Pearl Shells and Mysteries

Earlier this week, a reader wrote to me suggesting that we form a Nick Rothwell fan club. Tonight I’m ready to begin, for there’s a new article by Rothwell in today’s Australian about Aubrey Tigan, the artist from One-Arm Point who carves the lovely pearl shell pendants known as riji. So take a break from the controversy and read this startling piece of art history and criticism.

If you’re not familiar with this work, plenty of examples can be found on the website of the Short Street Gallery. (For a quicker but shallower overview, google “aubrey tigan” and click on the images tab. The real richness and variety of his work isn’t as well represented–though all the examples come from Short St.–but you have the advantage of seeing many works side by side in the Google display.)

Apart from the depth of his historical survey, Rothwell makes explicit a link that had somehow eluded me, and which seems so obvious now. The designs of the traditional pearl shell carving are in many ways nearly the same as designs found in paintings from the Western Desert. Check out the current offerings in the Men’s Gallery at Papunya Tula’s website for example by Lindsay Corby Tjapaltjarri (LC0411001). In a different, looser style of meander, there’s a painting by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri on the second page of Tony Bond’s website that bears a strong resemble to some of Tigan’s designs.

I wonder sometimes at how obtuse I can be, and how much information goes in my eyes and out my ears without stopping at my brain. I wrote about the historical trading links between the northwest coast and the desert in my essay on Bush Mechanics several months ago. And yet somehow, I passed by the obvious iconographical similarities in the designs. Go figure.

Even more dramatic is the suggestion that the meander designs on these works may have come to Australia through Macassan contacts. The meander is certainly a staple of art design across Eurasia for over two thousand years, and the thought that there might be an actual link between the Aboriginal art tradition and those Eurasian traditions is even more strikingly novel than the simple and obvious connections between the coast and the desert. 

And the final connection, again an obvious one, but unremarked on by Rothwell, is between the work of Aubrey Tigan, a Djawi man from the Dampier Peninsula, and the Bardi artist Roy Wiggan, whose nephew Bruce has also been carving pearl shell of late in a style clearly influenced by Aubrey Tigan’s work. The themes of cyclones and whirlpools are common to both, dominating, as Rothwell makes clear, the coastal experiences of these men. 

All in all, a most thought-provoking essay.

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