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


Asia Week New York

March 16-25, 2022

Important Indian, Indonesian and Other Textiles

Featured are important works of visual art, independent of culture, time or place. They are, in a word, “Enchanting.”

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


Taiwan Aboriginal Garments

Taiwan’s original inhabitants are frequently known as Formosan Aborigines, a name derived from the island’s old name, Formosa. Theorists believe that they have lived there for at least 8,000 years.

During the last ice age, the sea separating the Asian mainland and nearby islands like Taiwan became very shallow and relatively easy to cross by small boats or perhaps even by walking across.

Over time, there came to be 16 recognized tribes (and 12 not recognized), the most prominent being the Paiwan, the Rukai, and the Atayal.  They share linguistic commonalities not only with each other but also with the Philippines, Borneo, the outer Indonesian islands, Madagascar to the west and Hawaii and other Polynesian islands to the east. Their sea journey began some 4,000 years ago as local island hopping and progressed to giant outriggers able to explore the vast Pacific, with the  last discovery being New Zealand around the 12th Century; one of the greatest diasporas the world has ever known, the Austronesian Expansion is theorized to have  all began in Taiwan and the present day Formosan Aboriginal tribes are thought to be the Austronesians that stayed behind.

Ethnic Han from the Chinese mainland have colonized the island since the 17th Century, progressively displacing the indigenous population from the more desirable coast towards the more inaccessible highlands. That remoteness helped preserve culture, as well as a fierce reputation for headhunting. The Japanese took Formosa as a trophy of war from the Chinese in 1895 and held it as a colony until 1945.

All the textiles featured in this collection date to this pre-War period, with most coming out of old Japanese collections. Thankfully, there were Japanese artists and professors of the colonial period who recognized the importance of documenting the material culture of the indigenous tribes of Formosa as part of the Mingei Movement, a philosophy that evolved in the 1920s with the intent to preserve traditional handicraft, including weaving.

These garments are all exceptional examples, inclusive of a supremely important Lukkus-Pinotan Headhunter’s Costume from the Atayal tribe, featuring thousands of hand drilled shell disk beads; Paiwan jackets display ancestors dancing with trophy heads using heirloom beads; and some exceedingly rare Yami textiles with a simple appearance but upon closer examination show very complex woven structures.

Together this collection, sold only as a whole, convey visual information about the culture and lifeway of an ancient people who made very beautiful textiles.