Lore of the Land: Songlines

October 27, 2017
Traditional custodian, Stanley Douglas
Traditional custodian, Stanley Douglas

Under a blue, cloudless sky the road is one long strip of red earth, hemmed in by expanses of dry, tufty grass and scrub. The dominant colour is a pale yellow-grey, offset with the faintest tinges of green. The major landmark is Mount Conner, a long flat-topped monolith of reddish rock overshadowed by Uluru’s celebrity. Wrecked cars and other bits of twisted metal appear by the roadside at long intervals – the desert’s version of public sculpture.

We are travelling to Pitjantjatjara territory, a four hour drive south from Uluru to the small South Australian township of Amata. The reason for the journey is to visit Cave Hill – Walinynga in the local language – reputedly the only rock art site of its kind that tells the story of the Seven Sisters. It’s a tale with many layers: a chase, a complex blend of courtship and sexual harrassment, and a Creation story that explains how the country came into being.

The story and the site are crucial to a landmark exhibition at the National Museum of Australia: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. It’s a project initiated by a plea from an indigenous elder concerned that the traditional stories handed down from from one generation to the next for thousands of years, were in danger of being lost. The scope of the exhibition is monumental, tracking the journeys of ancestor beings across three deserts and the lands of five peoples: the Martu, the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and the Ngaanyatjarra.

For the exhibition the rock paintings from Cave Hill have been minutely scanned and will be projected on a dome that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the site. Viewers will be able to lie down and examine images in the same way people would lie on the floor of the cave absorbing each part of the story.

The age of the paintings is yet to be scientifically determined but researcher, June Ross, notes that similar images have been traced back 3,400 years. Ross counted 67 separate human figures on the roof of the cave, along with numerous animals, including horses and camels.

Paintings from Cave Hill

Paintings from Cave Hill

The most recent additions came in 1974 when a series of concentric circles and tracks were painted over parts of the design viewed as dangerous to outsiders. This was not an act of vandalism but an attempt to render the cave safe for tourists. Today people make their way to the site through a company that flies in small groups. The locals feel relieved that the earlier images lie preserved beneath layers of paint, their malign powers held in check.

Like those select groups of tourists we’re travelling to Amata to see the cave paintings at first-hand, and hear the traditional stories related by Stanley Douglas, a community elder.

The town is a small settlement of government–built bungalows that squats in the shadow of the Musgrave Ranges. On arriving one is greeted by a bright, hand-painted sign in blue, green and lavender. Nearby is a makeshift memorial for a young man recently killed in a motorcycle accident, with artificial flowers attached to a simple crucifix. In these two emblems one recognises a proud, close-knit community, united by their love of land and family. A population of less than 500 gather in the usual places, mainly the general store, the school, and on Sundays the church, where Stanley Douglas acts as pastor. Stanley, along with his brother, Ronnie, is a senior custodian of Cave Hill, who sees no conflict between his staunch Christianity and his role as gatekeeper to the old stories and traditions. He sees the two belief systems as complementary, both serving to nurture the spirit and teach people the right way to behave.

Now in his eighties, Stanley has an invincible air of dignity. Neatly-dressed, with a trim white moustache and an akubra hat, he speaks softly, in a mixture of English and Pitjantjatjara. In his youth he was a stockman who brought cattle from Queensland to the South Australian town of Maree, along the Birdsville Track. When Stanley returned to his homeland he pursued a new career, having trained in Adelaide as a butcher. He practised his profession proudly until someone stole all his tools, which remains a great source of sadness. Nowadays Amata is less crime prone, but its meat is trucked in.

Over two days we visited the Cave Hill site with the Douglas family, friends and relatives. Everyone sat down in the dirt for a picnic of witchetty grubs, roo tail and damper. Our major contribution to the feast was a salad nicoise. The grubs were freshly dug up by the Amata ladies, who knew exactly where to go foraging.

As we spoke, small boys roared around on motorbikes, drowning out parts of the conversation. It made no difference to Stanley and the others, who were completely unperturbed by the noise and the dust. They were focused on the “big story” of the Seven Sisters. For any journalist a “big story” is one that has just broken, but in Central Australia a story’s magnitude is judged in terms of its age and significance. Yet even to speak of “age” is misleading. Such stories occur in an eternal present, being no less relevant today than they were in the distant past. This is why the renowned anthroplogist, W.E.H.Stanner, insisted on the term “Dreamings” rather than “the Dreamtime”, which has ‘once upon a time’ associations.

Today instead of Dreamings we speak of Tjukurpa, a term that refers to the Creation period and its echoes in the present, in terms of religion, law and identity. An Aboriginal person that lose his or her Tjukurpa loses their past, present and future. It means coming unstuck from one’s place in the world.

In the cave, Stanley Douglas outlines part of his Tjukurpa, telling the story of the man, Wati Nyiru, who was overcome with lust at his first glimpse of the Seven Sisters. Although this tale has been told innumerable times there is still disagreement about the character of Wati Nyiru. He is often portrayed as a bad man, but Stanley insists that Wati Nyiru intended to be polite and charming with the Sisters, to approach them “proper way”. The problem arose with his “special companion” – a super-sized penis that he kept wrapped around his waist.

Wati Nyiru tried to restrain his “large member”, but it took off like a rocket in pursuit of the Sisters. Stanley even points out a long groove left in the rock by the delinquent organ. The Sisters, however, were too quick, and escaped through an opening at the back of the cave. Outside they danced and fled, with Wati Nyiru in pursuit. And so the saga continues to the next site, with the features of the land being shaped by the Sisters and their persistent stalker.

Wati Nyiru may be the archetypal male who claims that his penis has a mind of its own. He may be a sexual predator, or an early example of those ‘dilemmas of masculinity’ we hear so much about today. Stanley’s daughter, Brenda Douglas, a young mother of two, has her own interpretation. “When I hear that story,” she says, “it makes me think of the ‘Keep Them Safe’ program.” She sees Wati Nyiru as a potential danger to women and children. The story makes her feel more watchful and protective.

On the roof of the cave

On the roof of the cave

It’s a startling realisation that this bawdy tale can teach a practical lesson, perhaps even a code of morality. For anthropologist, Mike Smith, writing in the Songlines catalogue, it’s important not to lose sight of the religious aspects. He sees the songlines as an “ecclesiastical map”, a form of scripture or dogma. These stories are open to different interpretations but their essential truth is never questioned.

Look to the heavens and Wati Nyiru is identified as Orion, while the Seven Sisters are the group of stars we call the Pleiades. As such, the sisters feature in many different mythologies, from the Greeks to the Indians, the Chinese, the Persians, the Scandinavians, Native Americans, Egyptians and Polynesians. With its many variations the motif has near-universal relevance.

For Margo Neale, outspoken Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, the universality of the Seven Sisters story means it should be embraced by all Australians who accept that the history of this country didn’t begin with Captain Cook.

Neale is best known as the curator of two important retrospectives of the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye – one for Brisbane, one for Japan. Kngwarreye (1910-96) is widely viewed as the most important Aboriginal painter of recent times, and the Japanese tour was the first occasion that any Australian artist had exhibited in major venues in Toyko and Osaka.

“I see very little point in doing a show nowadays unless it’s groundbreaking,” says Neale, whose crash-or-crash-through style has won her plenty of friends and enemies in the hotly contested field of indigenous art. “The quality of an exhibition,” she says, “is predicated on the quality of the journeys that precede it. You don’t have to make anything up. Just look where it happened and why it happened, and transmit that information.”

Travelling for four days in Central Australia you gather a lot of information about your companions. I already knew Margo came from an indigenous-Irish background, and had lived for lengthy periods in Aboriginal communities. What I didn’t know was that she’d spent ten years on Christmas Island, and written a book about the place. I didn’t know she is actually “Margaret Elaine” on her passport. I had no idea she had once been a go go dancer in a gold bikini for Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs.

Neale’s introduction to art institutions came at the late age of 42, and then only as a volunteer at the National Gallery of Australia. She is the classic mature age student who’d lived one kind of life as a schoolteacher, and brought up her kids, before throwing herself into a field of study in which she had a great personal stake. Today, at a youthful 68, she is in the prime of her career.

Margo Neale & lunch

Margo Neale & lunch

Neale believes Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, is the biggest thing she’s ever done. She recalls how the idea for the show came about at a meeting in Canberra in 2010. A diverse crowd of academics, art centre managers and elders had gathered to discuss a grant application. Suddenly, David Miller, an Anangu elder, burst out: “You mob gotta help us… those songlines they been all broken up now… you can help us put them all back together again.”

It was a familiar lament that the age-old stories and traditions were threatened with extinction. Miller felt that young people today had too many distractions, putting their lifestyles ahead of their Tjukurpa.

Neale began to wonder what a museum might do to stem the erosion of traditional knowledge, to create a lasting record of the songlines that young people could study when their elders had passed away. She knew it would be a daunting task to trace the songlines across thousands of kilometres, involving indigenous people from many different communities.

She found a strong supporting statement in Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay of 2104, A rightful place:

…the songlines of the women of central Australia are also the heritage of non-Aboriginal Australians. It is this culture that is the Iliad and Odyssey of Australia. It is these mythic stories that are Australia’s Book of Genesis. For the shards of classical culture of this continent to vanish would be a loss not only to its indigenous peoples but also to all Australians, and to the heritage of the world generally. We would be poorer for the loss.

Neale believes it is no exaggeration to compare the songlines to the Homeric epics or the Old Testament. They are central to every aspect of Aboriginal life, explaining the origins of the land and the laws by which desert people have lived for thousands of years. For an Aboriginal elder in Central Australia, the songlines are second nature, for outsiders they are fiendishly difficult to explain.

Even the word “songlines” is controversial. It was popularised by the British travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, in his semi-fictional book of the same name. Published in 1987, Chatwin’s Songlines is viewed as a modern classic, although it was criticised by Australian academics from the moment it appeared.

The problem, as curator and historian, Philip Jones, explains in the Songlines catalogue, is that Chatwin imagined the Aboriginal song cycles that described the land and its origins, as a kind of navigational device. This has led many to believe indigenous people used the traditional songs like a commuter map. In fact, the Aboriginal understanding of the land is the result of many generations of accumulated knowledge. There is no inner radar supernaturally linked to a song. Nevertheless, the ‘songlines’ term has caught on, and is now used even by those who were most dismissive of Chatwin.

The most difficult part of the project has been negotiating a path through many competing interest groups, trying to respect the protocols on all sides.

On the surface a remote Aboriginal community seems like a place where nothing much happens, but like all small neighbourhoods there are problems, tensions and rivalries that are rarely perceived by outsiders.

When a formidable amount of paperwork is in order there are still many impediments. A death in the community can bring the best-laid plans to a standstill with the commencement of “sorry business”. Even without such a calamity there are often misunderstandings. This can be partly a problem of language, lines of communication, cultural sensitivities, or unknown factors within a township. Then there are the inevitable difficulties that arise when trying to bring together stories belonging to different communities.

“We’ve been really careful,” Neale explains. “We asked permission. We didn’t go where we were told not to go, but there is no fixed set of rules. There are different ideas about what is taboo and what is permitted, depending on who you’re speaking to, and where and when you’re having the conversation. These versions might change from one day to the next, so you’ve got to keep checking and rechecking.”

Neale has worked closely with small communities for years, developing an acute understanding of all the issues that may arise. Often impatient with her professional colleagues, she will take as much time as necessary to establish trust within a community. On the most basic level this means respecting the hierarchies, doing small favours, and treating people as friends rather than clients.

Photographer, Wolter Peeters passes on some traditional knowledge to the next generation

Photographer, Wolter Peeters passes on some traditional knowledge to the next generation

Amata is not only an important rock art site, it is currently one of this country’s most dynamic centres for indigenous painting. Works by Amata artists dominated this year’s Wynne Prize for landscape at the Art Gallery of NSW. Last year the same prize was taken out by the Ken Family of Amata, for a painting called Seven sisters.

There will be some amazing paintings in the Songlines exhibition, but Neale says they need to be understood as “portals to place”, not simply aesthetic objects. “The visitor to the show will walk past a sequence of paintings as if they are walking past a sequence of sites. They’ll acquire knowledge as they go along.”

As Neale points out, for the Aboriginal custodians of such a story, “knowledge has to be learned in country, at sites like Cave Hill. You can’t get it from a book. When the young fellas don’t want to come out to the bush, the old fellas get worried.”

The Songlines project may be no substitute for being on the spot, but it will act as a guide for young indigenous people who want to reactivate their cultural understanding at some future date. For the rest of us, at a time when there are calls for the removal of bronze statues of colonial heroes, or the abandonment of Australia Day, the indigenous stories offer an alternative foundation story and another path to reconciliation.

“I’d like to think that every other story that’s been told for the past two hundred years can’t take root without acknowledging this foundation,” Neale argues. “The songlines shouldn’t be just an anthropological footnote, but a part of Australian history as it is taught in schools. To tell the real story of this continent you’ve got to have both histories. They are held in different ways, told in different ways, but are essentially complementary. To really belong to this place you’ve got to embrace the songlines. They are the story of this land.”

“Is that alright, Stanley?” she asks.

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, National Museum of Australia, 15 September, 2017 – 25 February, 2018

Published in The Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2017