Sydney Harbour Bridge 2000
'La Per' women artists from the coastal community of La Perouse in Sydney have been working with and earning an income from shell work for generations, with one of the earliest reports from 1882.
The production of this contemporary shell work is based on traditional knowledge and the continuation of age-old cultural practices where shells were used for tools, fishhooks and decoration.
Collecting shells relies on ancestral knowledge and an intimate link to country, with knowledge of where and when to collect being handed down through countless generations. Lola Ryan, a Tharawal/Eora artist, recalled family trips to collect shells from Cronulla Beach, Boat Harbour, Wanda Beach and as far south as the South Coast to Wreck Bay.
During the 1950s and 1960s La Per women, including Ryan’s mother, exhibited and sold their works at the Royal Easter Show and at markets, fairs and department stalls alongside the men’s work; Ryan remembered going to the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Along with her sister Mavis Longbottom, Ryan and many other shell artists learned their practice from the family matriarchs, with family styles and designs often handed down.
Many ‘La Per’ artists, such as Ryan, have worked with iconic images like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and, in doing so, re-craft Australia's image and history and provide a richer understanding of the Sydney landscape.
Questions and activities
Do you recognise this object? Is it a realistic depiction of the original? In what ways is it different? Describe this sculpture in detail, thinking about texture, materials and colour. Describe and draw the different kinds of shells you can see, naming them if you can.
Ryan collected shells on the beach to use in making her artworks. She knew her country very well, knowing the right places to find each different kind of shell in different kinds of weather. Picture a place you know very well and give a verbal account of it to another person, naming every detail you can remember. Ask this person to draw the place based on your description. Assess how well the results match your mental image.
Explore the iconographic implications of this object. Consider Australian identity, history and aspirations. What does it mean to re-make this object in the materials of a practice specific to this site for thousands of years? What different systems of knowledge are represented? Does this work challenge or subvert the dominant culture? Debate these ideas in class.