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Esme Timbery

Shellworked slippers  2008

shell, glitter, fabric, cardboard and glue

installed dimensions variable; 200 pairs: 5 × 9.5 × 6cm each

Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the Coe and Mordant families, 2008


About the Artwork

Made in velvet and adorned with shells, these tiny slippers exemplify the Indigenous craft practices of La Perouse, a headland on the shores of Botany Bay with a large Aboriginal population. They form a memorial to the Stolen Generations − Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities by government edict throughout the greater part of the twentieth century. Through their silence, emptiness and sense of expectancy, these shoes bear witness to the children’s absence.

Esme Timbery’s Shellworked Slippers was commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW for the exhibition Ngadhu, Ngulili, Ngeaninyagu – A Personal History of Aboriginal Art in the Premier State (2008). The exhibition was important for being the first comprehensive survey of works by Aboriginal artists from New South Wales. It linked key practitioners across time and location: from Mickey of Ulladulla to Badger Bates in far-west New South Wales, to the Timbery family, whose traditional lands run along the east coast from La Perouse to Jervis Bay.

The Timbery family have been famed for their shellwork since Timbery’s great-grandmother, Emma Timbery, produced shellworked objects for an exhibition of Australian manufactures in England in 1910. Timbery and her sister Rose began selling their shellwork in La Perouse in the 1950s, using starries, buttonies, couries, conks and pennywinkles gathered from the coastal waters of the Timbery mob, from La Perouse to Jervis Bay in the south. The 200 slippers decorated with these shells are a statement of ownership, as well as a meditation on the dispossession of Aboriginal people – not just of the land but also of their way of life and, within real and living memory, of the Stolen Generations of children. The slippers are a reminder of the trauma of dispossession and disempowerment but they are also an affirmation of a community that has survived; of its strength, and of the warmth of the family and the community as a whole.

Esme Timbery

– About the artist

Born 1931, Port Kembla, New South Wales. Lives and works La Perouse.

Esme Timbery’s shellworked harbour bridges, shoes and other objects are created from wood, glue, cardboard, fabric, glitter and shells gathered from the beaches of the New South Wales south coast. Timbery has been exhibiting these works since 1997.

Timbery’s first exhibition was Djalarinji – Something that Belongs to Us, at Manly Regional Gallery and Museum in 1997. She worked with artist Judy Watson on a public art installation in the arrivals hall at Sydney International Airport in 2000. In 2002 Timbery was commissioned by the Sydney Opera House to create Sydney landmarks in shellwork for its annual Message Sticks program. She exhibited in Messages from the Fringe, Birrung Gallery, Sydney (2003) and Terra Alterius: Land Of Another, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney (2004).

Timbery was the subject of an ABC TV ‘Artists at work’ documentary, She Sells Sea Shells, in 2007. Her works are held in numerous collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Wollongong Art Gallery, Wollongong; and Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

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