A curious piece of folk art painted by an unknown colonial artist came under the hammer in late 2020. Depicted on what appears to be a Black Lip Oyster, an Aboriginal man crouches or sits by a hut. Another subject nearby holds a spear and shield.
The artist’s observational and idyllic depiction of Indigenous lives and lifestyles is typical of many colonial paintings. Its peaceful riverine backdrop sits uneasily with the brutal realities of colonialism and dispossession.
Oyster or pearl shells were not an uncommon canvas for amateur artists in the nineteenth century. The pursuit was popular enough that the Queenslander provided instruction on the hobby for its readers in late 1899, with different techniques for watercolours and oils.
Other examples of contemporary shell art included decorative engravings, nautical scenes, and coats of arms. Those depicting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are an uncomfortable reminder of our colonial past.
Commercialising traditional seafood
Oyster shell art takes on greater significance, considering shellfish’s importance to First Nations diets and culture. Painted somewhere on the Burnett River on the central coast, the lush surrounds in image 1 belie the damage and disruption of commercial oyster farming to the Queensland coast and its estuaries.
Queensland’s colonial government first declared a commercial stake in oysters in the Fisheries Act 1878. It claimed fertile oyster grounds from the Tweed River to Gladstone, traditionally used by Aboriginal peoples for countless generations.
By the early 1920s, the government and oyster farmers recognised the estuaries and foreshores around Russell, Stradbroke, Moreton, Lamb, McLeay, and Coochiemudlo Island as ‘first-class oyster grounds’. The Wide Bay region, where our oyster was painted, was noted for ‘some of the river estuaries… producing excellent specimen for [oyster] maturing grounds’ (The Queenslander , 15 Jul 1922, 41).
State returns for 1919 show the scope and scale of the oyster industry. Eighty-five boats employed 108 men who worked 572 dredging leases and oyster bank licences in that year alone. An astonishing 14,880 bags of oysters had been hauled from Queensland’s waterways in the preceding 12 months (The Queenslander, 15 Jul 1922, 41).
Middens, cultural knowledge, and archaeology
Shell middens index the cultural importance of salt and freshwater shellfish to Indigenous people. They reveal crucial information about Indigenous campsites and food sources, shellfish species and biodiversity.
Australian archaeologists have studied middens since the nineteenth century. They commonly use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of a shell midden. It provides an age estimate with an error range by using samples of a shell to track its decomposition of carbon relative to the age of the shell.
Radiocarbon dating has its limits. Tides, humans, animals, and weather easily disturb middens, which are randomly structured over time, as well. Additional integration of carbon particles from external environmental sources can also skew results. The written historical record, and predominantly Indigenous oral histories, provides otherwise vital evidence to understand these sites and their significance.
Archaeological excavation of middens also reveals other cultural practices associated with food. In the mid-1970s, for instance, archeologists found clay tobacco pipes ‘in situ’ (within) two separate midden sites on the east coast of K’Gari (Fraser Island). Researchers suggest these pipes were deposited into the middens after the 1850s and may have been highly valued items integrated into traditional smoking practices (Courtney and McNiven, 1998: 51).
Reflexivity and resistance
The juxtaposition of ancient shell deposits and European artefacts potentially signals initial collaboration and exchange, an early interest in trade and the acquisition of ‘new’ and foreign products.
Seafood and fish formed a vital part of this nascent nineteenth-century economy (Ray Kerkhove, 2013: 144-56). In 1861, for instance, the Courier noted that, ‘Until very recently the inhabitants of Brisbane depended mostly for a supply of fish upon the aborigines of this locality [sic.].’ Four years later, Mr Bonney of the Melton Mowbray Hotel at Breakfast creek successfully spawned roe from five black trout he acquired from a local Aboriginal man (Brisbane Courier, 19 Jan 1865, 2).
As Europeans became increasingly familiar with local ecosystems and foods, which they so often gained from Indigenous inhabitants, Indigenous peoples became increasingly disadvantaged. The 1861 Brisbane Courier by-line, ‘TURNING THE TABLES’ , was an ominous portent of what was to come.
Resistance and reclamation
First Nations peoples resisted imposed colonial authority and control to maintain cultural identities. They kept alive cultural practices of preparing and sharing food despite missions, enforced removal and dislocation, replacing traditional diets with new foods like flour and sugar.
Middens also remained important Indigenous sites, even as dominant folk art forms like shell painting culturally appropriated traditional foodstuffs like oysters to depict idealised portrayals of Indigenous peoples and cultures.
Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s recent art midden-like installation, RE FORMATION 2019, made from 12,000 pieces of cast concrete ilmenite, marks a critical intervention in this space. It highlights the scope and scale of oyster shells in First Nations’ histories, cultures, and communities, reclaiming the culturally appropriated canvas. Reframing the colonial lens, Cope invites us to consider critically the politics of food with fresh eyes (video interview 2020).
List of references
‘A folk art painted pearl shell with Queensland Aboriginal scene, titled lower right ‘Burnett River, Queensland’, 20x19cm’. Lot 459, Sale 467 ‘Australian and Historical’, Leski Auctions. ©Leski Auctions. Reproduced with permission.
Campbell, Archibald James. ‘Oyster shell heap left by Aboriginal people, 1870.’ National Library of Australia.
‘Dugong Fishing c1890.’ State Library of Queensland, John Oxley Library Copy Print Collection. Not digitised.
Henderson, Dr H. W. B. ‘Tripcony Family Members on Con Tripcony’s Oyster Cutter “Nancy” in Moreton Bay ca 1889.’ Image P87024, Courtesy of Sunshine Coast Libraries.
A pair of rare and important hand-painted clam shells depicting North Queensland Aboriginal scenes, 19th century, monogrammed M.G. approximate size 17 x 27 cm each. © Mossgreen Auctions. HGRC has made all reasonable efforts to contact the copyright owner. Please contact us if you have further copyright information.
No title, Brisbane Courier, 19 Jan 1865, 2.
‘Home Decorations: SHELL PAINTING’, Queenslander, 25 Nov 1899, p. 1058.
‘Local intelligence’, Courier 17 Aug 1861, 2.
Unicorn. ‘Science and Industry. The oyster industry: its origins and development,’ Queenslander, 15 Jul 1922, 41.
Buttrose, Ellie. ‘MEGAN COPE’S “RE FORMATION” TAKES THE OYSTER SHELL AS ITS SUBJECT,’ 8 Jan 2020. https://blog.qagoma.qld.gov.au/megan-copes-reformation-takes-the-oyster-shell-as-its-subject-water/
Courtney, Kris and Ian McNive. ‘Clay Tobacco Pipes from Aboriginal Middens on Fraser Island, Queensland.’ Australian Archaeology 47, no. 1 (1998): 44-53.
Jones, Nicola. ‘Carbon dating, the archaeological workhorse, is getting a major reboot’, Nature, 19 May 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01499-y
Kerkhove, Ray. “Aboriginal Trade in Fish and Seafoods to Settlers in Nineteenth-Century South-East Queensland: A Vibrant Industry?” Queensland Review 20, no. 2 (2013): 144-56.
Marshall, Candice and Peter Scott. ‘Shell Midden provides insight into Indigenous life.’ ABC news; podcast Burleigh Heads: the Indigenous side, 1 Jun 2012. https://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2012/05/25/3515206.htm
Murgha, Letitia, ‘Indigenous Science: Shell middens and fish traps.’ Queensland Museum Network. https://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2012/10/08/indigenous-science-shell-middens-and-fish-traps/
Redland City Council. ‘Quandamooka: Local history as recorded since European settlement.’ Redlands Coast Timelines, Redland Libraries.