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Craved emu egg with a depiction of a river turtle
This is an emu egg with a depiction of a river turtle carved by Aboriginal artist Badger Bates in 1990. The carving depicts the turtle from above, and shows its head with eyes, its shell, its legs with claws and its long tail. The original outer layer of the egg is a very dark green, and the area that has been carved is white or a light blue-green. The egg is 17 cm in height and has been placed in a plastic stand.
Emu-egg carving became popular in Australia in the mid to late 19th century as a form of artistic expression. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians practised the art, and some silversmiths designed elaborate and ornate stands to hold the eggs. Since then Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia and the Carnarvon region of Western Australia have kept the practice alive.
Brian 'Badger' Bates (1947-) has used his observations of the natural world to carve eggs representing the flora and fauna of his local area. As well as river turtles, he has illustrated swans, Darling River cod, and echidnas hunting for ants among the mallee trees and porcupine grass. Bates is an Elder of the Paakantji language group and was born in Wilcannia, New South Wales.
Emu-egg illustrations are created by scratching, scraping and carving away the outer layers of shell to reveal different shades of blue, blue-green, brown or grey. The deeper the artist carves, the paler the colour. By carving to different depths, the artist can create figures that appear to be three-dimensional, and can add light and shade and a sense of perspective. The egg is pierced at each end and the yolk and white are blown out of the shell.
Carving tools are chosen according to the effect required - some that have been used include traditional stone, shell and bone tools, penknives, shearing cutters, metal files, sandpaper and steel wool. When the artist has finished carving the egg, a stand - usually made from metal or wood - is individually crafted and the egg is held in place with a central pin.
Egg carving continues today, and artists often depict important animals, people, traditions and scenes from the past and present. The images provide a rich visual history of Australia as they tell stories of Australian traditions, adventure and environment. For Indigenous Australians, the images also reinforce connections to the emu and other animals and to the land. Emus today are protected, so carvers must be licensed to purchase or collect their eggs.