The story is written in the country now, in the rock holes, hills, and dunes.
The story is also told at the National Museum of Australia in a stunning exhibition of paintings, holograms, wooden bowls, ceramics, woven baskets, woven figures and cinematic immersion.
Songlines: tracking the seven sisters traces the pursuit of seven sisters by an ancestral shape-shifter over vast expanses of Australia through three different tribal lands: the country of the Martu (the western desert in central Western Australia); the Ngaanyatjarra (between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie – 3% of Australia); and the Anangu/Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytatjara (in the northwest of South Australia).
The names of the characters might change (the pursuer is Nyurla and Wati Nyiru; the sisters collectively Minyipuru, Kungkarrangkalpa and Kungkarangkalpa) and the story darken, but there is continuity as the journey forms the landscape, until finally the sisters escape into the sky and become the star-cluster of the Pleiades.
The representations begin with an arrangement of striking woven figures.
The information panels are written in language, as well as English, and many of the paintings have an interpretation of the symbols. The colours are breathtakingly vivid, traditional Aboriginal dots and symbols emerging from the dark walls. I’ve offered close-ups with some trepidation at taking them from the whole image, since the image carries so much meaning.
A collection of woven baskets offers the configuration of the Pleiades.
Every now and then you are confronted by tall videos of Aboriginal women, talking about their version of the story.
A digital dome with a circular couch and headrests allows you to look into the sky, and to see the Walinynga (Cave Hill) rock art, which begins 3500 years ago and continues into the present.
A second collection of woven figures, dance and cast their shadows as we move in to Ngaanyatjarra lands. There too is a room of ceramics, yet another way to tell the story.
In the APY lands, Wati Nyiru checks his footprints and counts his toes -7? 5? 3?. He recognises himself as a sorcerer at last and this answers the question he has been asking himself: “Why don’t they like me?”
Tjungkara Ken dreamed about painting on a round canvas to track the journey of Kungkarangkalpa across 600 kilometres from the Northern Territory to South Australia to Western Australia. What she and her sisters painted is an encyclopaedic map conveying the knowledge carried in Songlines about bush medicine, bush food and water sources.
Tjunkaya Tapaya is a traditional owner at Atila. She says “I have painted this Tjukurpa (Creation of country) on many canvases, and my Tjukurpa has gone out to many places sharing this important story.”
The last lot of woven figures show the Seven Sisters escaping into the sky to become the star cluster, Pleiades, the end of their story. My photos don’t do them justice, but you can see the figures and learn about their making here.
Songlines were given legal authority in the Australian Federal Court in 2005 when it recognised the Ngaanyatjarra people’s claim to 180 000 square kilometres. Celebrations included dancing the Seven Sisters.
For the Seven Sisters story told on-site in language (with captions), click here
For quality reproductions and photos of the artists, click here.
If you want to know more about what Songlines are, click here
My apologies if I’ve made any protocol mistakes, omissions or mis-attributions.