Songlines: the Indigenous Australian exhibition preserving 65,000 years of culture

With epic pieces that take in creation myths and spread ancient knowledge, this exhibition has taken Australia by storm and is now in the UK

“Of course, you can look at the paintings on the walls and appreciate them for the beautiful objects that they are,” explains Margo Neale, head of the Indigenous knowledges centre at the National Museum of Australia. “But if that’s all you appreciate them for then you will be missing out on so much.”

Neale is talking about Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which has just arrived at The Box in Plymouth, its first stop on a world tour after attracting 400,000 visitors in Australia. The exhibition features more than 300 objects – paintings, sculpture, ceramics, installation and film; works made by 100 or more artists mostly over the last decade, though the culture and ideas that inform them stretch back 60,000 years.

The show is named after the paths across Australia that feature in Indigenous creation myths, known as the Dreamtime. Songlines are guides through the land as well as sources of advice on how to live in it. The Seven Sisters songline links the night sky and the land in an epic creation tale in which a shape-shifting demon pursues the sisters over vast distances.

“Their aesthetic value is obvious,” says Neale, of the art, “but these works are also receptacles of ancient knowledge and narratives as well as being portals to real places. You can learn what happened there. Where there is water. Where there is danger. How to sustain life and how to sustain place. As they have been made by the people who own the knowledge, they convey a sense of authenticity that you rarely encounter.”

But Songlines began out of fear that this knowledge would be lost. A decade ago, Neale was at a meeting with art institutions, researchers and Indigenous Australian elders when David Miller, an Anangu elder, declared to the room: “You mob gotta help us … those songlines, they been all broken up now … you can help us put them all back together again.” Miller and other elders were worried that their stories and culture were under threat, not just from colonisation but a perceived lack of interest among younger generations.

“But the elders didn’t throw their hands up in despair,” says Neale. “They were proactive and strategic, and went out to record, film, paint, make and dance 7,000km of songline across three deserts.” All of that material was then deposited with an Indigenous-managed archive. “By the time the young fellas get married, have kids and realise they want to know their stories, there is a chance that the elders will be gone, but the archive will remain. This exhibition has become the archive’s public face, but its primary purpose is heritage preservation.”

The Box is establishing a reputation for collaborating with first peoples around the world, following exhibitions co-curated with the Wampanoag people of North America. Songlines will travel to France, Germany and the US in the coming years. “It is intensely local and global at the same time,” says Neale. “The Pleiades star cluster and the Orion constellation are visible in the northern and southern hemispheres. Many places have their Seven Sisters stories. Every time the stars are revealed in the night sky, the story is revived on the ground.” But if you don’t know the story, you can’t learn the knowledge systems you need to sustain the planet.

Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 65,000 years, surviving ice ages, sea rises and many other extreme events. “And in just the decade of this project, Australia has been on fire, flooded and now we’ve got a pandemic,” says Neale. “It is time to learn. These are profound stories about how people can care for each other while caring for the planet. Songlines is an art exhibition but it is also a history and science exhibition. It is Aboriginal but the truths told in these songlines have never been more relevant to humanity than they are now.”


Sharing stories – four works from Songlines

Seven Sisters Songline, 1994

Seven Sisters Songline by Josephine Mick, Ninuku Arts.
Seven Sisters Songline by Josephine Mick, Ninuku Arts. Photograph: George Serras/National Museum of Australia

Josephine Mick’s painted representation of the Seven Sisters songline gives some sense of its size, scope and influence across the continent. Mick’s palette of colours is inspired by desert flowers and plants.

Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), 2013 (pictured top)
An almost cartographic painting of the area around Parnngurr in Western Australia. The Seven Sisters, represented by the seven small circles towards the top left, are not far from the local sports oval. Sand hills, water courses and swamps are indicated alongside seasonal advice on food sources and safe-burning vegetation. Eight women spent more than 10 days making it, and it has been used to train new rangers.

Kungkarrangkalnga-ya Parrpakanu (Seven Sisters Are Flying), 2015

Artists from Tjanpi Desert Weavers let their sisters fly, Papulankutja, Western Australia, 2015.
Artists from Tjanpi Desert Weavers let their sisters fly, Papulankutja, Western Australia, 2015. Photograph: Annieka Skinner

These representations of the Seven Sisters, some more than 2.5m tall, were made by a group from Tjanpi Desert Weavers at the site where the sisters take flight in the story.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters), 2015

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Tjungkara Ken, Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Freda Brady and Sandra Ken, Tjala Arts.
Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Tjungkara Ken, Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Freda Brady and Sandra Ken, Tjala Arts. Photograph: George Serras/National Museum of Australia

Most of the work in the Songlines exhibition has been made collaboratively or in a community context. This was made by a family of five sisters – Tjungkara Ken, Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Freda Brady and Sandra Ken – and depicts a section of the chase that passed through their family country and then on for 600km into Western Australia.

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is at The Box, Plymouth to 27 February.


Nicholas Wroe

The GuardianTramp

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