Seven thousand kilometres with the Seven Sisters

Tue, 21/08/2018 - 04:45 -- eyeline

The Sydney Festival in January 2018 had an Indigenous Director and a strong program of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art performances. There was also encouragement to learn an Aboriginal language and a Darug-language song. This, we were told, would ‘reawaken and reforge the songlines of Sydney’.

Oh dear! A pity the Festival’s blurb-writers had not popped up to Canberra, where the National Museum had the show Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which, amongst other things, was intended to disabuse us of the notion that walking and singing a song makes for a songline; and, more seriously, hoped to undermine the extraordinarily powerful influence of Bruce Chatwin—who popularised the word in his 1987 novel and gave credence to the idea that a songline was basically a Michelin map.

Behind this disruptive intent, the National Museum’s Senior Indigenous Curator, Margo Neale was positively proffering a sea (and earth) change in the way Aboriginal art is presented. Whereas the catchcry amongst institutional curators of late has been ‘It’s contemporary art’, which, by definition, needs no explanation, increasingly there is a demand for meaning. One might look no further than the very serious American collector, Dennis Scholl—who cast aside contemporary trans-Atlantic art a decade ago for the lure of Aboriginal ‘abstraction’. Having just donated two hundred of these works to American museums, including The Metropolitan Museum (New York), he is now recognising that, ‘For these communities, visual arts are a primary means of communication. So that visual language, and the cultural stories being conveyed through the work are an important part of the global conversation’.

Perhaps Australian curators have also read the foolish reviewing of The Australian’s art critic or of British critics in the face of Aboriginal art, whose outrageous ignorance of Aboriginal culture allowed them to slander works that were never intended to reflect the skills of Western art school training.

And there is no doubt that the Songlines show had a range of art that would not make the cut at the annual Telstra art awards or South Australia’s Tarnanthi. Yes, there were some magnificent works like Wingu Tingima’s Kuru Ala (2007), the Spinifex Arts Project collaborative work of the same name (2016) and the Papulankutja Art Centre collaborative work, Kungkarrangkalpa Tjukurrpa (2015) (which is actually the Ngaanyatjarra way of saying ‘Seven Sisters Dreaming’). But the tail-end of the exhibition heads quite deliberately to the Wanarn aged care centre to recover pillow-slips and wheelchairs that the aged artists have, in their cultural hunger, painted in the absence of canvas. Even here, though, the 84 year old Tjunka Lewis, in the year before his death, has scattered a jewel-like pattern of yellow and red dots on black in ‘Patjarrtja’ (2011), which the catalogue identifies as ‘revealing the skeleton of the structure (of the story) that lies like secrets within’.

There is no stopping the story. Which was precisely what Anangu elder, David Miller intended when he told a meeting in Canberra in 2010, which was gathered to discuss a project significantly entitled ‘Alive with the Dreaming’, not just that ‘We’ve survived’, which is the urban catchcry. ‘You mob gotta help us’, Miller demanded. ‘Those songlines they been all broken up now [by mining and pastoral business] … you can help us put them all back together again’. And the Seven Sisters, one of five major trans-national travelling stories, was as good a place as any to start—wandering as it does through three deserts and four different language groups, from near Roebourne on the Western Australian coast, tracking east over five hundred square kilometres to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) lands in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and then heading back west. It is not a map of any practical journey.

But it is the multiple stories of an unnumbered group of women—Margo Neale suggests that the number seven was imposed upon them only as non-Indigenous people made the link to the seven Pleiades stars that can be seen by the white naked eye. Certainly the exhibition included groups pictured with more or fewer ‘sisters’. Rarely portrayed as a man is their pursuer—Yurla or Wati Nyiru in different languages; Orion in the Western story—who has the priapic relentlessness of a Harvey Weinstein, and the infinite capacity to transform himself into quandong trees, flowers, rock formations, a snake, smoke or water holes—most of which fail to fool the women. But of course the story that is told about each encounter gives a human dimension to inculcate information about the topography or the resources at that site. And the advantage of Yurla’s infinitely extendable penis is that it can travel underground, penetrate rock and create water holes; however, when caught by the women in its guise as a snake and eaten, terrible sickness ensues!

The supportive efforts of the sisterhood is clearly another key aspect of the morality tale. When the youngest sister is taken, the rest trick Wati Nyiru into releasing her with promises of access to them all. Then they fly away—not to become stars at this stage—but to explain, Margo Neale believes, why the next stretch of Country is bereft of either sustenance or mythic importance. The exhibition availed itself here of the talents of the desert Tjanpi weavers, creating figures of the Sisters to hang overhead, exposing themselves provocatively in the sky.

Also overhead was the impressive DomeLab, claimed to be the highest-resolution screen of such a shape in Australia. You lie down to view images of the painting at Cave Hill /Walinynga, which has the only known rock art representations of the Seven Sisters. They then morphed into the paintings on canvas around us and finally into the stars which relate to the stories. And what better way to achieve such a conjunction. For surely the hours any desert dweller would spend after dark lying on the ground and marvelling at the night sky, making up stories to match its patterns of stars and planets and their movements and, reportedly, seeing twice as much as white eyes can up there in the heavens, needs to be experienced.

What we did not really experience in the show, but can in the generous catalogue, is the episode of the story where the eldest sister is ‘brutally violated’ by Wati Nyiru. For in the Museum, there is almost a sense of sympathy building for the man, endlessly tempted and occasionally fooled by this pack of women. Alison Milyka Carroll, a ceramicist at Ernabella, set out to make seven pots for Seven Sisters—shaping and decorating each to reflect the bush knowledge of food and water that allowed the women to escape their pursuer; but felt bound to balance them with ‘That Man Nyiru’, given a broad body and pin head—though, of course, this figure had to be made by a senior man.
But then you read of Eileen Tjayanka Woods’s danced performance of the ravished sister, Kampukurta as described by anthropologist Bryony Nicholson,

Her small figure sways and falters. After a lifetime in the desert, Tjayanka’s knowledge of the story, her feeling for Kampukurta is apparent in every move. She falls to the ground… she sings to the younger sister, asking her to come and hold her because the encounter with Wati Nyiru has left her too weak to stand. They dance together and collapse to the ground, time and time again. The performance evokes whispered exclamations of ‘Ngaltutjarra/Poor thing’.

For Tjayanka’s aunt, who had danced Kampukurta’s poignant story before her, had recently died. ‘Kampukurta, that’s her aunty’, explained her daughter Anawari—making the timelessness and circularity of the Dreaming simply apparent.

So this powerful women’s story—nowhere more feminist than the episode reported in the catalogue by Kim Mahood at Kalypa where a group of real (rather than mythic) men were beaten unconscious by the women declaring, ‘We never came for you; we are our own selves’—does have to have its male side. And when it is left in the hands of Ngaanyatjarra elder Bernard Newberry, he believes that Yurla finally ‘blocked them all in that rockhole at Wangkarrir where they were drinking heads down, and he married the lot’!!!

While Margo Neale was developing the ‘Seven Sisters’ over seven years, involving multiple desert visits and with much diplomatic and genealogical balancing required to select the knowledge holders who would form her advisory curatorium, the South Australian Museum was developing the 2014 ‘Ngintaka’ exhibition promoting the eight hundred kilometre songline linked to the Perentie Lizard and his lust for the perfect grinding stone. As it was due to open, senior men took legal action (subsequently denied them) to stop it, claiming that the Ngintaka was their story. Much in the desert hangs on ownership of these stories.

And simply finding your way from story-site to story-site is just the beginning. As Kim Mahood explained in the catalogue for another linked show, We Don’t Need a Map (at the Fremantle Art Centre in 2012-13), ‘No Martu would travel through unknown country by choice without the company of a guide to whom the country belonged’.

And the mnemonics of the songs that go with each site were the subject of Diana James’s book, ‘Painting the Song’ (2009) in which she assessed, ‘Painting the song of the land is only possible for people who hear music when they see Country’. And when those songs, paintings and songlines are put together, the result can be land rights to 180,000 square kilometres of Ngaanyatjarra land. In June 2005, songlines—despite their dynamic capacity to adapt over the aeons to changes such as the end of the matriarchy, the waning of the Ice Age and, probably to the consequences of climate change—were recognised as Indigenous law and given legal authority by the Federal Court. Needless to say, the Kungkarrangkalpa story was danced to celebrate; ‘It was a really happy day for us’, exclaimed elder Eunice Yunurupa Porter.

So, are songlines the belated Western discovery of the late 20th Century? Not at all. The 1897 letters between the Alice Springs postmaster, Frank Gillen and Melbourne academic Baldwin Spencer are elated by their realisation that the Central Australian landscape is criss-crossed by a network of intersecting ancestral tracks—ceremonial tracks which they called Achilpa after the Aranda/Arrernte word. ‘Yes, the wanderings of the totems is startlingly like the wanderings of the Children of Israel—I am daily expecting to meet with the Tablets on the Mount’, reported an excited Gillen.
And in a comparable piece of cross-cultural hyperbole which breaks numerous museological rules, Neale opened her exhibition with a quote from Noel Pearson designed to suck non-Indigenous people in: ‘It is this culture that is the Iliad and Odyssey of Australia. It is these mythic stories that are Australia’s Book of Genesis’!

In significant counterbalance to any of these allusions, the exhibition makes it clear just how the real geology, flora and fauna of Australia are linked into this biblical Odyssey. Images of the two gigantic glowering eyes of Wati Nyiru hollowed out of the thirty metre rock face at Kuru Ala, are absolutely the stuff of legend. And the two comparable roundels in Wingu Tingima’s painting of that site make the hairs on your neck stiffen.

But there is also the intangible in the songline, which makes it so different from any non-Indigenous map or road. Another pre-Chatwin recognition of the concept came in W.E.H. Stanner’s essays, such as his recall in 1953 of the Murinbata man, Muta’s comment, ‘in the cadence of a verse’, which gave one of them its title,

White man got no dreaming.
Him go ’nother way.
White man, him go different
Him got road belong himself.

Which of course recalls the National Museum’s effort in 2010 to track the whitefellar’s road called the Canning Stock Route imposed upon the Aboriginal version called Yiwarra Kuju. Which brings us full circle, to the roads that inspired Peter Carey’s latest novel A Long Way from Home, deriving from his childhood memories of the Redex trials and contrasted with ‘the songlines and storylines rubbed out’. Well, we now know that that erasure has not happened. But, whatever the interpretation of the word ‘songlines’—correct or wildly imaginative—there is no doubt it is a concept that is definitely in the zeitgeist. ‘The Redex was all about mapping the country’, Carey told the Sydney Morning Herald; ‘in a way, claiming it. But there’s another set of maps: Aboriginal stories. So my notion was that I would find a way to put those maps together’.

And recognising their cartography—mythic, legal—in their art is clearly what Aborigines want us to do. Using the most contemporary of jargon, Margo Neale calls the paintings ‘portals to place’. Inawinytji Williamson, traditional owner of the Seven Sisters story, puts it her way, ‘We have brought the song, story and paintings full of Tjukurrpa, the creation spirit of the Seven Sisters, to put in our Canberra exhibition … so many other people can look, learn and increase their understanding’.

Tjanpi Desert weavers, Seven Sisters are Flying. Photograph Vicki Bosisto.

Tjunka Lewis, Untitled, 2011. Photograph National Museum of Australia.

Anawari Inpiti Mitchell, Angilyiya Tjapiti Mitchell, Lalla West, Jennifer Nginyaka Mitchell, Eileen Tjayanka Woods, Lesley Laidlaw and Robert Muntantji Woods, Papulankutja Artists, Kungkarrangkalpa Tjukurrpa, 2015. © The artist / Licensed by Viscopy, 2017. Photograph National Museum of Australia.

Walinynga Cave Hill. Photograph June Ross.



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

Jeremy Eccles is a Sydney-based writer.