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14 September 2017

Groundbreaking exhibition showcases sweeping Seven Sisters creation saga

An ancient creation saga featuring a dramatic chase across the Australian deserts is at the heart of the groundbreaking exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which opens at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra tomorrow.

A world first in scale and complexity, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters showcases sections of five Indigenous Western and Central Desert songlines, utilising some 100 paintings and photographs, objects, songs, dance and multimedia to narrate the story of the Seven Sisters, as they traverse the continent from west to east, through three states, three deserts and across some 500,000 square kilometres.

The exhibition features the world’s highest resolution six-metre-wide travelling DomeLab under which visitors will be immersed in images of Seven Sisters rock art from the remote Cave Hill site in South Australia; animated art works; the transit of the Orion constellation and the Pleiades star cluster.

By standing beneath the Dome visitors will be transported to Seven Sisters sites. By following the trail of stunning art and installations, visitors will effectively ‘walk’ the songlines — which are both complex spiritual pathways and vehicles for naming and locating water holes and food, critical for survival.

The project was initiated by Indigenous elders who set out to preserve the stories for future generations and to promote understanding of songlines among all Australians.

‘I am immensely proud of Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters which is the culmination of more than five years of collaboration between Indigenous communities and the National Museum — nothing of this scale has been attempted before,’ said National Museum director, Dr Mathew Trinca.

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters traverses three Indigenous lands — APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara); Ngaanyatjarra and Martu.

‘Songlines are a cross-cultural term, a passport to the deep knowledge embedded in the land which we now all share. They are our foundational stories about the creation of this continent and critical to the sense of belonging for all Australians,’ said National Museum lead Indigenous curator, Margo Neale.

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 who are pursued by a powerful mythological, shape-shifting figure.

Since 2012, Museum curators — led by an Indigenous Community Curatorium – have gone on-country to track the Seven Sisters songlines. Along the way, Indigenous cultural custodians of the stories have produced art works which tell their aspects of the tale — many of these pieces will go into the Museum’s National Historical Collection. As a result of this project, research material collected by National Museum curators has been provided for upload into the Aboriginal-managed digital archive, Ara Irititja, in Alice Springs.

State-of-the-art DomeLab experience headlines Indigenous exhibition

An immersive multimedia DomeLab experience is at the heart of a groundbreaking new exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, an epic story exploring ancient Indigenous songlines and opening on 15 September 2017 at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

The world’s highest-resolution travelling Dome is coming to Canberra for the first time and will feature images of rarely seen rock art depicting the Seven Sisters activities at the remote Cave Hill site in South Australia. It is the only known Seven Sisters rock art of its kind.

The six-metre wide DomeLab experience, entitled ‘Travelling Kungkarangkalpa’, will also feature animated art works including 3D tjanpi (grass) figures of the Seven Sisters soaring through the skies, and the transit of the Orion constellation and the Pleiades star cluster.

DomeLab was conceived and developed in 2015 by Professor Sarah Kenderdine in collaboration with the National Museum and 10 other organisations, as part of an Australian Research Council grant.

Professor Kenderdine said DomeLab challenges groups of some 30 people at a time to see things differently and transports them into other worlds.

Travelling Kungkarangkalpa is a digital sanctuary that simultaneously expresses the sphere of the world around us, the sky above and the ground below, enveloping viewers in depictions of the Seven Sisters as they travel through country,’ said Professor Kenderdine.

‘Visitors can stand, lie or sit beneath the suspended Dome and experience senses similar to camping in the desert, gazing up into the night sky,’ she said.

National Museum director Dr Mathew Trinca said, ‘DomeLab gives audiences something not on offer before in Canberra and I encourage everyone to embrace this immersive experience’.

The National Museum’s Songlines senior Indigenous curator, Margo Neale said the DomeLab ‘uses the newest technology to tell ancient stories from the oldest culture — thus reflecting the power of the ancient to remain contemporary’.

The exhibition showcases sections of five Indigenous Western Desert songlines, utilising some 100 paintings and photographs; six major installations; objects and multimedia, to tell the story of the Seven Sisters, as they traverse the continent from west to east, through three states, three deserts and across some 500,000 square kilometres.

The project was initiated by Indigenous elders who want to preserve these stories for future generations and to promote understanding of songlines among all Australians. As a result of this project, research material collected by National Museum curators has been provided for upload into the Aboriginal-managed digital archive Ara Irititja, in Alice Springs.

DomeLab is a research project led by Professor Sarah Kenderdine, University of NSW, supported by the ARC.

Songlines background

Songlines

  • Songlines are epic Indigenous tales, foundational to the creation of the Australian continent
  • Songlines, also referred to as Dreaming tracks, are pathways of knowledge that map the routes and activities of Ancestral beings as they travelled across Australia
  • Songlines act as pathways of knowledge carrying complex spiritual, ecological, economic, cultural and historical knowledge
  • Songlines are a means of naming and remembering sites, their resources and their significance
  • Songlines crisscross the land creating a network of stories that ‘map’ the Australian continent by linking stories to geographical features and serving as vehicles for naming and locating significant sites, like the location of water holes and food, critical for survival
  • Using songlines, Indigenous communities identify significant sites and pass on laws, ways of living and moral codes to the next generation

Seven Sisters Songline

  • The Seven Sisters songlines tells the saga of an endless journey made by a group of female Ancestral beings, who are pursued by a powerful mythological figure who is, by turns, unpredictable, dangerous, driven, thwarted, desperate and tricky
  • The Seven Sisters songlines are an archetypal narrative of male pursuit across the land – land that is itself formed by the chase. The pursuer is an Ancestral shape-shifter who transforms into multiple guises to trick the Seven Sisters he attempts to possess – sometimes he is the wind, or a part of him cuts loose in the form of a snake
  • The many encounters between the Seven Sisters and this Ancestral figure are imprinted in features of the land and reflected in the night sky, as the transit of Orion and Pleiades star cluster
  • This grand drama of intrigue, mystery and beauty encompasses the passion and danger of creation, desire, love, flight and survival

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters project

  • The Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters project is a world first in scale and complexity
  • The project was initiated in 2010 by Anangu Elders from the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands in central Australia and led by senior Seven Sisters custodians from across the Central and Western deserts
  • The elders were compelled by an urgent need to track the songlines, and preserve the knowledge primarily in the Aboriginal-managed digital archive Ara Irititja, in Alice Springs, for later generations
  • Elders approached the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University who together gained Australian Research Council funding to undertake the research project known as 'Alive with the Dreaming! Songlines of the Western Desert'
  • Elders wanted to broaden public awareness of songlines and to garner support for their preservation
  • Since 2012, the Museum’s Songlines team, led by an Indigenous Community Curatorium, tracked and mapped the Seven Sisters songlines visually, performatively, archaeologically and ecologically
  • The exhibition showcases sections of five Indigenous Western Desert Seven Sisters songlines, as they traverse the continent from west to east, through three states, three deserts and across some 500,000 square kilometres - from Roebourne on the Western Australian coast, to the APY Lands in the east
  • The result is an exhibition featuring some 100 paintings and photographs; six major installations including large tjanpi (grass) sculptures; some 66 objects including baskets, spears, coolamons and ceramics; and 20 multimedia pieces
  • Visitors to the exhibition will follow a path of artworks which act like portals to ‘place’, telling the Seven Sisters’ stories – visitors will effectively ‘walk’ the songlines by following the art and multimedia trail

Songlines community Voices

Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

‘The Seven Sisters Tjukurpa, our Dreaming creation law, is very important to us, we hold it strongly and teach it to the generations that come after us. This Tjukurpa travels through many people’s country: the Martu, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands. This really big Tjukurpa belongs to many people in the north, east, south, west and the centre. Many people tell this story in different languages. We have brought the song, story and paintings full of Tjukurpa, the creation spirit of the Seven Sisters, to put in our Canberra exhibition. We want to show this major creation story here so many other people can look, learn and increase their understanding. All people, white and black, can come and see and understand. And it’s for teaching all our children, our granddaughters and grandsons — to keep the culture strong. That is why we are making this exhibition so everyone can see and understand that our Tjukurpa law stands strong today.’

Inawinytji Williamson, Senior law woman and custodian of the Seven Sisters songline at Kuli, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands

Ngaanyatjarra Lands

‘With this big exhibition for the Seven Sisters, whitefellas will see it how we are doing paintings and will get learned from our storytelling. They will understand some of them stories of the sisters. They might feel that place. It will be interesting stories for them – by looking at it and listening and thinking. The Tjukurrpa teaches all the young ones, the kaparli [granddaughters] and all the kids. Our children and grandchildren, our daughters, they can learn from us or from family like Jennifer [Nginyaka Mitchell] or Angilyiya [Tjapiti Mitchell] … if the young ones are interested. This story is a really good one for the young ones to learn. That’s the story for them to get learned, look and they might like it and good for them to learn for the future.’

Anawari Inpiti Mitchell, Senior law woman and custodian of the Seven Sisters songline at Kuru Ala, Ngaanyatjarra Lands

Martu

‘[Seven Sisters] is not just one songline – they travelled all around Australia. And even other people overseas know the Seven Sisters story in their own way, so it’s a special story. It’s not only happening here in Australia but it happened everywhere else.’

‘Teach them [young ones] to respect your beliefs that your grandmother, or sister, or whatever [family member has taught you]. Whatever they teaching you, you gotta teach them how to respect themselves and respect seniors. That’s what the younger people, you know when you tell them, they know you’re telling them and teaching them, to respect your knowledge.’

Ngalangka Nola Taylor, Senior law woman and translator for Martu people, in conversation with Kumpaya Girgirba.

Media contact: Tracy Sutherland, 02 6208 5338 | 0438 620 710 or media@nma.gov.au

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