘living treasure’.

Her shell necklaces are exhibited in major galleries around Australia, including the National Gallery in Canberra and MONA, where they are prized for their exquisite patterns.

She has also just wrapped up her successful four-year touring exhibit Cultural Jewels, and is represented by Tasmania’s Handmark Gallery.

These days Lola lives in Launceston, and spends time collecting shells with her daughter and granddaughters.

But her life is dedicated to keeping this important cultural tradition – which was in danger of becoming lost – alive for future generations.  

The art of shell-stringing virtually disappeared in the early years of colonization, especially during the devastating Black War. The stolen years, which separated daughters from mothers, added to that loss.

“I went to an old age home the other day and this lady said to me, ‘I never learnt from my mum how to make shell necklaces’. And I said, I am going to bring some shells out and we are going to do it together,” Lola explains.

“It’s never too late to learn.”

Images courtesy of The Mercury and ABC News.

26 June 2019, Edition 206

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