Aṉangu elder David Miller leans across the table and speaks in hushed but weighty tones.
"You mob gotta help us … those songlines they been all broken up now … you can help us put them all back together again."
Gathered in the room that warm Canberra day back in 2010 were researchers from the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia, art centre managers, elders and partners. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss funding from the Australian Research Council.
But Mr Miller's plea echoed others that had been made in many different ways by many people over the preceding decade, each appeal bringing with it an increasing sense of urgency, as the old people passed away and the young people became increasingly distracted by modern technologies. They were no longer going back to country with their elders to learn their Tjukurpa (Dreaming), so the elders knew that they must use Western ways of holding the knowledge, waiting for some time in the future, after the elders had passed on and they were ready to learn. The young people needed to be able to get the knowledge from somewhere else.
Tapaya Edwards (revealingly the only young Aṉangu to remain involved for the duration of the seven-year project) also made a heartfelt plea at our first meeting of elders and partners in Amata, near the tri-state border, a year later, after hearing the funding had been approved.
"Many young people in my community … are ngurpa Tjukurpa [they don't know the Dreaming]," he said.
"People my age … when the elders pass away, we're going to lose the story, the story is going to be gone. We need to boost this project; we need these things in the lands."
It was this sense of urgency that compelled the Aṉangu elders to seek assistance. This was their mission and thus it became ours, too.
With funding in hand, the project "Alive with the Dreaming! Songlines of the Western Desert" was born. It brought together archaeologists, anthropologists and museum curators who worked collaboratively alongside Aboriginal artists and traditional owners.
As curators of their country and holders of their country's stories, the Aboriginal artists and traditional owners made up the museum's community curatorium, which directed the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition – a major output of the project.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters asks the big questions: What are songlines? How do they work? Why are they significant to Aboriginal people today? And what is their relevance to all Australians, to Australian history and identity?
We have sought to provide at least some answers to these questions through an Aboriginal-led exhibition, rich with Aboriginal voices and tangible expressions of the songlines, in the context of a social history museum – presented in art gallery mode.
The Songlines exhibition is a case study in action, as traditional custodians of the Seven Sisters Tjukurpa take us on a journey along parts of their songlines across three deserts in the lands of the Martu, the Aṉangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and the Ngaanyatjarra peoples.
At heart, Songlines is a journey exhibition. As such it shares its DNA with other exhibitions of recent years such as the NMA's Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route and, more particularly, We Don't Need a Map: A Martu Experience of the Western Desert.
Visitors will move from site to site along the Seven Sister songlines in each of the three countries represented. They literally walk from west to east in the footsteps of the Seven Sisters, with the sites mapped onto the gallery plinths. Visitors vicariously engage in the sisters' many escapades, as they flee from one water source to another in advance of their relentless pursuer, the lustful man known as Wati Nyiru, or Yurla. A shape-shifter, Nyiru transforms himself into a range of desirable food sources to attract the sisters to consume him, or at other times he becomes a shade tree to lure them close.
On entering the space, the visitor-traveller is introduced to the main characters in the narrative: life-sized, three dimensional woven tjanpi (grass) figures of the Seven Sisters and Wati Nyiru seated on the ground. The scene is then set with a short alluring film of magic and mystery by young Martu filmmaker Curtis Taylor, followed by a large immersive three-channel video installation, Always Walking Country: Parnngurr Yarrkalpa by Lynette Wallworth in collaboration with Martu artists, which accompanies an epic canvas of ecological density. A haunting soundscape of voices singing across cultures – New York-based singer Anohni and Martu elder Kumpaya Girgirba – rills through the space.
The exhibition continues, with the thrill of the chase, places named and explained, lessons learnt and, when the energy of physical life is spent, denouement occurs. The final "scene" sees a withdrawal from the narrative and the iconography of the Seven Sisters story in paintings created by artists nearing the end of their lives. Here the world of appearances gives way to loose, sparse traces of Tjukurrpa in artworks by residents in the Wanarn Aged Care Facility in Western Australia, a facility intentionally built in the epicentre of an active Seven Sisters songline. Here, they "whisper the Tjukurrpa".
Paintings encountered on the exhibition journey are "portals to place" through which travellers learn fragments of the storyline as the narrative unfolds. Visitors are guided from place to place by life-sized projections of senior custodians welcoming them to their respective countries.
Like passports, they enable cross-cultural access to knowledge scripted into the works. Many were created on country – all were done with country in mind. Place is palpably present in every nerve of this exhibition, where country is the connective tissue, and kinship between people, place and paintings is inseparable.
In a world first, visitors to the exhibition will experience an immersive and embodied sense of place under a six-metre dome, drawing on emerging technologies developed by Professor Sarah Kenderdine and her team at the University of New South Wales. Travellers will be transported virtually to Walinynga (Cave Hill), where the Seven Sisters story is played out in 360-degree vision as if standing beneath the rock art of what is the only known rock art site of its kind to depict the Seven Sisters.
The sequenced viewing in the dome follows a time-lapsed transit of the Orion constellation and Pleiades star cluster across the night sky, juxtaposed with the earthly activities of the Seven Sisters animated with digital representations of them as life-sized woven figures. In their digital form the sisters, in all their quirkiness, will fly across the dome as they do in the story, swirling and twirling playfully in their bid to escape their relentless male pursuer. Time is collapsed in this space where the ancient and the contemporary are indivisible.
Mending broken songlines
The archival research project, exhibitions and publications that resulted from the successful bid for funding from the ARC are a testament to the resolve of Aṉangu elders to find new ways of mending broken songlines and commemorating them in new spaces such as the NMA.
The project will allow future generations to access these stories in the Aboriginal-managed digital archive Aṛa Irititja, in Alice Springs.
It is also a testament to the resolve of museums in the 21st century to actively participate in and support these Aboriginal initiatives: not as an apology or an obligation, but rather as a profound recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander story of this country being the first Australian story. As such, it is central to our identity and to our national history, and not just an adjunct or curiosity. It is foundational, without which nothing else will take root, so will forever remain a transplant if not grafted onto the parent tree.
This is an edited extract from the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition catalogue.
Adjunct Professor MARGO NEALE is the Senior Indigenous Curator, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters.