Lola Greeno’s Purmaner

Lola Greeno is a Tasmanian Aboriginal who combines the energy and improvisation of a contemporary arts practice with a tradition tracing back thousands of years. Born on Cape Barren Island in 1946, Greeno moved to Flinders Island and then Launceston in 1972. Greeno has continued the work of her mother and her mother’s mother. She specialises in traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklace threading and today her works are enjoying mainstream recognition, respect and demand.

Greeno is one of a handful of women shell-stringers responsible for ensuring the craft is passed from the Elders. Close personal connections between women have been essential in transmitting these skills and related values: ‘I learned to make solely from working with my mother … It was my mother who was very keen for us to work together and this has been the important cultural lesson I learnt from her – teaching respect for one another. My life has grown so much from my mother (Lola Greeno, discussion with the author, April 2004).

Greeno has dedicated Purmaner, 2004, to her mother Val MacSween, explaining that ‘Purmaner means my mother’. It is a dynamic work that reveals a familiarity with the dozen or so shell types from which distinctive patterns emerge. Greeno inherently understands the message each shell transmits. This string of iridescent maireener shells, yellow oat shells and stripy button shells, collected from the beaches of Flinders Island and mainland Tasmania, reflects an exuberant joy in practising culture.

Senior Tasmanian shell-workers are now working together with their own daughters or other family members to continue the skills of this practice. Greeno has described the imperative of passing on the tradition: ‘My future work is to teach my daughter and my grand-daughter to appreciate the significance of their cultural heritage by becoming the next generation of shell-makers. My dream is to see my daughter exhibit alongside of me’ (Discussion with the author).

The National Gallery of Victoria first recognised the significance of this practice and the visual quality of the resulting works by collecting six necklaces in 1995 and now holds ten necklaces in its growing collection of Tasmanian shell-work created by Joan Brown, June Brown, Corrie Fullard, Dulcie Greeno and Lola Greeno.

The maireener (Phasianotrochus irisodontes), a shell valued highly for its brilliant iridescence, is collected on correct tides from particular sea plants. The shells are cleaned, painstakingly sorted, then pierced and strung. The process can take from several months to a year, from collecting the shells to tying the final knot on a completed strand. Most shell-workers prefer creating with mixed shell types, where each strand carries its own specific aesthetic beauty, personal and cultural meaning and style identifiable to each maker.

Shell necklaces are markers of time-in-place for shell-workers. Shell types and the way they are strung signifies how an individual was working at a particular period and hence can assist in identifying necklaces with their makers. Each strand also reminds its maker when, where and why a necklace was made. Necklaces were and still are made as gifts and for trade – today this also includes the contemporary fine art market. Shell-work is fundamental to the makers’ lives, as Greeno explains: ‘My shell-making in my life is my whole cultural being … I could not exist properly without making shell-work’ (Discussion with the author).

Dr Julie Gough, Curator of Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).