The irridescent Maireener shells that make the grandest of Greeno's necklaces - photo - John Leeming
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 11.09.14
Location: Object Gallery, Surry Hills, Sydney
The first Indigenous artist/craftsman has been recognised as a Living Treasure – Master of Australian Craft. Tasmania's Lola Greeno joins a distinguished list of Treasures which includes potters Les Blakebrough and Jeff Minchin, glass artist Klaus Moje, and jeweller Marian Hosking. Part of the honour includes a four-year national tour exhibiting her work and a tribute catalogue.
The 68-year old, born Lola Sainty, has come a long way from Prickly Bottom, Cape Barren Island where her idyllic childhood was spent farming a sustainable block of land, going to church, mutton-birding and collecting shells. Her description of it at the opening of her exhibition in Sydney's Object Gallery (having debuted in her home town of Launceston) was refreshingly different from fellow Tassie artists artists like Ricky Maynard, who paint a gloomy picture more in accord with the politics of the 19th Century's Black Wars, which saw all surviving Aborigines exiled to the Bass Strait Islands with a quite natural sense of grievance.
Even Greeno admitted that Cape Barren had “gone off since”, with the introduction of regular flights bringing in the outside world, and alcohol. Fortunately, her family had moved to Flinders Island when she was 12.
What's odd in the career of this dynamic lady - who now has a Fine Arts degree, worked as an arts officer for Arts Tasmania organising many a collaborative project, has taught fellow Aboriginal women her crafts and been involved in 33 exhibitions, including the Athens Cultural Olympiad and the Kanazawa Triennial in Japan – is that she only started talking to her mother Valerie about making necklaces in the 1990s when she almost 50. Maybe the ceremonial aspect of Tasmanian necklaces - photographs of Truganini, supposedly “the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine” show her wearing a multi-strand shell necklace, and Greeno reports that a necklace would invariably be taken off and broken “when a woman close to you passed on” - suggested that a woman had to pass through levels of initiation before tackling the craft?
Well, she's certainly made up for it since! And it's not just a simple matter of popping down to the beach and scooping up your shells. For the best ones are not those cast aside on the beach by dead molluscs, but those still worn by the living, collected seasonally from the sea at just the right tide condition. And the little bastards disguise themselves on the 'bubble-weed' (seaweed), then drop out of sight if they sense Lola's hands at work.
Once taken, they spend four weeks outdoors dying, and the cleansed shells still need an acid bath (using a “secret formula”) to reveal their iridescence. And after all these technicalities, the shells have to be sorted into size and pattern, and decisions have to be taken about their matching and stringing. In the old days, before the invader provided metal needles, only the larger, gorgeously green Maireener shells could stay whole under the assault of a needle made from a kangaroo jaw-bone, before being strung on a length of the same animal's sinew. Now much smaller crow(black), penguin (white) and gull(grey) shells – plus mussels, scallops and abalone - make for deliciously varied possibilities.
Seasonal unavailability of shells has meant that Greeno has brought alternative cultural materials into her craft – especially road-killed “porcupines” (echidna) whose quills can be drilled and strung into necklaces and ear-rings after four months in the ground. Then there's kelp – used in the past to construct water-carriers – now turned into a political art-work naming Tasmania's nine former tribal regions or kerligener. The nine different colours of Tassie possum fur are recorded, woven into arm-bands. The formerly rejected mutton-bird feathers have become a Yolla necklace. She's even conjured a sculptural piece out of ochred kangaroo vertebrae!
Sustainability shouldn't be an issue, Greeno insists. But she did also admit that the big green Maireeners were in such short supply that it might take 2 years to fulfil a commission – especially one as grand as the Crown she's created from 145 Maireeners in tribute to Lucy Beeton, the first Aboriginal teacher and trader in the Bass Strait – where she was known as 'Queen of the Islands'. Necklaces were noted on both men and women in Tasmania when the French first took root there in 1797. And though the later British colonists made little Indigenous contact until they brutally pushed north in pursuit of farming land in the late 1820s, the notorious George Augustus Robinson would note at this precarious time that “the Aboriginal people resolutely maintained their cultural activities and respected their protocols”.
And you can hear how Lola Greeno has maintained the story-telling tradition in recordings that can be found at the Object website.
Future extensive touring plans are as follows:
Hawkesbury Regional Gallery 17 October 7 December, 2014
Bathurst Regional Art Gallery 6 February 22 March, 2015
Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo 18 April 28 June, 2015
Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery 24 July 6 September, 2015
Tamworth Regional Gallery 17 October 30 November, 2015
Cowra Regional Art Gallery 12 December, 2015 11 February, 2016
JamFactory, Adelaide 19 February 22 April, 2016
Alcoa Mandurah Art Gallery, WA, 13 May 31 July, 2016
Bunbury Regional Art Galleries 28 October 4 December, 2016
Geraldton Regional Art Gallery 16 December 4 February, 2017
Artisan, Brisbane 24 February 28 April, 2017
Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, 12 May 18 June, 2017
Noosa Regional Gallery 30 June 3 September 2017
Wagga Wagga Art Gallery 18 September 17 December, 2017
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery 8 February 15 April, 2018
Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, Hobart 1 May 31 July, 2018
A carrier necklace (2012) in the Object show, made from abalone shells and echidna quills - photo - Jeremy Eccles
Lola Greeno triumphant at her Tas U graduation ceremony. Image Courtesy of Lola Greeno