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Belinda Henwood
UNSW Corporate Communications

Warning: This story features the name and image of a deceased Aboriginal person which are used with the permission of her family.

UNSW Sydney has paid tribute to Esme Timbery, a Bidjigal Elder and artist whose decorative shellwork has been exhibited across Australia and internationally. Aunty Esme was regarded as one of Australia’s longest practising First Nations artists, with a career spanning more than 80 years.

In 2019, after consultation with the La Perouse community, UNSW honoured Aunty Esme by naming a new arts facility in her honour – the first building on the University’s Kensington campus named after an Indigenous woman. The Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab (CPL), or ‘the Esme’ as students nicknamed the space, is a specialised multi-arts production unit that supports teaching and practice-led research. It incorporates a range of disciplines including theatre and performance, film, media, creative writing and music.

“I never believed that something like this could happen to me. It is a privilege,” Aunty Esme said at the time. “I can’t put into words what this means to me. I think it is marvellous.

“I hope that having my name displayed publicly on this building will inspire our young people to follow their dreams at university, particularly in the arts, for years to come.”

UNSW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Attila Brungs offered his condolences to Aunty Esme’s family and community.

“We all shared the magic of Aunty Esme’s vibrant shellwork and UNSW has had the special privilege of naming a building after her.

“The University community is honoured to have been able to celebrate this important Indigenous Elder and artist whose work represents an enduring connection to the Bidjigal land that UNSW and the CPL stand on,” he said.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Professor Leanne Holt said, “Aunty Esme was an amazing Aboriginal leader, making a wonderful contribution to arts and culture nationally and internationally, as well as local Aboriginal ways of knowing and doing. UNSW is privileged to have honoured her work and will continue to promote her legacy for the benefit of our current and future generations.”

Continuing the customary practice of shellwork

A descendent of the Timbery family of the La Perouse area and coastal Sydney, Aunty Esme came from a long line of prominent shellworkers. Her great-grandmother, Queen Emma Timbery, often displayed and sold shellwork at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show and in 1910 was included in an exhibition of Australian manufacturing in London.

Born in 1931 in Port Kembla, now a suburb of Wollongong, Aunty Esme spent much of her life in the La Perouse community. She began collecting shells at La Perouse at the age of five and, like most shell artists, she learnt the art from her mother, grandmothers and aunts.

Aunty Esme held her first exhibition in 1998 and since then her shellwork has been acquired by major Australian art galleries and museums, decorated expensive platform shoes, featured in the 21st Biennale of Sydney and was selected as the first public art project at the Barangaroo development in Sydney’s CBD. In 2005, she was the inaugural winner of the Parliament of NSW Indigenous Art Prize for works representing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an icon which features heavily in her collections. In 2022, Transport NSW named a ferry after her.

Marilyn Russell, Aunty Esme’s eldest daughter, continues the Timbery family shellworking tradition. Three of her Sydney Harbour Bridge pieces are displayed at the entrance to the UNSW Chancellery and others are in the CPL, along with Aunty Esme’s La Perouse Aboriginal Mission Church, to inspire students from across the world for generations to come.

Aunty Esme Timbery died on Friday 6 October, aged 92.