January 12, 2018
Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), a collaborative work by Martu artists
Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground), a collaborative work by Martu artists

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is a show with a story – one of the oldest ever told in this country. It’s an R-rated tale of seven sisters being pursued by a lustful man who first appears in the Pilbara and follows them across the deserts of Western Australia to the very heart of the continent. On the way they pass through the lands of the Martu, the Anangu Pitjantatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra people.

In some versions the chase continues to the east coast, but this landmark exhibition at the National Museum of Australia breaks off at a place called Warakuna, 330 kms west of Uluru. In the catalogue Bernard Newberry, a Ngaanyatjarra law man, recounts how the pursuer, whom he calls Yurla, finally captured the sisters and married them all. But that’s not really the end.

In traditional Aboriginal life there was no equivalent to the western sense of time. The Creation stories of the Tjukurrpa (previously referred to as the Dreaming) encompass past, present and future. They describe the formation of the land and assign custodianship, they lay the foundations of law and ceremony. In the Tjukurrpa the seven sisters are always running from their pursuer, who is always laying the same traps and taking the same pratfalls, like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

What’s remarkable about the Seven Sisters story is that it’s broad enough to contain both slapstick comedy and cosmology, as well as a lesson in sexual politics. The pursuer, who goes by different names in each version of the story, transforms himself (or at least parts of himself) into a snake or a shady tree. The women fly into the air to escape him, flashing their genitals and peeing on him from above.

In the version recounted by Amata elder, Stanley Douglas, who is custodian of the rock art at Cave Hill, the pursuer – known locally as Wati Nyiru – was actually a man of chivalrous intentions who tried to approach the unruly sisters in the proper manner. The problem came from his enormous member which apparently had a mind of its own (a universal male problem, I know). It shot off after the women, leaving a deep groove in the stone floor of the cave where they were hiding.

These crude, earthy stories are one side of the story. On the other, we find the sisters flying to the heavens where they become the cluster of stars we know as the Pleiades. Wati Nyiru is Orion, who renews his pursuit across the sky every night.

The Tjanpi weavers & the Seven Sisters

The Tjanpi weavers & the Seven Sisters

The seven sisters are not unique to indigenous mythology. They appear in the tales of numerous cultures, from the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Persians to the Polynesians, the Hindus, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Scandinavians and Native Americans. It’s a remarkable fact that people all over the world should gaze at the stars and arrive at a similar story of seven sisters being pursued by a lone male.

Margo Neale, the chief curator of Songlines, insisted that I wear the audio-guide when looking at this exhibition. Although I’m usually most reluctant to have a didactic voice telling me what to look at, in this instance it’s the best way to follow the unfolding narrative as one examines the paintings and artefacts. Once you know the story the entire show comes alive.

The sheer complexity and ambition of this project is staggering. The seeds were sown in 2010 by a plea from Anangu elder, David Miller, who complained that age-old knowledge was in danger of dying out and needed to be preserved for a younger generation. This led to a monumental process of community consultation that ended in a curatorial committee with 17 indigenous representatives. Never has there been a museum exhibition with so much hands-on Aboriginal input.

The term “songlines” was popularised by British author, Bruce Chatwin in his 1987 book of the same name. It was controversial at the time because Chatwin seemed to imply that indigenous people could sing their way across the landscape using songs as a kind of GPS. In fact the songlines chart the features of a landscape that have been named and invested with religious meaning, but finding one’s way in the desert is a matter of practical bushcraft accumulated over millennia. Nevertheless, the term has proved so durable the NMA felt justified in adopting it as a title.

Under the dome

Under the dome

Although the presentation suffers from some of the clumsiness one often finds in NMA exhibitions, the museum has been innovative in other areas. Foremost is a dome that allows a 360 degree projection, capturing every detail of the rock paintings in Cave Hill, and making the story as vivid as a Hollywood movie. There is a fantastic tangle of wooden snake sculptures on a red wall; and large-scale woven figures by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers that soar through the air or sit huddled on the ground, as if at a camp site.

Inevitably it’s the paintings that dominate this show, with none larger and more impressive than Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground) a collaborative work of 300 X 500 cms, by Martu artists. Each section of this psychedelic canvas is full of meaning, explained by a helpful diagram. Among other pictures I’m tempted to single out Kuru Ala, a masterly exercise in colour by Wingu Timinu (1919-2010), an artist who deserves to be much better known.

'Kuru Ala' by Wingu Timinu

‘Kuru Ala’ by Wingu Timinu

Margo Neale is quick to refer to a Quarterly Essay by Noel Pearson, which compares the songlines of central Australia to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Book of Genesis. It’s a big claim, but perhaps not when we try and step outside of a Eurocentric worldview and see the Songlines project as a call for inclusiveness and understanding.

The prime motivation behind Songlines is for the people of three different language groups to present their culture and their Creation stories to the broadest possible audience. That begins with a younger generation subject to the same distractions as young people everywhere, but it also means reaching out to non-indigenous Australians and the rest of the world. After all, every society has stories of the utmost importance to its sense of identity, whether it be the Anzacs landing at Gallipoli, the Night Journey of the Prophet, the Boston Tea Party, the storming of the Bastille, or the saga of Wati Nyiru chasing seven sisters across the land. Civilisation begins when we discover the capacity to be thrilled and enlightened by someone else’s story.

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

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 January, 2018