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Talking around the Songlines

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November 2012

About five hours south of Alice Springs, on the bush 'highway' heading across the border towards Amata, few cars are sighted. Suddenly, after taking an unmarked turnoff, there was a swarm of white Toyotas and Troopies covered in the customary red dust, all doing what we were doing, trying to find the track to Cave Hill, a significant Seven Sisters site on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.

As light was falling, a grader truck of terminator-like presence was busy slicing yet another swathe of red dust through the scrub for us to set up camp and bed our swags. Dotted across the landscape at our camping spot were dozens of domestic fires, which were attended by some 150 women who had gathered for the three-day long Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women's Council meeting.

The Songlines project, 'Alive with the Dreaming: Songlines of the Western Desert', was on the agenda to 'talk' around the Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters).

This was the first major bush trip for the Songlines project team, numbering some 30 people who had come from nearby Amata, and as far away as Roebourne (Western Australia), another site of the Seven Sisters saga. Others came from country Victoria, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Talking Seven Sisters sites at Tjarlirli Art Centre, Tjukurla (Western Australia) (Left to right) Tjawina Porter, Margo Neale and Lizzie Ellis
Talking Seven Sisters sites at Tjarlirli Art Centre, Tjukurla (Western Australia) (Left to right) Tjawina Porter, Margo Neale and Lizzie Ellis

The prime reason for this muster was to attend the first meeting of the Elders and Partners Research Management Committee for the epic Songlines project, chaired by Robert Stevens, senior traditional owner of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa.

In Amata on Tuesday 17 April 2012, we sat with some 40 elders and traditional owners of relevant Ngintaka and Seven Sisters' sites to talk the money story, the protocol story and the people story.

This Anangu-initiated project of tracking and recording these Songlines across three states had been talked about across the APY lands for over a decade.

To this point, however, the scale and complexity of the project prohibited all previous attempts to resource it.

The sense of urgency that was palpable throughout the meeting was highlighted in the opening remarks by David Miller (chair of Ananguku Arts), when he explained that, 'One of the reasons we have to hurry up … is because the sickness is taking many of the old people already.'

At the meeting, a young Anangu leader, Tapaya Edwards, spoke passionately about the value of knowing the traditional songs and dances. He made a heartfelt statement, in fact a plea, at the conclusion of the meeting:

This project is really important because some young people in the lands don't know nothing about our stories. It's a serious matter - young people are ngurrpa Tjukurpa [they don't know the dreaming], everyone of my age. It's really important, our story. When the elders pass away, we're going to lose the story, the story is going to be gone. We need to boost this project; we need these kinds of things in the land.
Kungkarangkalpa dancing at Cave Hill.

As a young person amongst so many esteemed elders, it took Tapaya until the end of the meeting to find the courage to say what was in his heart. He has participated in everything that has taken place in the first year of the Songlines project: from the Inma performances at the Spirit Festival at Tandanya in Adelaide, to a ministerial delegation in South Australia to discuss trainee funding, further meetings regularly in Canberra, Alice Springs, Adelaide and Amata; and from the Cave Hill camp in April to an Inma rehearsal near Ernabella in September.

It was here that he and the elders danced into the night in rehearsal with Wesley Enoch, who has been engaged as artistic director for a Centenary of Canberra (C100) performance of the Seven Sisters Inma at the National Museum on 1–2 March 2013.

It was a surreal scene: Wesley perched atop a Toyota, clipboard in hand, while the painted-up dancers, flanked by singers, were thrown into high relief against the darkness by floodlights and fire. It felt like a big-time film set, complete with cameras and sound recordists. Beyond the visual drama, this intensive Inma stimulated and revived old songs and dances, which were learnt and re-taught amongst the group. This is the real business of the project.

Map of Songlines area of Australia

In the week prior to this night Inma, we had toured into the Nyaanyatjarra lands on a 3300-kilometre, four-wheel drive, 'whistle stop tour' of eight art centres across three states (see map). We met a number of key artists at these vital community hubs, which are coordinated by high-octane art advisors and alive with stunning works that tell of the Kungtanngtkala.

Audiences will get a chance to learn about these stories through a curated collection of artworks in an exhibition in Canberra (Kungkarangkalpa at the National Museum of Australia in 2016).

Margo Neale Senior Indigenous Curator and Indigenous Advisor to the Director, National Museum of Australia; Adjunct Professor, Research School of Humanities & the Arts, Australian National University

Tessa Keenan Assistant Curator, Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia

The Songlines project is an investigative collaboration between the Martu, Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples, funded by the Australian Research Council, administered through the Australian National University and partnered by the National Museum of Australia involving Margo Neale, Mike Smith and Libby Robin from the Centre for Historical Research. Other partners are Ananguku Arts, NPY Women's Council, the University of New England, Archaeological and Heritage Management Solutions, and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Songlines project on the ANU website

Group photo at Tjala Arts, Amata (South Australia)
Art centre coordinator Skye O’Meara shows paintings at Tjala Arts, Amata (South Australia). (Standing, left to right) Howard Morphy, Lara Croydon, Jane Dewing, Helen Healy, Margo Neale, Jo Foster, Michelle Young, Wesley Enoch, Andrew Sayers and Skye O’Meara (sitting) Dianna James, June Ross and Mike Smith. Photo: Jodi Neale.