The Art of Shell Beads

Asia Week NY / September 14-23, 2022

In the recent publication, Textiles of Indonesia, Valerie Hector informs us that shells have been used in Southeast Asia as both ornament and currency for Millenia. Oliva shell beads were found in an archaeology site of Timor dating to circa 35,000 years ago and Nassarius shell beads were found in the same area dating to 4500 BCE. 

Despite the emergence of the glass trade bead industry some two thousand years ago, hand fashioned shell disks continued to serve as a primary way of storing value and signaling prestige up through the 20th century for many ethnic groups of Southeast Asia and Oceania. This was owing to the extraordinary labor intensiveness in shell bead creation, and the principle that the further from the sea, the greater the value for all artifacts made from shell. 

This small exhibition features shell artwork from some of the most legendary headhunting peoples of Asia,

including the greatest shell-decorated garment in the world from the Atayal of Taiwan; a blouse decorated with mother of pearl shell beads from the B’laan of Mindanao, Philippines; an early warrior’s cape from the Naga with appliqued cowrie shells, making a human figure amid circles; and an extraordinary Naga necklace fashioned from giant clam, both from the northeastern highlands of India.

It is a pleasure to share this deeply meaningful group with you!

For further reading:

Bednarik, Robert G. “Beads and the Origins of Symbolism”

Draguet, Michel (2018) NAGA, Awe Inspiring Beauty, fig 236, p 306

Francis, P. (1989d). The Manufacture of Beads from Shell. In C. F. Hayes III (Ed.), Proceedings of the 1986 Shell Bead Conference: Selected Papers (pp. 25-36). Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Hector, Valerie. (2022) “Indonesian Beadwork” in Textiles of Indonesia, Prestel

Langley, Michelle and O’Connor, Sue (2015) “6500-Year-old Nassarius shell appliques in Timor-Leste: Technological and use wear analyses” Journal of Archeological Science

Textiles of Indonesia Book by Thomas Murray 2022

Textiles of Indonesia


HALI Fair 2022

May 20-30, 2022

At first view, there does not seem to be an organizing theme that brings this special exhibition of textiles from India, Borneo, Sumba, Sumatra, Taiwan and Hokkaido together. The unifying principles are: classism of type; spiritual potency; a strong aesthetic, be it figural, geometric abstraction or minimalism; and superb weaving and dyeing. I would also like to draw attention to the new publication, Textiles of Indonesia, featuring brilliant photography and essays by thirteen contributing scholars.


Transformation Masks

It has been fashionable of late to access the merits of tribal art in a decontextualized manner. We often use a language of connoisseurship to assign aesthetic value to a ritual object now defined as a work of art.

This, despite the fact that when it was created such criterion may never have been remotely considered. Instead, indigenous ideals of beauty based on ancestral traditions and iconic efficacy would have been more important.

To this end, an art brut mask may be more effective in ceremonies than a conventionally pretty mask and therefore be handed down for more generations and develop a deep patina as a result.

It is one of the great aspects, for example of masks of Nepal’s Middle Hills, that they can with their often tough chaotic visage turn our sense of aesthetics upside down. This is a good thing; we need that!

The decontextualized approach mentioned above has extended our appreciation of tribal art in the sense that it has brought much of it into the mainstream, but thankfully the animistic masks of Tribal Asia still have not been codified. We have the chance to bring our own taste to a discussion where there are no wrong answers.

This exhibition took place at the entrance of the San Francisco Tribal Art Fair at Fort Mason Festival Pavilion.

We present here a sampling of masks from the Himalayas and Indonesia that was presented along with contemporary works from the “Shamanic Mask Series” by sculptor Mort Golub that shared common themes of animism and transformation.

HALI Fair 2022 Exhibition


Combs Exhibition

Combs are an important aspect of headdress all over the world. As sculpture, they are signifiers of ethnicity, class, battle prowess, marriage status, and other social and religious cues. Great care is taken in their creation.

We have before us a sample of comb styles, ranging from the Solomon Island off of east New Guinea, through the Indonesian archipelago west to Lampung, in the south of Sumatra, and up to the Paiwan people of Taiwan and completing the journey in China. Note the similarities and differences. Comb motifs include serpents, birds, boats, trees, ancestors, and geometric repeats that may represent ancestral genealogies. The custom of wearing a comb is one of the earliest and most widespread of all human endeavors, a truly universal cultural expression.