Songlines need to be marked and followed: new at the National Museum of Australia

Just opened at the National Museum and running till February is Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. Songlines – roughly, wisdom-bearing Dreaming paths – may be mysterious to many settler (non-Indigenous) Australians but this exhibition should at least begin to set these Australians straight. It includes over 100 paintings, photographs and other works, maps, video installations and a multi-media installation to tell a creationist story from the western and central desert peoples.

Fairfax published an extract from curator Margo Neale’s remarks in the exhibition catalogue. In part of the exhibition, paintings

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.

Paul Daley in Guardian Australia wrote: ‘This exhibition celebrates Indigenous culture and belief, endurance and wisdom in a way I’ve not hitherto experienced in a cultural collecting institution’. Daley had previously written on the subject. (And did again.) There is material on songlines also in Bill Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, and in this piece by Rhoda Roberts and this one by Robert S. Fuller.

Songlines are intricately bound up with the 65 000 year history of Indigenous Australia, aspects of which are dealt with in The Honest History Book by Paul Daley (a chapter entitled ‘Our most important war: The legacy of frontier conflict’) and Larissa Behrendt (‘Settlement or invasion? The coloniser’s quandary’).

Update 9 November 2017: Duayne Hamacher on oral traditions and astronomy among Indigenous Australians.

21 September 2017 updated

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