Famed artist's colourful legacy comes to life on Bidjigal land

| 28 Feb 2020

The legacy of Bidjigal Elder and artist, Esme Timbery, burst into life at UNSW this month with the unveiling of a new two-story mural at the Esme Timberey Creative Practice Lab. 

Esme Timberey Creative Practice Lab

The colourful new artwork was designed by Indigenous UNSW Art & Design alumni, Carmen Glynn-Braun, Dennis Golding and Kirra Weingarth, and facilitated by curator Tess Allas, to further honour the local artist.

The mural, titled In her hands,  celebrates the passing of Indigenous cultural practices from Bidjigal Elder Esme Timbery to five living generations of her family, the artists say. 

“Through Esme's hands, she shares the magic of shellwork with the women in her family, represented by the young hands of Esme’s great-great-granddaughter, Jiyah-lee Bell," they say.

"It signifies the importance of transferring culture through physical and oral transmission to sustain intergenerational knowledge.”

The mural also has a reference to the La Perouse headlands and sandstone with rhythmic topographical lines representing the location of the Timbery family’s rich cultural traditions.

It’s “a powerful reminder that the Kensington campus is located on Bidjigal land”.

How the cultural tradition of shellwork took shape 

In Her Hands, mural, Esme Timberey Creative Practice Lab

This cultural tradition of shellwork art has spanned generations of women from the La Perouse Aboriginal community.

‘Queen’ Emma Timbery, Aunty Esme’s great grandmother and important community leader, had created and sold shellwork her whole life, with her art being exhibited in London in 1910.

For Aunty Esme, and her sister, Rose Timbery, this tradition began in their youth as they walked along the beaches near La Perouse and along the south coast of New South Wales.

They would select and sort the shells by colour, size and character. They would inspect each one in the late afternoon sun. As part of this process, the knowledge from their mothers was passed on.

As a young girl, Aunty Esme made her first set of decorative shellwork brooches.

By the 1950’s she began selling work with her sister at the markets.

Since her early days as a shellwork artist, the now 89-year-old Bidjigal artist’s vibrant works, including the iconic, shelled Sydney Harbour Bridge pieces, have been celebrated across Australia.

Her work – of decorative shellwork items – can be found in collections at art galleries across the nation, including the National Gallery of Australia.

Lizzy Mayers, a Worimi woman, Nura Gili Student Support Officer and UNSW Indigenous Strategy ambassador, says she is proud to see Aboriginal culture take centre stage on campus.

“Aunty Esme is a part of a long tradition, and one that she continues to pass on to her family,” Ms Mayers says.

“It’s so great seeing Aboriginal culture, and specifically a local Aboriginal woman and her lifelong work, be recognised in a substantial way.”

A permanent display to honour Aunty Esme to come

The new mural – the first in an ongoing series – will also be complemented with a permanent display that honours Aunty Esme and "tells her story".

“The mural project will see new wall art presented every three to five years. It is a giant canvas, where we can feature up-and-coming artists in a significant and meaningful way,” says Manager of the Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab, Su Goldfish.

For the first commission, we have honoured Aunty Esme; as the namesake of our building, we could have it no other way. And we also wanted to feature young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and alumni.

“But as it’s a temporary piece, we will also have a permanent display to mark Aunty Esme’s art and her influence in the region and the art world.”

The permanent display, which will be revealed later this year, will house some iconic shellwork created especially for the Creative Practice Lab.

The pieces, developed by her daughter Marilyn Russell, are another continuation of the Timbery tradition of shellwork; one that will inspire students from across the world for generations to come.

“As part of the School of the Arts & Media we support students across a range of disciplines. It’ll be fantastic to not just have a name attached to a building but to be a place where Esme Timbery’s art and her creative legacy can thrive and inspire all of us,” Ms Goldfish says.

It’s with this continual presence of Aunty Esme and her work seen at the Creative Practice Lab, Ms Goldfish says, that a unique environment for students and staff will be created.

The stage is set now for the Creative Practice Lab to be an environment where students can innovate, research and be creative; where they can push the boundaries of art and expression, yet also be grounded by a sense of place – a recognition that culture, art and music have been a significant part of this land for thousands of years, she says. 

This is the first building at UNSW to be named after an Aboriginal woman following in-depth consultation with the local La Perouse community. 

Looking back on those times ...  


Esme Timbery is walking along the beach in Kurnell with her mother and aunties nearby. They’d just got off the ferry from La Perouse, a family ritual. Ahead of them, shells scatter across the sand in a jagged glitter of colour. 

Aunty Esme crouches down and inspects a shell resting in the sand. Satisfied, she places the shell into her bag and continues along the beach.

It’s a family outing. Her relatives are scanning the beach, some across the sand, others on the rocks. She then sees it: a blue shell, glistening, stuck on a dark rock ahead.

“The beautiful shells, those blue ones, were often stuck on the rocks – and you’d have to ply them off,” Aunty Esme says now, many years later.

As she speaks about those memories – of walking along beaches near La Perouse and the south coast, selecting and collecting shells with her family – Aunty Esme smiles. Because it is on the coast, with shells in her hands, that her art is born.

“Every beach, each season, and depending on the tide,” she says, “brings you different shells.” 

In this way, she says, shellwork just comes to you; you don’t really know what the result is going to be until it’s there in front of you.

Further along the coast, in La Perouse and along the beaches of New South Wales, the shellwork practice of cradling shells in your hands while the waves crash and tumble in the distance is a practice that has moved through the hearts of generations and will continue to thrive.

It's contains a story of mothers, daughters, Elders, and grandmothers will persist. The slow exchange of knowledge, older than time itself – a tradition of art and culture – will continue to be passed on.

Now emblazoned on the walls of the Creative Practice Lab, this artistic legacy of a creative practice grounded by an intergenerational passing of knowledge and creativity will live on, on Bidgigal Land at UNSW.   

This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on UNSW Newsroom