A world first for Australia in scale and complexity.
‘There has never been an Australian exhibition of this scale and significance to travel extensively to premier galleries across the world’, said artist Alison Page, a member of both the National Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group and the federal government’s Senior Advisory Group.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters showcases five Indigenous Western and Central desert songlines, utilising around 300 paintings and photographs, objects, song, dance and multimedia to narrate the story of the Seven Sisters and the creation of this continent as they travelled from west to east. The exhibition is underpinned by a depth of scholarship that involved a research journey over some 500,000 square kilometres of the continent, across three states and three deserts.
The project that led to the exhibition was initiated by Aboriginal elders who set out to preserve the cultural knowledge of the Seven Sisters songlines for future generations and to promote understanding of songlines for all Australians. Many of the elders said ‘that if you are going to live on our land, we are happy to share it but you have to learn the stories of the country and we are here to teach you, then you can also be responsible for their preservation’. They also planned for it to go to the world.
‘We have bought the song, story and paintings full of Tjukurpa, the creation spirit of the Seven Sisters, to put in our exhibition … so many other people can look, learn and increase their understanding,’ said Inawinytji Williamson, senior law woman and traditional owner of the Seven Sisters songline, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands, and spokesperson for the Community Curatorium who worked with the Museum to direct the representation of cultural material in the exhibition.
‘I am immensely proud to be taking Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters to overseas audiences who I know will be as captivated by this award-winning show as Australian audiences were, when the exhibition showed in Canberra in 2017,’ said Dr Mathew Trinca, Director of the National Museum.
‘The Songlines exhibition is the culmination of more than five years of collaboration between Indigenous communities,’ the National Museum in Canberra and the Australian National University. Nothing of this scale had been attempted before,’ said Dr Trinca.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters traverses three Indigenous lands — APY (Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara), Ngaanyatjarra and Martu.
‘This is not an art exhibition, a history exhibition or a science exhibition,’ said Margo Neale, National Museum’s lead Indigenous curator. ‘It is all of these. It is both an Australian Aboriginal exhibition and a universal story of mankind. It offers us connectivity to each other and our planet in a fragmenting world,’ Ms Neale said. The Songlines tour to its first venue, The Box, Plymouth, is part of the UK/Australia Season 2021–22, a joint initiative by the British Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Through the theme ‘Who are we now?’, the Season will explore and celebrate the relationship between Australia and the UK across the arts, creative industries and higher education, and will celebrate the diversity of cultures and languages in both countries. The Season will take place in the UK from August to November 2021 and in Australia from September 2021 to March 2022.
‘It’s really exciting to be able to bring such an important exhibition to Plymouth and to be involved in the UK-wide program for the UK/Australia Season 2021–22,’ said Tudor Evans OBE, Leader of Plymouth City Council.
‘As we move on from 2020’s Mayflower commemorations to reflect on the significance of Captain Cook’s voyages, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters will highlight the UK and Australia’s shared history and culture, explore our current relationship and imagine our future. We can’t wait to play our part,’ Mr Evans said.
‘With ceramics, paintings, sculpture, installation and film by Aboriginal people, this award-winning, immersive exhibition from the National Museum of Australia will provide a unique platform for us to celebrate the arts and cultural life of the UK and Australia, with points of connection linked to our shared successes and challenges over 250 years,’ said Nigel Hurst, Head of Contemporary Arts at The Box, Plymouth.
‘Songlines will provide a wonderful and timely opportunity to bring the rich culture of First Australian to life for UK and Plymouth audiences, and acknowledge both our historic debt and the rich societies that have emerged in the UK and Australia as a result of migration,’ Mr Hurst said.
Songlines will feature at the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, at the end of 2021.
‘The partnership between the Stiftung Humboldt Forum and the National Museum of Australia on this project is a chance to highlight the continent of Australia, not often enough seen in exhibitions in Europe,’ said Dr Harmut Dorgerloh, General Director, Humboldt Forum.
‘The exhibition, which innovatively uses technology to preserve and present Indigenous knowledge and history, represents two key issues for the Stiftung Humboldt Forum: digital preservation of cultural heritage and innovative musicological approaches,’ said Dr Dorgerloh.
‘I am looking forward to the collaboration with the Martu, the Ngaanyatjarra and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples. This groundbreaking exhibition will pave a new way for the Ethnology Museum to work with local communities,’ said Lars-Christian Koch, Director of the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, and Director of the Berlin State Museum’s collections at the Humboldt Forum.
Songlines will showcase at Musée du quai Branly, Paris, from April 2023 to July 2023.
‘Through the Songlines exhibition, the Musée du quai Branly — Jacques Chirac and the National Museum of Australia unite to celebrate and promote Australian Aboriginal cultures,’ said Emmanuel Kasarhérou, President of the Musée du quai Branly.
‘Particularly innovative and spectacular, the exhibition remains, above all, a place for the transmission of knowledge rooted in the rooted in the lore of three deserts of Western Australia and emanating from their stellar art forms,’ Mr Kasarhérou said.
After Paris, the exhibition will continue its global tour, with planning underway for travel to North America and Asia.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters portrays the drama of creation, desire, flight and survival by telling the story of a journey made by a group of female ancestral beings pursued by a powerful ancestral, shape-shifting figure, while transmitting universal truths and knowledge for sustainable living.
Following the trail of stunning art and installations, visitors effectively ‘walk’ the songlines — which are both complex spiritual pathways and vehicles for naming and locating water holes and food. Paintings become portals to place on this journey of survival.
The exhibition features the world’s highest resolution seven-metre-wide travelling DomeLab under which visitors are immersed in animated art works, Seven Sisters rock art from the remote Cave Hill site in South Australia, and the transit of the Orion constellation and the Pleiades star cluster.
From 2012, National Museum curators — led by an Indigenous Community Curatorium — travelled Country to track the Seven Sisters songlines. Stunning paintings, stories and film were created along the way by the cultural custodians to document the Seven Sisters songline, and are now part of the Museum’s National Historical Collection.
Research material collected during this project has been deposited in the Aboriginal-managed digital archive Aṟa Irititja, in Alice Springs, for future generations.
‘Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is more than an art exhibition, it is a triumph of 21st century museology that the world deserves to see,’ said Paul Daley in the Guardian in 2017.
Songlines received the award for the best exhibition in Australia for 2018 at the 2018 Museums and Galleries National Awards.