Review / Storytelling illuminates Aboriginal culture

Art / Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. National Museum of Australia, to February 25, 2018. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY

“SONGLINES: Tracking the Seven Sisters” is the story of the women of Central Australia; it also encompasses the heritage of non-Aboriginal Australians.

“The Seven Sisters,” 2010, by Eileen Tjayanka Woods, Papulankutja Artists, acrylic on linen, National Museum of Australia. © Eileen Tjayanka Woods. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017.

This is an important exhibition for everyone, because, as it says on one of the information panels: “It is the culture that is ‘the Iliad’ and ‘the Odyssey’ of Australia”. Apart from containing some amazing artworks by more than 100 artists, this exhibition includes stories that will help better the understanding of Aboriginal culture.

“Tjukurrpa Kungkarrangkalpa”, 1995, by Tjapartji Kanytjuri Bates, Warburton Arts Project, acrylic on canvas.

The project was inspired by an investigative collaboration between senior custodians of Martu country and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra lands of Australia’s Central and Western deserts, along with the National Museum of Australia, the Australian National University and other partners.

Upon entry into “Songlines”, there is a vivid multi-media display of language, sound, music and visuals that cover the walls, the floor and the ceiling; it sets the tone for this mesmerising exhibition.

The seven sisters are the first artworks you see inside. They are life-sized figures made of rope, twine, cloth and hair. There is an eighth figure that sits with them, a man wearing a headband, watching them and trying to steal one for his wife. These distinctive characters invite its audience into the Songlines story.

The many videos, colourful artworks, some large-scale and filling entire walls, and the carvings, the pottery and writings all have a unique story to tell. The 360-degree video titled “Travelling to Kungkarangkalp”, which is in the dome theatre (lie down on the bed to get the full impact of this presentation) is an immersive journey into the story of the Seven Sisters. As Aboriginal children were once targeted for removal, this video is a presentation meant to attract children and adults to engage them and tell the extended stories of Aboriginal people.

This vast exhibition fills every wall, the floor and the ceiling. The life-sized videos setup around the exhibition space are of Aboriginal women and men welcoming the audience to their country, and to this exhibition and their experiences with the Seven Sisters.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) ceramics, 2016, by Alison Milyika Carroll, Tjimpuna Williams, Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel, Janelle Muwitja Nakamarra Thompson, Lynette Lewis, Fiona Wells, Elizabeth Dunn and Rupert Jack, Ernabella Arts. 

In the Art Centre Hub, there are tools, equipment and art supplies set out to replicate an actual arts centre that the artists have used. Along with books and artworks in the shop inside, the hub is an experience that highlights their art world.

One of the main attractions is the striking artwork titled “Seven Sisters are Flying”. This comes with an interactive display that explains about the sisters and how the artists went about creating them. The seven sisters are flying high above in a straight line, and the effect that this artwork leaves the viewer with is dream-like.

While the story of the seven sisters comes to life in this exceptional exhibition through narrative, song, dance and visual art, what this show does best is it invites its audience into the story of Aboriginal people. It assumes people don’t know a lot about Aboriginal culture and explains its background, their beliefs, the ideas and values of Australia’s first people through perhaps the greatest medium that human beings own, and that’s storytelling.


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