The Influence

For artist Jonathan Jones, Aunty Esme Timbery’s striking shell works are a direct line to Aboriginal artmaking traditions at La Perouse. By Maddee Clark.

Jonathan Jones

Esme Timbery’s Harbour Bridge, 2002, and Jonathan Jones (inset).
Esme Timbery’s Harbour Bridge, 2002, and Jonathan Jones (inset).
Credit: Jenni Carter (above), Mark Pokorny (inset)

Jonathan Jones is a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi peoples of south-eastern Australia. He works across a range of mediums, from printmaking and drawing to sculpture and film, using everyday materials in minimal repeated forms to explore and interrogate cultural and historical relationships and ideas from Indigenous perspectives and traditions. He is well known for his evocative site-specific installations that use fluorescent light tubes.

He is co-founder of the SOUTHEAST Aboriginal Arts Market at Carriageworks, which celebrates the rich cultural inheritance and contemporary artistic expression of Aboriginal artists and practitioners of the south-east region of Australia. He has chosen to discuss the Sydney Harbour Bridge series of shell works by Aunty Esme Timbery.

Tell me about your relationship with Aunty Esme’s work.

Aunty Esme Timbery is someone who is really dear to me. Being from the south-east, I’m aware that we’ve had a long engagement with colonisation and the kind of disruption that it creates. I’m interested in how we’ve survived and the extraordinary ways we subvert colonisation in order to make sense of the situations we find ourselves in, and Aunty Esme’s shell works are one of those moments.

Her Harbour Bridge works speak to our resilience and beauty. Bridges are potent symbols of modernism, particularly the bridge linking Sydney Harbour. These shell works are interesting to me because some people might think they are kitsch, but they speak to much older traditions, knowledge and a presence of Aboriginal people in place. Aunty Esme’s practice comes from a line of women artists who have done shell work at La Perouse, a seaside community on the shores of Kamay – or Botany Bay, as it’s known – for generations.

La Perouse is the oldest urban Aboriginal community, established on the edge of the city in the early 1800s as the colonists’ way of getting Aboriginal people
out of Sydney. It was run by missionaries in living memory. Elders tell me from the early days of its establishment, the women of La Perouse would go out and collect shells on the shore and use them to decorate objects like shell baskets. So shell work emerges as this strong and identifiable practice from that place, but it’s also building on much older traditions, like shell necklace-making, or shell fish hooks. Over the years, tourists and daytrippers from Sydney would catch the tram to La Perouse to visit the beaches, so the community started selling to the visitors. One of the earliest records of the practice shows that shell baskets and boomerangs were being made and sold there.

Shell collecting involves a deep and detailed knowledge about the bay and the seasonal conditions. The community understands where those shells collect and why. This detailed knowledge of Country lives in those objects. Those shells, so light and beautiful, wash up in specific ways after particular storms, winds or tides. And Elders would tell me that the time spent collecting shells was always an important time for the community, being with each other, telling stories and keeping knowledge and culture alive within the community, away from the missionaries.

When did you first meet her?

As a kid I was interested in art so my granddad took me to meet her, and from there we started working together. I’ve curated her work before, and more recently I’ve started to assist her with shell collecting. We made a major public artwork at Barangaroo together. She is an extraordinary woman, a funny, cheeky person who is hard not to get along with. As a fellow artist I really identified with her. 

As an Aboriginal person growing up in an urban area, being fair-skinned, seeing someone like Aunty Es who still has this extraordinary knowledge of Country changes the way you understand yourself. It’s that feeling when you meet Elders who are really solid in who they are, they know where they come from, they don’t have any hang-ups. Those types of people really centre you, and that is really important in this day and age. Like many Elders, she affirmed for me that there are multiple ways of being Aboriginal.

It’s very grounding to be around people like that.

You really need it. Having someone who is really strong in their culture, strong in their stories, and making these things in the middle of the biggest city in Australia – an area that’s had the most protracted length of colonisation – is important. For her to still be maintaining these traditions and practices is deeply inspiring. 

Helping with the shell collecting is an honour, and it’s really helped me understand my position in this cultural landscape. Living in Sydney, I’m always thinking about practising in reference to the local community. It’s important to consider our responsibilities as Aboriginal people when we are not from the place we live. How do we act responsibly towards the traditional owners? Is it enough just to acknowledge Country, or do we have to play an active role in supporting local culture and traditions, without appropriating them? How do we not continue that colonial process that’s been inflicted on us on to other people?

I also think the idea of urbanism has damaged our communities. Labelling any artist who grew up in a town as “urban” erodes all the traditions that sit behind us and is sometimes code for “not Aboriginal enough”. The practice I have is really different to someone who grew up in Perth, for example: just because we both have connections to a major metropolis, it doesn’t mean that we’re somehow connected in our cultural practices that inform how we make art.

Urban art has often been labelled as political. When you’re sitting down with people like Aunty Es, you are not sitting with activists. Of course their works are political, as they present counter-narratives to colonial culture, but there’s so much more to them. There’s a richness to them that is complex and beautiful.

When people think of Aboriginal art, they don’t think of the shell bridges, but they should. Shell work is one of the longest-running Aboriginal art traditions, really one of the earliest Aboriginal art movements that was generated right here in Sydney and continues today. This has informed what we are doing with the SOUTHEAST Art Market – promoting and celebrating that south-east context and the traditions embodied in Aunty Esme’s work, which is so often overlooked.

The irony is not lost on anyone living at La Perouse, that they look straight out to the Captain Cook monument. On a clear day you can see Kurnell, which is where Captain Cook, you know, pulled up and fired upon those fullas. It shouldn’t be lost on any of us either that the first Aboriginal material culture was stolen at that pivotal moment. When Banks and Cook shoot at those men, and then they come on shore into the camp and take all the objects – including shields, spears, clubs – that’s the first time Aboriginal material gets put on the market. It’s that history, that context, that we need to correct.

Aunty Esme is a direct link to that. There is a straight line between those stories. We need to understand that when you look at those shell Harbour Bridges, that history is embedded within that form, and you’re part of that story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Jonathan Jones".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.

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