In the back of a four-wheel-drive carrying a group of researchers along a sandy desert track, a couple of young Aboriginal blokes started humming to themselves.
It was the kind of start-stop humming you resort to when the only way to remember the words to a song is to sing your way through it.
As they pointed out features in the landscape, their murmuring rose and fell until suddenly one called to stop the car.
There was a waterhole, he insisted, just over the hill.
Travelling with them in the vehicle, the National Museum of Australia’s senior Indigenous curator, Margo Neale, was intrigued by such certainty on a dry old track. There was no water in view and no hint of it nearby. She asked the man if he had been there before.
“Nah,” he said. “I haven’t been here before.”
Then how, Neale asked him, did he know there was water?
“Oh, my auntie taught it to me in the song.”
The song was a kind of musical map, one of the culture stories that weave history, topography, spirituality, science, survival and navigation advice and family law into lessons known as the songlines that guide Indigenous custodians across the land and through life.
Laid down over millennia, the lines are corridors of knowledge that traverse Australia. They are paths across the earth and skies, mapping the landscape and charting the cosmos, using allegory in story and song to guide the journey of each new generation and keep the culture alive.
That day on the desert road, armed with the song’s instruction, the travellers pulled up and set off over the hill. The confident hummers led their companions to what was, indeed, water – right where they’d predicted, just out of sight, like the ancient song had said.
That journey was part of the research with other partners that would become Songlines – Tracking the Seven Sisters, a unique, remarkable, transformative exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until February 25.
Seven years ago, a group of Anangu elders approached the museum and the Australian National University, seeking help to gather and preserve these ancient story-songs and share them with the rest of Australia.
Together they applied for a grant through the Australian Research Council and one of the results is the magical, multimedia exhibition, jointly curated by Neale and the elders themselves in what Neale calls “a curatorium”.
The ageing custodians of the Seven Sisters’ songlines wanted to ensure that when the youth of their community were ready to learn their history and culture, the songlines would still be living, even if the elders were not.
They decided the only way to keep them from disappearing would be to have the whole country take ownership of them. To do that, they needed to combine Western and Indigenous ways of archiving history and passing on knowledge.
The Western way separates the disciplines and writes everything down. In traditional Indigenous culture, it is all conveyed together as a single, living story, into a dreaming track, or songline. Art provides the physical depiction, like a map.
The Songlines exhibition captures those many dimensions, using both kinds of communication.
“The Aboriginal archive is an organic, dynamic thing and the history is written in the land,” Margo Neale explains.
“Every shape, form, outcrop, colour is all part of the story and you read it. It’s a mnemonic.”
In contrast, the Western knowledge system and archive “freezes in time”. “It is invariably housed in a building, located atop land in a place totally alien to the stories it contains,” Neale says of Western knowledge. “It bears no relationship to place. The Indigenous knowledge system – the songlines – is an embodied knowledge system … So what did these smart, strategic, proactive elders do? They said, ‘Okay, we need to freeze this story ’til those younger ones come to their senses – and they will – but [we’ll be] gone.’ ”
Five years in development, the exhibition is not designed to set Aboriginal culture and history apart from the rest but to present it as integral to all. Its custodians want the rest of Australia to understand that this is their story, too.
“The quality and character of an exhibition is determined by the quality and character of the journey that precedes it,” Neale says.
The physical journey carried Neale and others, as well as the Anangu elders, some 7000 kilometres overland, traversing sections of the songlines, stretching from Roebourne on the West Australian coast across to the southern Queensland coast, with branches looping back both north-west and south-west from the centre.
The story in this exhibition traverses three central-western deserts, crossing the country of the Martu, Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra peoples.
It follows the journey of the mythical seven sisters and a male figure described as the “relentless pursuer”, who chases them across the land and sky.
“It is an archetypal ancestral narrative of a shape-shifter who pursues the seven sisters in order to possess them and in doing so he transforms himself or morphs himself into a whole range of disguises such as delectable foods, water, a shade tree in which to lure them to him in order to possess them,” Neale explains. “It is metaphoric in scale and meaning like all epic sagas from all civilisations.”
Some aspects of it are deeply sexual. The curators have chosen to incorporate this more as an undercurrent than overt depiction, to avoid having it overshadow the full story and attract what Neale calls “tittering teenagers”.
“Consume the food, enter the body,” is how she sums up the chase.
“But it’s more than that,” she says, explaining it like a treasure map: “You know the story, you know where the water is, you know where the shade is, you know where the food is.”
It also explains the constellations, with an alternative version to the Western one commonly used to describe Orion and his “belt”.
The songlines are at once ancient and living. At one point in the exhibition’s audio tour, one of the narrators talks of the sisters being pursued in a Toyota. She tells that part of their story as if it’s happening today.
Because the art in this show is itself a vehicle for telling a bigger story, Neale worked with the elders to combine their knowledge with her curatorial skills.
To make culture “cool”, to incorporate the performance element that is crucial to transmitting the songlines and to create the sense that the custodians are physically present, she incorporated life-sized video panels, in which each elder explains what the exhibition is about.
These convey directly that the visitor is being invited to share their way of understanding the world.
At the centre of the exhibition is the “domelab”, a surround-video experience in which visitors lie on a padded plinth and watch on the curved walls and ceiling. Its two cycles last 15 minutes and are almost meditative.
The exhibition can be viewed for its art alone, some of which was specially commissioned and some drawn from other collections, or experienced in its other layers of depth.
“If you want to just go round and look at beautiful things, you can,” Neale says. “If you want to experience high tech and enjoy that, you can. If you want to dig deeper and learn about the place of kinship, attachment to country, Aboriginal understanding of ecology or the role of (performance) in passing on knowledge, you can. It does all these things, thanks to the custodians.”
For those who feel they have never fully understood the songlines, sometimes called the Dreaming, and their role in Aboriginal culture, this exhibition may be that lightbulb moment.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2017 as "Sisters’ keepers".
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