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Dr Margo Neale, Indigenous Advisor to the Director, National Museum of Australia, 27 October 2017

SHEONA WHITE: Songlines is an Aboriginal-led exhibition, and it’s about the epic Seven Sisters Dreaming, which is a story of pursuit and escape, desire and magic and the power of family bonds. The exhibition tells the fascinating story of how Songlines came into being. I’m very pleased to present Margo Neale who is delivering this first lecture today. Adjunct Professor Margo Neale is the senior Indigenous curator of the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition, and the Indigenous Advisor to the Director of the National Museum of Australia.

She was previously the Museum’s inaugural Director of Indigenous Programs, and the Museum’s first Director of the Gallery of First Australians. Formerly she worked at the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where she co-established the Yiribana Gallery, and the Queensland Art Gallery, where she established the Indigenous art department. Margo has curated many major local and international touring exhibitions including Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and Yiwarra Kuju


SHEONA WHITE: You didn’t do that?

MARGO NEALE: I didn’t do that.

SHEONA WHITE: Oh you didn’t do that? Oh well –

MARGO NEALE: But I’ll have it!

SHEONA WHITE: Margo has authored, edited and coedited 11 books including The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art, and has been appointed by successive governments to history panels including Prime Minister Rudd’s 2020 summit of ideas in the cultural stream. Could you please all join me in giving a very warm welcome to Margo Neale for her wonderful lecture today.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you. Welcome everybody to the Seven Sisters, who are currently coming, but they’re actually here as most of you might know. How many people have been to the exhibition? Oh, I was going to say how many haven’t, but you might be – how many haven’t but will be soon? Oh okay, then I know how much to say or not say.

Anyway I’d like to acknowledge that we are standing on the lands of the traditional owners: Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and acknowledge also, as I do, all the other Aboriginal peoples who have made this region their home for a long time, and then introduce myself – this isn’t on the business card – so I was born and raised in Gippsland, part of the Kulin nation. My mother’s Aboriginal, my father’s Irish, so we’re truly fringe dwellers of the British Empire [laughter], which is why I’m a bit cheeky actually.

I have clan connections with the Gumbaynggirr and the Northern Rivers and Wiradjuri in the Riverina. I’ve spent, I think, most of my culture really from living in Arnhem Land for most of the [19]70s, before it was discovered by everybody else. I was part of the homelands, the outstations movement, so I’m actually 90 [laughter]. Anyway, so thanks for coming. That’s really great, and I’ll just whip you through, and it’ll be fairly casual.

First of all, just so some get on the page with the word ‘songlines’, an old person put it in a way that some will understand, that he sees it as The Iliad and Odyssey of Australia. It’s an epic saga right, it’s an epic saga that every major civilisation has. They’re epic sagas because they hold the truths of how to live and behave and a whole range of knowledge, so it’s about knowledge.

As he said, not that I’m saying it is, but he said it’s Australia’s Book of Genesis. The other important point he makes is that it’s for all Australians, and it’s the heritage of all Australians, and I’ll get to this in a minute – my motivation partly in being so committed to this for so long is there will be a legacy. It’s simply a staging post, just like the sites on the songlines, right? This is one site on the songlines.

If you live in Australia and you want to be Australian, you’ve got to know your stories. If you’ve got to know your stories you’ve got to know the creation story that’s created this continent, right? Otherwise you won’t ever transplant so you won’t ever take root in the bedrock. You’ll always remain not grafted properly to the parent. Fortunately the Aboriginal people who are involved think the same.

The songlines are like in various ways, pathways, if you like, of corridors that criss-cross the continent. They’re laid down over millennia. It’s totally entwined and networked with stories. They’re the stories of the land, the history is written in the land, not in the boxes like this which have objects and texts [points to a slide]. This is, as you can see, David [inaudible] who I think called it ‘land stories’ and broke it all up. This is the real map of Australia [points to a slide].

The women – the Anangu mob initiated this project, of which this is one of many – being public servants – outputs [laughter]. It arose because some Anangu elders had said in 2010 that the songlines were all broken up, and, ‘We want you mob to help us put them back together again.’ Now this is echoing a previous ten years of attempts to get some assistance, because it’s a huge logistic exercise to do this.

I can understand why it wasn’t taken up, but the moons all lined up. ANU [Australian National University], us and others got together, got a grant, with the Anangu mob and off we went. That’s that motivation, and that was based on not only the disruption of pastoralism and mining, but also the fact that they were getting old and the young fellas were not ‘going bush’ with them and hanging out learning stuff; a bit busy on their devices or other things.

They were a bit worried that the knowledge would be lost, and Aboriginal knowledge has to be kept alive, through song, dance, performance; it has to be kept alive in an enacted and embodied way. It’s an embodied knowledge, right? If it isn’t, it dies. Unlike the western archive, where time is frozen. They wanted to have their knowledge archived in; they wanted to use what could be seen as the flaw in the western archive, the freezing of time, but that was useful for them; track the Seven Sisters, document it, freeze it in the archives, so when the young fellows come to their senses, it’s there.

No doubt they will, they’ll get married up, have kids, want to take them back to country, elders have gone. It’s very strategic for them in that way. It wasn’t a sad thing, it was this is how we’re going to keep it alive. That’s the Anangu motivation, and it spread to other deserts beyond. My motivation is that bit about the foundational story of this continent and everyone needs to know their story.

It doesn’t matter where you came from, what colour you are, nothing; and this mob think the same, and that blade of people talk, elders out the front will talk about that kind of stuff. This is for the whole world, because you can archive the knowledge without having to have an exhibition, so why would you have an exhibition? You need everyone on board, you need to teach Australians that it’s not them and us; they’re Australian, we’re Australian, we share this continent, we share these stories. Clearly there’s lots of levels of stories.

Now from the Museum’s perspective, the National Museum of Australia who tells the story of all Australians – the Australian story for all Australians should do – because these are the first Australian stories. You need to tell it the way these Australians tell their story, how they hold it, narrate it, tell it, keep it, all of that; that is a different way of telling, for those who have been to Songlines will know, it’s a different way of holding and telling the story.

A museum of Australian history has to take into account Australian history, particularly the foundational one, that precedes all others, and particularly an Australian one which is central and core to the place we all live. There’ll be Asian – Australian and all sorts of other stories, but this is it, this is the story.

There’s the three things, but just again to give you a bit of a sense of their story before I get to that, while I’m looking at the ladies. It is an archetypal narrative – I’ll just give what the general gist of the story is – it’s an archetypal narrative of an ancestral figure or sorcery figure, often referred to as a shape-shifter in the exhibition. He’s in pursuit of the Seven Sisters across the entire continent in fact, and in fact there are Irish stories, and Japanese stories and it’s across the whole world actually.

It varies depending on the land and the terrain and the country, because in Australia, it’s created country, so the details are dependent on the detail of the country. He’s in pursuit of these seven ladies, and in order to get them, to lure them, or to possess them actually, he needs to transform himself into multiple disguises. He transforms himself into delectable foods that they can consume, thus becomes part of them; and water and shade trees and all the things you need to have and know about if you are going to survive in the desert.

Clearly the other level is about land resources, management and so on. The second part is this mythological dimension, as you would know, means it’s also a template for the laws and customs and behaviours of the people; the social, the behavioural patterns, and there are multiple layers. Now the reason it’s told in such a human [way] – a man chasing women across a desert, this happens and that happens – is in an oral society that has no texts, how to you remember stories for ten, 20 – , 30 – , 40 – , 50,000 years? You remember it by giving it human values.

This fella, this pursuer as I’ll call him, he in this story is like a human, but he actually isn’t. This is how you remember the story and tell it at a kids level, at an adult level, at a level for people who have restricted knowledge; there’s multiple levels. What we’re trying to do – everyone thinks that’s all there is to Aboriginal culture, these lovely stories, myths and legends, but they are the body; they contain the knowledge that’s necessary to survive for 60,000 years on this continent.

We’re trying to take it out of the idea that it’s merely a footnote of Australian history. As some of you may remember, it was quite an insult to [John] Howard and that regime, that this museum would have one third of its space dedicated to Aboriginal history when there was no Aboriginal history; they’re only myths and legends. We’re in that interesting zone, so this is going to change all that. Well this and its subsequent things.

Therefore this exhibition – in order to do what they wanted to be done, we had to basically follow a journey along the Seven Sisters songlines. Clearly this is not all of them, and clearly it’s parts of them, and so on; but along the Seven Sisters songlines, which means site by site by site, different people had different responsibilities. In the time we had, which was probably productively about three to five years, is up here in Martu country [points to a slide], then we cross to APY [Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] lands and up to the Ngaanyatjarra lands, so it scoops like that in this exhibition.

My mantra is [that] the quality of an exhibition is determined by the quality of the journey that precedes it. Given the genesis of this – as an Aboriginal initiative for preservation reasons – the Museum’s obligation to its mandate to the Australian people – and my passion for that, for my particular interest in it as well – it clearly was a quality journey at its start; and the journey that went on with all the mob taking us everywhere.

There’s the idea of the elder and the younger [points to a slide]. In this exhibition you’ve got people teaching – in fact interestingly enough here’s Mr Newberry from Ngaanyatjarra lands teaching a younger person from the Martu lands, and he was very keen on connecting all these songlines up, because everybody has their own responsibilities. In the exhibition you’ll see this artist has visualised the songlines coming from the west, from here in Roebourne; travelled across to the east, and of course it goes more than that, but this is her visualisation.

From Roebourne, from the west across to the east, and of course it’s not a straight line, it’s much more messy than that. Forward, back, fragmented and all over the place as you’d imagine over millennia. That’s Josephine Mick’s visualisation [points to a slide], and the next visualisation you’ll see it in the exhibition.

Here you see the work that was done over the years, as all the sites were plotted on a Google map, and you dig down and you get various stories. You can see this is a massive knowledge – songlines is a knowledge system, how you organise knowledge. The bit of the quote up there [points to a slide], these people who you see at the front, the elders, there’s two very important reasons for them being there. The most important reason is it’s their story in the first instance.

Don’t forget they’ve got to share it. It’s their story, they’re the elders, and instead of a sign saying: they let you come and see this, as good as being there and encouraging you to visit, and also saying, ‘This is your story too, come on in’. You can feel like it’s an ‘us’, not a ‘them and us’ arrangement. Then these people and others became what I’ve called the ‘curatorium’. That means these are not the reference group, they’re not an advisory group, they are part of the curatorial team.

In any exhibition, as you’ll know, you’ll have the curators get the content, find ways of showing it, interpreting it. They get the content, it’s their content, a lot of the interpretation – and on the other side, where the other parts, say the non-Anangu part or the Museum part is that we bring two of the curatorial skills: anthropology, archaeology and all the other skills, so it’s a combination.

The actual governance structure for this is – the centre of this model is the law, the Tjukurrpa, the law, right? Now that tells everybody where they can go, can’t go, what they can say, see and do. That’s the governing principle by a council of elders which really became the curatorium that I spoke of, and then there’s other structures.

The important thing here is that these Seven Sisters songlines were tracked: performance, visually, ecologically and archaeologically. Aboriginal people know country is four dimensional, know that it’s all integrated, it’s not compartmentalised knowledge as it is in the western system. It’s an integrated system.

[shows photo] Here’s some of the faces of the people who were on the journey from the beginning. Many more faces were added. In the time I’ve got I’m not going to go into naming and shaming – I mean naming! At a quick glance, you get the range of people, we went to their office on the lands, as they came to our office here, as you would in any true collaboration, right?

This is out at Mitchell [points to a slide]. There’s Christiane [Keller] with the team, the people there, teaching them how to dance. No, I’m sorry, it’s the other way around. They’re teaching her how to dance. Anyway, they’re looking at collections, they’re touching, they’re seeing, they’re being very engaged. Then in terms of the journey, this is a big journey that Christiane and Sita [McAlpine], who are on the team, took to Martu land.

It was a huge convoy – you can see it’s big. They’re all old, elderly, often health issues, it’s very like, ‘are these the right people on the trip who can talk for these different bits?’ Can you take photo s, can’t you take photos? All of those considerations, you go somewhere, nothing could be said or recorded because not the right people are there, so it’s very culturally complex as well in that way.

From what they tell us, on this trip, there was ten days of a lot of driving up and down sand hills, packing and unpacking, eating and not eating. Not as much was achieved for this project as we would have wanted, but – I mean the rangers and that would’ve got more out of it, – but you can’t tell, it’s all hit and miss, so big journeys. It’s not like perhaps lots of other exhibitions where you can go to collectors and other institutions and borrow stuff, this is all, as I said, actually tracking.

QUESTION: Do you know about how many people were on that?

MARGO NEALE: Christiane?

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Thirteen people attended with us. Ten days, 600 kilometres and no road [laughter].

MARGO NEALE: Well put. I’ll just give you a sense of it, there’s no way we’re going into it in big detail. In terms of the songlines, the paintings are not there for paintings, the paintings are portals to place. These paintings that you can see here [points to a slide] are representing various places on the songline. There’s Pangkal, [inaudible] another painting and so on.

Each of these represent these sorts of places on that songline which is representing the exhibition, which is about 100 kilometres. This is Martu country [points to a slide]. You’ll see it on the Google map as well, over on the right, so there’s a lot more information and a lot more sites; it’s about what you can do in the time you’ve got. Again on this line in Martu country [points to a slide], doing that painting on site.

Every one of these things have long stories to them. One of the things that did happen on the last trip, there were a few big tarps taken along, and people got chalk and wrote their kinship, their relationships to each other, because in a way, simplistically, people related to each other through sites, through place. Related to the painting, to the place, to each other, so it’s all that connectivity that you want to capture.

This is out at Mutitjulu, and that’s Christiane. You can see there’s a Google Earth map and she’s discussing picking up what sites for the painting, and what stories go with what. Checking it off, ground proofing it as they say. So when you go into the exhibition, for example you’ll see that line there [points to a slide]. On that plinth, for those that haven’t been there, there’s a faint songline drawn, and below each painting, on the plinth is the place.

You would walk, you’d get to experience in a way, walking the songline and stopping at each site on the songline as the mob would, the Aboriginal people would. There’s often very detailed information, sometimes drawn, annotated maps. You can go and get learning at each of the places, which is the living library. This is the history embedded in this country.

This is also up there in Martu country that we saw up in Western Australia [points to a slide]. Each of these three countries in this exhibition: Martu, what we call APY and back to Ngaanyatjarra, we pulled out a theme, all the themes are relevant to all the places. Just to emphasise one, this one in Martu we emphasise an ecological one. Now when you go in there there’ll be a very detailed map overlay of that painting called Hunting Ground, which will show you where the sand hills are, the cold fires, the hot fires, the recent fires; a whole range of ecological knowledge, water, no water and so on.

It’s very much an encyclopaedia, and it was done with Indigenous rangers and young Indigenous rangers, so between the elders and the Indigenous rangers, there’s a sharing of the knowledge and transmitting to the next generation. You’ll also see on the left here [points to a slide], this painting being done over ten days; and the time lapse, so that every ten seconds the camera goes above and you’ll get the whole painting if you sit there for 45 minutes or something.

Interesting as it is, everyone knows painting is done on the ground, but you really get it when you see this, because it becomes a living, breathing surface. People sleep on it, eat on it, walk on it. Dogs run and probably pee on it [laughter]. Everything happens on that, so in fact it’s country, it’s the skin of the country. That’s how it’s worked and thought about, and that’s what’s going through their heads as they transplant or transfer the knowledge of the country.

There’s a good quote up there from Lynette Wallworth who collaborated with the Martu on this, about the skin of the land, the skin of the country with the sinews underneath. It’s a good quote. There it is in situ [points to a slide], so it’s like another thing that happens here, it’s a contemporary installation. Too often when Aboriginal art’s done, it’s otherness, it’s special, it’s different, it’s old, it’s contemporary art. It’s very contemporised in this installation piece, with video, high-definition, three-channel videos around it. You can see the paintings at a different stage there.

That was kind of that neck of the woods, which didn’t take as little time as that. The next part, the next country we’re calling it, was in the APY land, which as you see is around the tri-state border. You can see the circle here, which was quite a significant site where recordings were made. Particularly film, which is in the big dome that you’ll see in the exhibition, and you’ll see here also.

Now this is not what the dome actually looks like, but this is the dome concept, there are five paintings from each area. It is narrated by an Aboriginal narrator, and animated. You don’t often get this, you actually get the painting unpicked for you in a way, as a story.

This is Cave Hill. Now I’m just telling you this because it was really interesting how it was done. This work you’ll see in the dome, the rock art, was done by the best Top End photographers. It can rotate and stitch together still photographs. It’s called photogrammetry, they stitch them together and then they make this kind of model. They were then able to get 360 degrees. In other words it’s not a movie camera moving through the cave, right? It gives you very high resolution imagery.

The dome that it’s in is actually a travelling dome, so it’s going to be great for this and other rock art. The traditional owners who sit in here, under this dome, see things they’ve never seen in the dome, in the cave, because the degree of high resolution just blows them away. This is Sarah Kenderdine [points to a slide], who some of you may have heard of, and her team on one of their many trips.

It took something like two years to do the dome, because the consultation processes in the APY lands are quite extensive. They have to be in accordance with the Heritage Act and the Land Rights Act. Any activity that occurs – and this has ended up as a five or ten minute film, plus some other little movies. There’s nine community councils across all of the APY lands and each of them had to be consulted, not just the traditional owners, because the songlines are all connected.

The traditional owners don’t have the only say, because they’re connected to other sites before and after. So you get here Phil and me going up to Stanley Douglas, the TO [traditional owner], in the cave. Family Yarn Ups later, which was the subject of a more documentary film which was made and given to the family as a – not an exchange, because they want this film, the cave in high definition to use for world heritage listing applications, because it’s eroding fast. Vandalism, all the potential other hazards, it’s never been filmed before; and they also want to do a bit of cultural tourism for the next generation, so they need this sort of assistance as well.

QUESTION: How old is that particular archive?

MARGO NEALE: It’s between three and a half thousand [years] to the present. When you go into the exhibition you’ll see a light box that will have which images are two and a half thousand, three and a half thousand years old, then two thousand years old up to the present. 1970s, we know there’s stuff from the 1970s, the big coloured circles, and that was in order to protect – because they were bringing outsiders in, and they wanted to protect them from the danger of the information they shouldn’t have.

This is the mob in the dome [points to a slide]. This is rehearsals in the desert for a huge performance that’s on the wall in there. This became the result of that rehearsal, by the lake [Burley Griffin] in 2013. Some of you may have come to that. More shots of in the dome. The dome is much bigger than that, it’s just the parallax here.

You can see this one here with the Seven Sisters flying [points to a slide], we commissioned these Seven Sisters, which were done by 14 women, two women apiece, up in the desert for two weeks and another week to finish off elsewhere. It’s a huge job, spinifex is excruciating on the hands. We’ll see if we can see it [points to a slide], they’ve got sort of mermaid type feet, because they said when they were trying to work out how to do them, because they were going to be flying sisters – they’d never done flying sisters before – they fly because they’re making comments about certain parts of the land you can’t walk over, so you have to fly because there’s no water or whatever. Every single action is to do with some form of survival. In this case they’re like that because they reckon they were sucked up in a vortex, so their legs are all sort of mermaid like.

Here they are [points to a slide]. They’re also pictured in the dome as part of the narrated story of the paintings that you’ll see, and it is beautifully narrated and beautifully animated. Anyone who’s seen it – those little flat breasts, they even shake [laughter], hands move, and when they get the snake their fear – it’s just brilliant work. This is when the mob were down here, see the community? [points to a slide] You couldn’t get them out of there [laughter]. No really, no room for anyone else, they took over. See look, Josephine [Mick] she’s pointing out things, and she’s the one who did the map of Australia with the west to the east.

Again, look at them holding hands [points to a slide], so cute. An animated snake running across the top. Mother and daughter, that’s Josephine again with her daughter. They did love it. This is the same dome in Mumbai before it came here [points to a slide]. It’s the world’s only high resolution travelling dome. The way I could sell the idea to the Museum was to say, ‘Well if you want a travelling exhibition anywhere, this is the cheapest way to do it.’ Give us a few objects and a couple of labels, but you can do it like this.

QUESTION: How much did it cost?

MARGO NEALE: Well I was part of an ARC grant with Sarah Kenderdine, and I had an ARC grant, Australia Research Council grant with her, along with 15 others, so it was like a consortium. We put in a certain amount and then the grant does the rest. It cost I think about $1.2 million, and it was made in Germany and sent over, and my hope is that it’s out of fashion now, so they’ll get a new one, and they’ll need to house this, so we’ll have it [laughter]. That’s the other idea.

This is interesting, because, as I said, Wati Nyiru – I’ll call him the pursuer because his name changes depending on what country you’re in – so the pursuer changed into trees, right? That’s one of his disguises to lure the women. Well the Tjanpi Desert women weavers wanted to do a camp, they wanted to do trees, and they thought, ‘Oh, have got a problem. We don’t want no blokes on this camp, so how are we going to do this? It’s a woman’s camp,’ so they thought, ‘Well we can learn from these stories and if he can change into trees then so can we.’

The older women weren’t too keen, weren’t too sure about whether that was right or wrong, and so they had big chats and then they sorted out that it was okay. This one here sitting down [points to a slide], she’s a bit ill because she’s the older sister who got violated somewhere in the story, so she’s not feeling too good.

The sister thing is that the older sisters care for the younger sisters, and she was teaching them about this man trying to – it’s not only about a man, it was just put into that term – all the risks and dangers and what to be wary of and to avoid, and so they were easy to be conned by him, but he couldn’t get hurt because she was onto him, right? Of course the story has many plots.

Then the next third place we went to was – so we’ve done Martu, APY and now we’ll move back across the border to Ngaanyatjarra lands. These sites, Warakurna, Wanarn, Warburton [inaudible]. I’ll just give you a sense of behind the scenes. These are some of those trips, these are using Google Earth maps, locating sites, getting stories, doing artwork. This is interesting, Mr Newbury here is pointing out that this is him with the pursuer, with his top knot.

You know it’s him and there’s a story about what he did there, he poked lots of holes with a particular organ he possesses [laughter] through the rock surface here in order to get at the women hiding inside. It’s just so the story is written in the land, it’s all there if you know it. This is at Warburton, again there’s, this particular work here, there’s ten sites and one of the artists just actually – people were inspired to do lots more work in this area because all this was happening – so they did ten sites along a particular songline that belongs to her and her family.

Then at the end we got it all together, we had lots of meetings, did presentations, worked out how it might look, back and forward. Then we had to do a final road trip really, to go to all the places and make sure everyone’s on board and knows what it’s going to look like. If there’s any issues they’ll flush them all out then. The issue that did happen in one area was an internal issue at one of the meetings. There was a big, very feisty language war going on between two groups, one group saying, ‘We are the true, we are the Seven Sisters owners, and you mob shouldn’t be painting them.’

They’re painting them because they’re getting big mobs of money for Seven Sisters paintings. Now I can’t say what their rights are or not, but this was the accusation. They won the Archibald and they’re getting big mobs of a claim over these huge Seven Sisters paintings. With the Cave Hill people saying – they used to do the [inaudible] until it became an issue and then they paint the Seven Sisters, so all this internal stuff gets flushed out as well that’s beyond our control.

Again, these are the tarps [points to a slide]. As you know, we created an art centre hub at the back of the exhibition because 50 to 70 communities across these lands, they’re cultural centre is in fact the art centre. These are the communities that are not out on all the lands, it’s somebody’s land, but not everyone’s. They go to these centres every day, they paint pictures, they share stories to paint the pictures, there’s young and old. They sell them, it has an economic aspect, it has an educative aspect.

I created at the back an art centre hub, where you can buy things, paintings and books. There’s artists-in-residency programs, four of them, four days a piece, four people doing weaving, painting and different things in that place. [points to a slide] These are kids making the sign that we now have up there with neon lights in front of it. Claire [Freer]’s the one who was running around doing that job.

Now, there’s an expression: is the story written in the land? There it is, there’s Wati Nyiru, he’s that naughty man [points to a slide]. That’s a 20 or 30 metre escarpment, and he’s clearly there. When we camped there – and I’ll show you the things we’re doing there – they speak in hushed tones, in case you wake him or raise his – excite him or whatever [laughter]. It was in that area at least, these sisters were made and here’s the camp trip, and this is just a mock-up of how they were going to be in the exhibition.

These painting were done there, and it’s very interesting. This is the third area remember? One, two, three. The first one was the ecological emphasis, the second was the performative emphasis, because inma is the primary mode of transmitting knowledge. That’s how you learn it primarily, because there’s voice, sound, rhythm, body; so it’s the most comprehensive way of passing on knowledge.

Here, with the kinship component [points to a slide], when I said ‘people to people to sites to paintings’, what’s interesting in this one is this old one lady here now. She’s now gone, but she was 90 then. Now this big picture of the eyes behind her, and that’s what she’s doing, right? That’s him. Then around her are her sisters – her daughters, and there’s one fella sitting up at the other end here. The interesting thing, I watched them thinking, ‘How are they going to do this?’ All these people, not the same family groupings, there’s no discussion. Old Mrs Woods, the old one moved in and sat there.

Everyone knew how to arrange themselves around her. On this side, is the Woods-Mitchell family, and on this side is the Wests and Laidlaw family. These live in a community nearby [points to a slide]. These ones live in Warburton, Wanarn, now they’re all there because this mob here go to that site all the time. They know the songs, they know the stories, they care for the country and the stories in their country. This mob here [points to a slide], don’t go there very often, they don’t know all that stuff, but their mother was born there, therefore it’s her conception site, so that means they always must have a place at the table.

The three groups like that kind of story. So this is in other words, a ceremony on canvas, that’s what they are these paintings, as well as portals to place. They’re not just, ‘let’s do a pretty picture.’ It’s all internally affirming, if you like. Even affirming rights to the story, rights to the relationships. Similarly at the same place, there’s a Laidlaw mob, see? I said Laidlaw that were one end of the table, so to speak. This mob did this picture here back in 1994, so it’s 23 years ago?

These mob have passed on [points to a slide], and when the group that did the one I just showed you came here, they went up to that painting. They were all touching all the various parts that their aunties and mothers and grandmothers painted, and singing and crying and chanting, so reconnecting to that site plus that story plus their people. It was quite lovely, so they’re not just paintings.

That’s one of the other paintings that were done there. He did trick them that snake. They ate him, and they got very sick, three days, and then they took off to become the Pleiades, and he followed them and became Orion. Every night the story is relived, so it can’t die in some ways, having it above as below. Most of these stories have an equivalence above.

The first thing for me when I curate, is to build a model [points to a slide]. Now it didn’t end up being exactly like this, but you work to the space. This is just a curatorial insight that not enough of curators do. They get so much material and they want to put it all in, and then there’s a big distillation, so you just work to the space in a model. Now I’m just showing you how the exhibition came out of that kind of journey [points to a slide]. You see, I said, ‘Martu, APY, Ngaanyatjarra’, so the exhibition goes: Martu, APY, NPY, Ngaanyatjarra.

The dome is in the middle because the work draws from material from all those places. The airlock as some of you will know now has that fabulous immersive experience in it, and the art centre lives up here, so that’s a kind of skeleton. It is a journey exhibition, that means it follows the journey that we took, and in fact it’s the journey of the Seven Sisters. Of course they went further, but that is west to east. You can see it in the more current model style [points to a slide], where again in the airlock you get introduced to the characters of the story, the Seven Sisters, and then you do that kind of more detail there.

In the introduction, where I said you get introduced to the characters, the Seven Sisters, and where is he? Oh there he is, that’s him [points to a slide]. There’s the elder sister, I’ve called her the elder sister, I don’t know whether she is or not, she just looks like it [laughter]. There he is, always separate, too close for comfort. Each of the countries, Martu, the first you can see is introduced by elders from that area, who introduce themselves and basically make you feel okay about being there.

This is an interesting picture [points to a slide], because when you go into the dome, you’ll hear, they say, ‘They’ve travelled and travelled and travelled, they got very tired these sisters, being chased. So they turned into boulders, and then new sisters were born, and they carried on the journey.’ It’s also that implication of cross-generational transfer and the never-ending chase.

Again, and you see the next area [points to a slide], this is Ngaanyatjarra. Again an elder. For those who haven’t seen it, this is what you’re in store for. This is as close as you get to having them there for real, or holograms which are awfully expensive, so we feel this does it. Now this is a red room [points to a slide], and there twining with snakes, spears, looks like that, Wati Nyiru is over in this corner in a pot, but I don’t have the picture of it, and that is acknowledging the male’s role in the story.

People think the Seven Sisters is only about the Seven Sisters but it’s not. In fact there would probably not be a male or female only story ever. When people talk about this is only women’s business or men’s business, they’re probably just talking about a component of a bigger story, or a part of a ceremony. I mean I used to go to male initiation ceremonies in Arnhem Land, but that’s only the first public part, and then the boys would take them bush. They’re complementary roles, as would make sense. So that was the red room, and I made it red for passion and danger. If anything it would be the woman’s room.

MARGO NEALE: Now this is really interesting, because this lady who initiated this, these pots [points to a slide], there’s seven pots, plus Wati Nyiru pot over here behind Mick Dodson. She said to her grandchildren, ‘Go and get me some [inaudible] leaves,’ and they went, ‘Der?’ She thought, ‘Well, this is no good,’ so together with the other women, they decided to teach – how do you teach the young ones? You teach them what the Seven Sisters know.

They made seven pots for Seven Sisters, and each pot is something he changed into. Here’s the honey ant, see? [points to a slide] They did work books: there’s witchetty grubs, fig trees, bush tomatoes. Seven young people did that under her, actually six, because she did this one, the senior. Wati Nyiru is over here, waiting his chance. There’s the art centre hub. I’ve already told you that these are real pictures from art centres. We’ve got the real boots and as much of the real messy stuff as we can get, and that’s located at the back.

The last bit of the exhibition, as you move through, it’s like the end of the journey for you in this story is the end of life’s journey for the people who painted those paintings. One is in aged care and they’ve got all the usual issues of old age, and so those huge big paintings are now tiny little bits of cardboard, side by side, or centimetres. Pillowslips get painted, TV trays get painted, everything gets painted, and in their heads they’re probably doing those huge big paintings with those very detailed stories, but that’s not what’s coming out.

It’s really about leaving the terrestrial for the ancestral. It’s like a release from the exhibition is their release from life. [shows photos] They’re touching the painting I was telling you about. Just to show you, these are the opening, seeing the VR, the previews, the degree of Indigenous engagement. At the exhibition they took it over.

That’s Wati Nyiru scaring the shits out of the crowd [laughter]. There’s the women strutting their stuff, and the smoke for the healings that circles. That’s the smoke which the younger sisters used to heal the older sister after she’d been violated. See? They’re all old, so they’ve got reason to worry. That’s the team.


SPEAKER: You’ve got about five minutes.

MARGO NEALE: Five minutes.

QUESTION: I was just wondering, the Indigenous contributors to this exhibition. Do they still live on country or did they travel in?

MARGO NEALE: No, most of them live in communities like Martu, all those communities, yes. They like their telly and air-conditioning and the shop. They love stuff like this. Any opportunity to go back to country, goodness. That’s why you start off with ten and end up with 30. ‘Oh she’s got to come, she’s owner for this one. Oh you can’t go without this one.’ They all got to go, but they love it. They get lots of back to country trips, because everybody goes up there, wants to do something, they say, ‘Oh we’ve got to go back to country.’

QUESTION: Hi Margo, thanks for a great lecture, it was great. Have you got anything to do with the Bundian Way, which is little bit more local to here?

MARGO NEALE: The gallery, Yarramundi? Which one?

QUESTION: No, it’s a new cultural heritage walk that starts from down in Eden, Twofold Bay and it ends at Targangal, Mt Kosciuszko.

MARGO NEALE: Don’t know. No, I have nothing to do with it.

QUESTION: Okay, yes, thanks.

MARGO NEALE: But I’d be interested, if it deals with songlines. Come tell me.

QUESTION: Thank you very much Margo for a really interesting and stimulating talk. Also I’d like to thank all the elders who participated in this. Where I come from on the South Coast, someone has said to me that they think that there is some connection with the Seven Sisters story, on the South Coast.

MARGO NEALE: Yes, definitely, yes.

QUESTION: Looking at that map, that had the little circles going along, it seemed to me that that’s maybe a possibility to – like I see Gulaga from where I am, and this other lady mentioning the Bundian Way, that has been worked on for years. That incorporation and overlapping, that goes all over the country does it?

MARGO NEALE: Yes it does. That’s all we could do in the time and resources we had, but the idea of this knowledge centre I’m talking about is to start broadening it to the east and south and north, and collecting. Whether it ends up in an exhibition we don’t know, but at least getting the information … there’s no question the last mob who were colonised rather severely, the stories are much more fragmented, but it might be fragmented perhaps in [inaudible], but it’d be in the records, it would be findable.

Some of the oldies have got some of the stories, or bits of the stories, that’s how you do it, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. It was everywhere, the story around here it was ice maidens, so the Seven Sisters were ice maidens. Probably at the coast they were surfers, you know? [laughter].

QUESTION: I heard a story that all the coast around where I am was ice. People have told me that.

MARGO NEALE: Yes, it was. That’s why it would be good to draw in a whole range of area. You’ve got the elders, and you’ve got archaeologists and anthropologists, and you’ve got to combine the western and Indigenous knowledge holders together, to get this. You couldn’t have got this with just one set of people, right? Like that rock art, Cave Hill, there’s a rock art survey done which they wanted to use. Everyone knows stuff about the cave, they didn’t know that before. It’s a very collaborative process, yes.

QUESTION: Margo, we know Aboriginal culture largely through the art. And yet the access to paintings like this is where we would be restricted. So would these people be painting what was once sand drawings? Or rock art? Or body paint? [inaudible] That wouldn’t be necessarily how they would have done it?

MARGO NEALE: No, no, this portable art, as it’s called, in terms of becoming a movement, was only the [19]70s. It’s not to say there weren’t sporadic bits on tea chests, bits on lids, bits on cardboard, but in terms of a movement – now its hit the art market, now it’s saleable, and it’s bigger and brighter and bolder.

The thing is, the people who collect it as art are not that interested in the story very much, just generically. I think they’re wrong, the people paint these paintings to share the stories, so I really think the art centres and art advisors really need to supply more information.

They’re not just pretty pictures, because they’re not. They are as well. If you go to that exhibition –

QUESTION: Has that story have been told before?

MARGO NEALE: Oh it would have been told orally, in the performance, sand drawings, body painting to do the performance. Being told in lots of ways. Yes.

QUESTION: I’m also from the South Coast and work for an organisation called Four Winds, and we have just done an art project as well, mainly with community artists, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Looking at the eight exquisite estuaries that lie between those sacred mountains of Mumbulla and Gulaga, it’s on now at the ANU Foyer Gallery. I was just thinking there is beautiful work by an Aboriginal artist there, Cheryl Davison, that the gallery would, or the Museum would love to see I’m sure.

Yes, but this story, and this sharing, we had knowledge sharers go with the artist on three field trips and just tell information about place, and then the artist responded to that. Those knowledge sharers, both traditional owners and geologists, historians, white people.

MARGO NEALE: Yes, the combo’s great.

QUESTION: Yes, and it was a lovely outcome, yes.

MARGO NEALE: Yes. Anyone who’s here who like the previous person from the South Coast, you need to contact me later, because we want to start going further. Clearly we couldn’t do that with what we had, but we do want to go further. In fact we’d hoped that we’d be able to go to Hindmarsh, where all that trouble was, and a few other places. Anyway, you do what you do, you do the little you do and you do it well. Yes, thanks for that.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Cynthia. I hope I wasn’t too rude in asking you those questions during the lecture.

MARGO NEALE: No, no you’ve got to stop me. It’s good to interrupt me.

QUESTION: I really want to acknowledge you Dr Neale, and everybody that was involved in this incredible project. For me it’s one of the most important and deepest stories of the world, like this is the world’s heritage, that you and many other people have created over the last five years. I just really want to acknowledge everyone for that.


MARGO NEALE: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: This exhibition makes me cry every time I go, but I just want to –

MARGO NEALE: You have to cry. That’s my measure of success, how many people cry leaving? If you want me at least to feel successful, you’ve all got to cry [laughter].

QUESTION: Just one quick question. Can you say a little bit more about how it was for all the community families, all the people that came down to see this exhibition, this living –

MARGO NEALE: If anyone has to leave they can leave, but if anyone wants to keep talking I’m happy. Look, the reason the exhibition moved you, is not only because of my curatorial skills and making it work as a beautiful piece of work, but it’s because this mob was so – it’s their exhibition, they come in, they touch it, they stayed in it, they own it. Everything’s all right and authentic, there’s no muck-ups.

They’re full of humour, they laugh and joke. I don’t know whether you saw them in the dome, but we’ve got beaut images of them shrieking at the snake and they felt totally at home because it’s totally theirs culturally, right? Content wise. To answer your question, well they talked about it endlessly, yes, that’s why it works, because it’s theirs.

Thank you very much. Anyway if you have lovely comments, just send them to the director.

SPEAKER: Unfortunately we are out of time for today, so if you’d like to join me in thanking Dr Margo Neale and thank her for sharing her knowledge.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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