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Tasmanian Aboriginal Art and Culture


Tasmanian Aboriginal people and culture have survived the impact of conflict and colonisation over the last two hundred years. The history of Tasmania over this period has been an extraordinarily difficult one for Aboriginal people. Despite these trials, Tasmanian Aboriginal people maintain their cultural traditions through their arts.

Art forms created by Aboriginal people in Tasmania today are varied and imaginative in scope and material. Tasmanian Aboriginal culture is an evolving one, and artists reject any suggestion of a static Aboriginality based on traditional practices.

Surviving cultural concepts mixed with modern elements provide new and exciting cultural expressions, a base for creative ideas and a future shaped by traditions and cultural aspirations.

Tasmanian Aboriginal people are sometimes encouraged by their families to incorporate references to the 'old people', special places and family stories into their art work. Thus, some art may reflect childhood experiences, personal spirituality and responses to islands and ancestors.

Shell Necklace Making

One of the major cultural art forms still practised is shell necklace making. This is a delicate and laborious traditional custom that is recognised nationally and internationally.

Tasmanian Aboriginal women have been collecting Maireener shells for thousands of years and making them into gleaming necklaces and bracelets.

This practice continues by Aboriginal women whose families survived on the Furneaux Islands, handed down by elder women to maintain an important link with traditional lifestyle.

Shell necklace by Lola Greeno
Shell necklace by Lola Greeno

Late in the nineteenth century a number of women aimed to keep this part of their traditional culture alive in order to allow their daughters and granddaughters to participate in their cultural heritage. Today, there are only a few Tasmanian Aboriginal women who maintain this art, but they continue to hand down their knowledge and skills to younger women in their community.

However, during the past ten years or so the shells have become more difficult to find. Also, all of the current shell necklace makers now live away from the Bass Strait islands, requiring them to return to the island beaches, usually during the low spring tides, to collect enough shells, thus ensuring that the art of necklace making continues.

Basket Making

Basket making is another traditional craft which has been carried through into contemporary art. Baskets had many uses, including carrying food, women's and men's tools, shells, ochre, and eating utensils. Basket-like carriers were made from plant materials, kelp, or animal skin. The kelp baskets or carriers were used mainly to carry water and as drinking vessels.

Plants were carefully selected to produce strong, thin, narrow strips of fibre of suitable length for basket making.

Several different species of plant were used, including white flag iris, blue flax lily, rush and sag, some of which are still used by contemporary basket makers, and sometimes shells are added for ornamental expression.

Reed baskets by Lennah Hewson
Reed baskets by traditional weaver
Lennah Newson


Aboriginal artists in Tasmania draw on themes and images from their culture, country and experience to create new forms of expression. See our Tasmanian aboriginal paintings page for examples.

Wood Crafts

Tasmanian Aboriginal men continue to make spears and waddies from native hardwoods, using skills handed down from their fathers and uncles. Traditional clapsticks are still made and coloured with ochre by both men and women.


Ochre is an important cultural resource for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. Traditionally, Aboriginal women had the exclusive role of obtaining ochre. Today, many Tasmanian Aboriginal men continue to respect the traditional cultural custom by obtaining ochre from women only.

Tasmanian ochre ranges in colour from white through yellow to red. It has many uses, including ceremonial body marking, colouring wood craft products, tie-dyeing and various other uses in crafts and arts. Tasmanian Aborigines consider ochre to be a special cultural resource.

Source: based on the publication "Respecting Cultures", Arts Tasmania 2009


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