‘Jimmy’s stories and jewelry making are a part of our Indigenous cultural history and traditions, which in turn promotes education, understanding and respect.....they are all a unique piece of this spirit country that represents the landscape he grew up in – Gutharraguda (Shark Bay).’ - Darren Capewell
Jimmy Poland is an Indigenous maker from Western Australia. His objects, which include carved boab nut, pearl shell and bone, have a talismanic ability to conjure place through the integration of organic materials sourced from, and inspired by the natural environment. Jimmy lives in the wonderland of Shark Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Islands can be seen from the shore, mushrooming out of the turquoise waters, a vertebra of rocks and beach curving around a bay where a rich marine life thrives; dolphins, dugongs, sharks, turtles and over 300 species of fish - snapper, barramundi, and coral trout, weave in and out of vast, swaying beds of sea grass. From the marine into the terrestrial, we find 100 species of reptile and amphibians, 240 bird species, and 820 species of plant. Within this landscape, stromatolites, the oldest forms of life on earth can be found; hard, dome shaped living fossils which spread across the earth’s surface like colonies. These unique features combine to make Shark Bay a protected marine park that covers over 2.2 million hectares of coast line. This environment finds expression in Jimmy’s objects and jewelry, which is imbued with the sensual and romantic aesthetics of nature.
Jimmy embodies the concept of “man as maker”, using materials that are found locally; his work articulates not only a sense of place, but also reflects his ability to utilize the resources that are available to him. Jimmy uses dugong bones, which he reincarnates as small objects and jewelry, up-cycling this food source for the Malgana people- the traditional owners of Shark Bay. “You see dugongs from the end of March until September, then, they disappear,” Jimmy explains, “Sometimes you see 40 to 50 in one mob, they are blowing everywhere, we pick a nice one, then the boys dive on them.” Yet, the dugongs are not hunted primarily for this purpose, rather as Jimmy explains; he is utilizing waste. “When we would have barbecues, people would chuck the (dugong) bones in the bin and I decided to see if I could carve them into something.” By finding the source for his artwork in materials that would otherwise be discarded, Jimmy minimizes waste and pollution. Similarly, Jimmy uses the black shells that are harvested for pearl meat in nearby Monkey Mia, using the debris of shell to create jewelry. Incorporating detritus from everyday life reflects not only Jimmy’s spirit of innovation, but also the traditions that shape his Malgana identity.
Jimmy’s carved pearl jewelry brings together the past and present, such as the trade of pearls that Jimmy recalls occurring during the early days of industry. ‘The pearl boy used to come in from Broome and buy the pearls, and when the war finished, the pearl shell industry closed up in Denham....there are still a lot of pearl shells there now, we open them up, to see if there are pearls,’ Jimmy says. There is a deeper association with the pearling trade, which is where Jimmy’s own Malay and Aboriginal heritage converge. Pearling as an industry began in Shark Bay during the 1870’s. At this time, workers were recruited from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and other parts of Asia. Despite their widely distinct ethnic belongings and identities, they were commonly referred to as “Malays”. With a large Aboriginal workforce, the Malay workers gathered pearls in the shallows; they skin dived and collected shell from wire dredges towed behind sailing boats. The industry created an ethnic mix which is reflected in Jimmy’s Malay and Aboriginal ancestry, the result of inter-marriages catalyzed by the migration that emerged as a result of the pearling economy.
Jimmy’s pearl shell jewelry reveals the shimmering iridescence and beauty inherent in the properties of the shell; he works gently, sculpting the material with hand-embellished details and surface decorations. He prefers simple hand tools for their ability to inscribe precise, intricate details. His boab nuts display this sensitivity, revealing meticulously chiseled geometric patterns and figurative designs, transforming the boab nut into a distinctive artwork. Boab nuts are only found in the Kimberley region, and Jimmy’s use of the medium to carve demonstrates his ability to acculturate new influences and the significant social and economic interaction and trade between Aboriginal people that occurred along the Western Australian coast line. As Jimmy explains, the nuts are sourced through informal networks. “All the nuts come from Broome. If you’ve got some friends and they’re going up that way, they’ll bring some back. Young Darren (my nephew) knows a lot of young Aboriginal boys, he will ring them up, and they’ll drop some off to me,” Jimmy says. The trade of boab nuts illuminate the connections between different communities and the intimacy that is created along travel and trade routes.
Even though he is 85, Jimmy’s body of work is in constant development, as he absorbs and responds to different influences, materials and ideas, blending industry, art and design. He learnt many of his skills informally, through inter-generational knowledge passed down from his father. “When Dad was carvin’ they told me that he was about the best carver in the state at that time. He used to carve eggs when Exmouth first kicked off, selling it to the Americans. He used to do about one a week at that time. And he only used a pocket knife to carve.” While Jimmy’s mother did not transfer any direct skills to him, he recalls her creative energy. “Mum used to crochet big colored rugs in all colors; she used different types of wool. She used to crochet all the time, when we used to come home from school, she’d be sittin up crochetin,” he says. Jimmy imbibes the memories of his parents using their hands and available resources to create; this spirit of invention has influenced his own path as a maker.
Despite growing up in a creative environment, Jimmy only flirted with making as a young man, yet when he did it was with the alchemy of turning the everyday into something special. “The day I turned 18, I had one shilling and I thought of making something out of a shilling,” Jimmy recalls, “so I flattened it out as much as I could, I put it in the vice, then opened it out and I finished makin’ an airplane out of it.” This spirit of innovation and self-sufficiency has meant that he has adapted to circumstance and available resources. For Jimmy it was not until later in life, when he went to hospital for a knee replacement in the year 2000 that the possibilities of carving opened up to him. “I took an emu egg with me that Dad never finished and I finished it in hospital; that was the first egg I started on,” Jimmy recalls, “while I was down there, a lady come to me with a pearl shell and asked if I could cut it out, that’s where I started making pearl shell jewelry.” From this point, Jimmy was impelled to create and went on to experiment with boab nuts and wood.
Jimmy’s openness to experiment has meant he is able to constantly expand and unlock new creative dialogues. Throughout his mentorship with the West Australian jeweler, Helena Bogucki, he has bridged the divide across age, background and materials to produce a new range of works against the industrial backdrop of FORM’s Midland Atelier at The Midland Railway Workshop, Western Australia's first creative industries hub located in the old Foundry Building and The Pattern Shop, a space where he has undertaken the mentorship project with Helena since 2010. There is a distinction between Jimmy’s hand traditions, which have emerged from a life of intimacy and connection with his surroundings in Shark Bay and the industrial environs at Midland, a cavernous space where trains were once made. At the same time, the beauty of the vintage environs at Midland mirror Jimmy’s aged, elegant presence. At 85, Jimmy takes pleasure in being around new ideas and young people, at the Midland Atelier he connected with the young designer—makers who work from the Pattern Shop, forming relationships, sharing knowledge and skills.
During the mentorship period, Jimmy began working with new, industrial materials and methods- copper and bronze casting, which form part of the Shark Bay exhibition. Jimmy’s practice is deeply embedded in handmade processes that are down to earth and organic. Each of Jimmy’s pieces is distinct; he works quietly and independently, the humanitarian modes of his processes are intimately, humanly connected to material and place. Contained in Jimmy’s objects are the energy locked into the hand- made process, and there is an ongoing relationship and interaction between object, material and the environment. Through his carvings and jewelry, he creates a conversation and dialogue with and about Shark Bay; an insight which is intense and intimate. Jimmy’s careful and thoughtfully made work reflects the provenance and skill of his handmade creations; they are pieces of Shark Bay.
The exhibition will open in May at the Rose de Freycinet Gallery, Shark Bay World Heritage and Discovery Centre. FORM is a not for profit cultural organization based in Western Australia dedicated to advocating for and developing creativity. FORM’s Principal Partner is BHP Billiton.
Sharmila Wood is a Curator at FORM in Western Australia. She has a particular interest in interdisciplinary, cross-cultural collaborations. Sharmila previously managed an Aboriginal Art Centre and worked in New Delhi at the interface of heritage, design and development. She holds a Master of Art History and Curatorship with a focus on Indigenous Australia and Asia. For more information, please visit: www.form.net.au