For many years the shell art of Aboriginal women on the South Coast of New South Wales has been an icon of Aboriginal people’s survival in that region. It is on the record since the 1880s that Koori women have made shell work objects to sell to tourists. This practice is undergoing a revival, and recognition of shell art is increasing particularly through the making of Sydney Harbour Bridges and miniature shoes. As the art work of Indigenous people, shell art is increasingly entering into the art market. When its cultural connections are understood, shell art is no longer dismissed as “tourist art”. What forces are operating and how does shell art mean?
This paper explores the processes of cultural revitalisation and value creation, testing the categorisation of shell art as either Aboriginal or Western, traditional or contemporary, art or craft. In many ways these binaries are not sustainable as contemporary Koori artists connect with their cultural heritage in new ways. It examines the explicit and implicit knowledge contained in the shelled objects, emphasising the complexity of contemporary cross‐cultural exchanges and their influences on modes of knowledge production. The value of shell art is transforming through the engagement of Kooris with the art market and other cultural institutions. Moreover, Koori women are finding agency in this continuing cultural practice.