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Sita McAlpine and Christiane Keller, curators, National Museum of Australia, 1 December 2017

PENELOPE VAILE: Welcome to the final talk in our series of ‘Songlines: the backstory’. Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is the exhibition that’s currently on in our Temporary Gallery downstairs. If you haven’t been in to see it, it is absolutely stunning and you will definitely want to go in once you have heard the talk that’s about to happen.

It’s the first exhibition of its kind, attempting to tell, in an exhibition space, an Indigenous founding narrative, using Indigenous ways of passing on knowledge.

Now I would like to introduce to you two of the curators of this exhibition, Christiane Keller and Sita McAlpine.


CHRISTIANE KELLER: Good afternoon everybody, welcome to the National Museum for the backstory of the Songlinesexhibition. This will be a collaborative talk between myself and Sita. As a start I want to acknowledge that we are standing on Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri lands, and acknowledge elders past and present. And I’ll pass over to Sita.

SITA MCALPINE: Hi everyone. We wanted to start today’s talk with a short story to transport you into the desert.

Beyond the sealed roads in far western Pilbara, ten ‘troopies’, 25 Martu people travelled 600 kilometres of remote country, most of it off-road. There was no track, even though we were promised one. The reason being is that we were tracking the Seven Sisters. We were literally driving in four-wheel drives along the songline, where the Seven Sisters travelled.

It is here, in remote Australia, that the stories that you see today in the exhibition were told. Transported from the Western Desert, as told by senior custodians of the Seven Sisters songline. The exhibition is very ambitious, it covers 7000 kilometres across three deserts including the Pilbara there in the Martu lands, and the Western Desert in the APY [Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] and NPY [Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] lands.

In this talk we want to discuss the exhibition from the perspective of on the ground, travelling with the artists, recording the story, and capturing the stories that you see in the exhibition today. We’re going to talk through some of the successes and some of the challenges of doing such unique work. I think what you’re about to hear, and some of the backstories of these trips, will give you kind of a deeper appreciation for what you see in the exhibition.

I’ll pass it over to Christiane.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Before talking about this journey we want to briefly begin by telling you what came before, and share the background of the exhibition development. Broadly speaking, we can distinguish two phases, the ARC [Australian Research Council] Songlines project, and the actual exhibition development.

In the first phase, the project was initiated in 2010 when Anangu elder, Mr David Miller, leaned across a meeting table and stated, ‘You mob. You’ve got to help us. Those songlines, they’ve been all broken up now, you can help us put them all back together again.’

This plea for help archiving songlines for future generations was addressed to researchers from the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia. Together with other industry partners and elders from the communities they initiated ARC Linkage Project, Songlines of the Western Desert. Alive with the Dreaming!

Lead curator Margo Neale talked about this aspect of the project in her lecture several weeks ago, so we won’t go further into it. Until 2015 the ANU [Australian National University] researchers focused more on documenting, recording, and archiving the songline of the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, or in brief, the APY, Ngaanyatjarra and Martu lands.

Amongst the highlights of the project was the performance of the Kungkarangkalpa Seven Sisters songline in narration, song, and dance here at the Amphitheatre of the Museum in February 2013. I don’t know if any of you was present then.

The intensive work to prepare the performance of travelling to country, practising the songs and dances, and writing the libretto provided a solid base for part of this exhibition. Furthermore, some films were made of the re-enactment of inmasong and dance, at Kuru Ala as well as following the sisters travel through Martu country. These films are also included in the exhibition.

SITA MCALPINE: Fast-forward two years, and we’re now in 2015, and the National Museum of Australia is going forward very fast to develop this exhibition. As an Indigenous-led exhibition, it was crucial for us to push the boundaries of how we were going to realise the communities’ vision. Custodians and us curators shared the same vision of the exhibition, to open a space for Australians to challenge their perspectives, to learn about their fellow Indigenous Australians and their deep, deep knowledge of this country.

Kumpaya, one of the artists from out bush from Martu land, says, ‘Teach the Tjukurrpa, teach them.’ And Nola, her close friend, says, ‘Everyone learn. We will show them this exhibition, I think this exhibition is good to know.’

What Kumpaya and Nola are talking about is that, while songlines are embodied knowledge, and held by the custodians, these epic tales hold a common thread that bind us all, from all different cultures. The Seven Sisters story itself is all about relationships. We won’t go into that now, but I’m sure you’ve already seen the exhibition and know plenty about that.

Kumpaya says, ‘Looking after the Tjukurrpa, beneath and inside, whitefella, blackfella, same self. Same Martu, whitefella, blackfella, same story.’ We all hold this story, it’s all about men and women, so as Australians we need to know our foundational stories. We need to be able to relate to them, because they are part of the creation of this continent that we all live on today.

After hearing these voices from the community, and hearing what they wanted to do with the exhibition, us curators were faced with some questions. How do we bring an ancient, living, breathing story of a songline into the exhibition space, into four walls within this Museum? How do we realise the plea to preserve these ancient songlines and share them with the nation?

It was clear from the beginning that we had to tell the story as it was told to us, in community and out bush, so it was primarily through going out on large bush trips, consultation trips, that we recorded the story of the Seven Sisters. Artwork started to be created in reaction to the project, and there started to be a free-flowing exchange of knowledge. Through this process, as we mentioned in the story right at the beginning, we literally travelled the route of the Seven Sisters, and in doing so we were constantly clarifying the story; but that just wasn’t for us as curators, it was for the mob as well. Some of them haven’t been out on country in some places for 50 years. Some, in this case, the last time they had been out there they had never seen whitefellas before.

So this project brought back an opportunity to a community, to re-enter country and walk these songlines and bring back the memories, and in doing so being able to pass them on to the next generation. So what you see in the exhibition, what you see on the labels, is only a very small snippet of information that was recorded during this exhibition.

We recorded films as immersive experiences, behind-the-scenes, there’s voice recordings, it was all very extensive. For the reason that we’re archiving this for the future generations. For Martu, APY and NPY people, but it was really through cutting-edge technology that we were able to do this, I just want to share a quick quote from Curtis Taylor before passing it on to Christiane.

He says, ‘Just like the old people we are Dreaming. We have a new dream with technology, we’re using the newest technology with the oldest culture.’

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Realising the Anangu vision of preserving those songlines with the use of the newest technology to archive the oldest living culture also brought interest and participation of younger generations. One example is the documentation of making of the flying tjanpi Seven Sisters, the big installation that’s hanging off the ceiling, which is now and for the future, available on a web-based interactive.

Early on, the Museum was talking to the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a social enterprise made up of 400 women scattered across 26 communities and 350 square kilometres in the Northern Territory of South Australia and Western Australia; so they cover a whole lot of communities, to create the work specifically for the exhibition.

In May 2015 two weeks into the job as curator at the Museum, I was out on country on a big trip with 14 Tjanpi artists, four previous and current Tjanpi field officers, camping for two weeks at the remote sacred site of Kuru Ala. This remote location lies right in the middle of a 360 kilometre small single lane desert track connecting two communities: Wingellina to the north and Tjuntjuntjarra to the south. The road’s very basic and crosses many sand dunes. Challenging to drive at the best of times. Although I had been out bush with Tjanpi Weavers before, it was an incredible experience and I feel very privileged to have been able to share this time with the women.

The camp was situated at the foothills of a small escarpment with incredible scenery of Wati Nyiru, forever watching the Sisters manifested in the landscape, as well as the presence of the sisters standing, watching Nyiru flying off to the next site at Kulyurru.

The job description was a big one: to document the making process in photography and video, recording the story and inma, as well as conducting etymological work, such as documenting language names, the relationship between the artists and to their sites, and also discussing a collaborative painting in detail that was created at Kuru Ala a year earlier. And of course helping stitching, making cups of tea, and cooking meals for everybody involved.

Having had the chance to document the creation process of the flying Seven Sisters installation, several themes were identified as important, including the making processes, and the exchange of skills and knowledge between artists and generations and their collaboration.

The next generation was also involved in working with the new technologies. Filming content for the dome also provided the young amateur photographer, Brenda Douglas with an opportunity to learn about filmmaking and editing. She was invited to a crash course in film editing with film producer Louise Meeks in Sydney, and Stanley Douglas’ little film telling the story of the sisters at Walinynga, or Cave Hill, became a collaborative effort.

SITA MCALPINE: In developing this exhibition some artworks were created for the exhibition – like Christiane just explained, those tjanpi figures – but something else happened when we were out on these bush trips. There seemed to be kind of an excitement to talk about this story, and in response a lot of artists spontaneously did paintings for us while they were out there. In some ways, a way of showing, a way of telling, a way of having their voice shown in the exhibition. Christiane’s going to tell you about this gorgeous one.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: We did several trips to Warburton, a remote community in the middle of the Western Desert, holding a large collection of about a thousand works made and owned by the community. Amongst them the highly significant Seven Sisters work stretching across the Ngaanyatjarra lands, from Kularu to a separate songline connecting Kunamurra with Wanarn and beyond.

On our first visit we were greeted by Gary Proctor, the manager of the Warburton Arts Project and curator of the absolutely fascinating Tjulyuru art centre [Tjulyuru Cultural and Civic Centre]. You can see the building is a great building for exhibiting their beautiful collection, with an exclusive Seven Sisters exhibition curated from the Warburton arts collection.

Gary put on this exhibition to assist us with selecting the works to be included in the Songlines show. The artworks represented some of the master painters of the section, including late Tjapartji [Kanytjuri] Bates as well as the late Leslie and Betty Laidlaw. We discussed the selection of painting, their content, and the Sisters’ travel with the descendants of these artists.

As a response to our visit, Betty West created a painting that depicts ten important sites of the Seven Sisters, travelling from Kunamurra through their country towards Wanarn. This painting set the agenda for the next visit to Warburton, where Warburton Arts Project and Gary Proctor facilitated a bush trip visiting some of these sites with the West family. During this trip we visited five sites, and here you see Betty and Phillip West on country at one of the sites discussing what the sisters did. Having the painting out there was really important too because it always gave another talking point, and another point to reiterate the story.

SITA MCALPINE: That takes us to this other level of what the exhibition has achieved, and what we’ve done along the way, and that’s mapping the songlines. Songlines are really complex pathways of knowledge, and they’re not straight lines as you may think they are. They criss-cross the continent, creating a network of stories that verbally map the Australian continent.

For an artist to remember such vast and complex stories when sitting on their verandas in their front yards is really hard. Just because the way that memories are encoded and stored in land, remembering these stories off-country requires custodians to reconstruct the episodes and piece it all together. As you can see they go really long distances, so for someone to remember the sequence of the story in the right order is a challenging task.

When talking about place from the distance it can confuse the story, and we found that when we were out bush with the Martu, we were going through an oral history and some paintings from the Canning Stock Route. You may remember the exhibition that was here. You can see how we basically mapped the paintings to country. What happened when we were out there we were talking about this painting that’s circled, by Nancy Chapman, and there was a little bit of confusion about this painting. We got the stern statement it’s not Seven Sisters, even though everything and everyone had said in the past that it was; but what had happened that we discovered, was there was a confusion. This site, Tjuntu Tjuntu, actually has two stories. It has a Seven Sisters story and the Owl Dreaming. What happened was, when someone asked what’s the story for Tjuntu Tjuntu, she told both stories, but down the track that didn’t really come across, so the two stories got intertwined and confused; which is really common, and it’s common for Tjukurrpa stories to overlap on country. That’s just how it works.

When it came to this painting we got clear instruction from the Martu when we were out on country that it had to be removed from the exhibition, it was not appropriate for it to be there. They did not want the Seven Sisters songline confused with other Tjukurrpa stories. They wanted us to peel back the story so we just get the pure Seven Sisters story, and that was part of the cultural sensitivity of this exhibition.

In mapping the songline and telling the story as it travelled across the country we had to make sure it was accurately told. The main way we did this, by ‘ground-truthing’, which means we travelled to the sites with the custodians where they told us the story. In other cases we used a Google Map with Seven Sisters sites, and these maps became a valuable tool in consultation, but in the end nothing really beats going out on country with the mob, as Christiane explains.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: The communities themselves initiated bush trips to show us and remind themselves the correct order of the songlines. In May 2016 recent rains washed out roads and it was deemed too wet to travel to the nearby Seven Sisters sites close to Warakurna. It was decided to camp about five kilometres south of Karrku outstation. Here we set up camp where the artists painted the Seven Sisters stories. On talking and recording the songline one of the custodian’s renditions of their travels became confused, it was tied up with other stories. Together, as a group around the bushfire at night several of the ladies together recited the songlines story publicly, with the intention to clean up the story and how it was told.

This prompted Mr Newberry, an elder from Wanarn, to invite us to visit the sites the ladies had talked about on our return. In between being at the Karrku camp we went to Warburton, had a look at the collection that we mentioned before, and then we drove back through Wanarn. We started really early in the morning, and Mr Newberry met us at Wanarn, some 200 kilometres from Warburton at 9am in the morning. He was already waiting for us at the community shop with a number of rangers, accompanied by Jane Menzies, the manager from Warakurna Arts, and three ladies, all senior custodians of the Wanarn story.

Mr Newberry made quite clear that one cannot perceive and understand the story without going to country and looking at the sites. He curated an incredibly tight tour for us to visit about five important sites travelling some 100 kilometres. He also curated the curators, so that we tell the story proper way. What a great experience.

In seeing the landscape the story unfolded in front of our eyes. He brought us to Kunangurra, a site where the Sisters made a wiltja, today manifested as a cave. The lusty man, Nyiru followed the sisters and pierced the cave with his digging stick, which is the hole that’s just on the right-hand side of Mr Newberry there. Nyiru left his hair bun, in which he hides objects that make him irresistible to women. At Yurrilpi below, he rests but he’s lusting for the sisters. In visiting all these sites, recording his and the ladies stories of the sisters meant we cleaned up the stories so far recorded. It created an invaluable record for future generations, and showed us whitefellas that these stories are alive in the country. Using the maps also showed the complexities of the artworks depicting it.

The exhibition contains many paintings that relate to one site as a portal to the events that happened at this place, others tell vast sections of the Sisters’ struggle, such as Niningka Lewis’ Walka Board. Here you can see all the sites her painting relates to on the APY songline. Or the fabulous Ken Sister’s round painting, telling us the Sisters’ travel from Larka all the way to Kuru Ala, and in this process bringing together two language groups from the APY lands and all the way to Ngaanyatjarra country, so it’s in total 580 kilometres of travel.

SITA MCALPINE: Now we’re in late 2016, early 2017 and we’re starting to realise the vision of the community, and starting to transplant it into this space. I’m just going to repeat the questions that we had in our mind when we first began, and that’s how do you bring back the ancient living breathing songline into a museum space, and how do you also realise this Anangu plea to preserve ancient songlines? It’s quite an epic task, really.

To begin to realise these visions we talked as a team about created a journey exhibition. Meaning that as you walk the exhibition through each painting you’re told a story of that place. You basically follow the Sisters’ tracks from west coast to east coast, and this really echoed the way that the story was told to us when we were out on these bush trips. They were never complete whole narratives, but were little episodes told from place to place.

We were driving troopies in four-wheel drive along the songline to be able to receive the next part of the story. It was natural that when we were curating this exhibition that we told the story as it was told to us out on the lands. We saw paintings as portals to place, so as you walk through the exhibition you would be told each episode of the story as depicted in the painting.

These paintings therefore became keys to knowledge and to the songline, but also the paintings became a place where we archived a lot of information, which sounds a little bit funny, but in the collection management side of things they became the talking point with the mob. You can see here how much in-depth knowledge was recorded by Kim Mahood about the hunting ground painting. Really in-depth ecology.

What you see on the walls, as I mentioned before, was only a snippet. Behind the scenes there was layers and layers of information recorded. The documented old collections and new collections that we acquired for this exhibition. We were given the go-ahead to create a songlines collection, which enabled us to purchase works from across the lands that documented the story, so that collection will be our permanent archive in the Museum that will tell the narrative forever.

I just want to quickly talk a little bit about how we brought the community into the process of curating. All along the way, on our constant trips out bush, we took these – sorry, I’ll talk about this one. This was a vision to bring the people into the space, so it was a way of making the custodians, who were essentially our bosses, present. Everybody that walks through the exhibition knows that this is their exhibition, and really makes them visible. It’s not an ancient, still culture from the past. These are the people that hold it now and it’s very much alive. I have to say, when the artists came to see the exhibition they loved this entry space, this blade, they stood in front of it for ages. I think they were quite excited but also a little bit shy by seeing themselves in full size.

There was also other ways we made them involved. We constantly took out plans to the bush, so we’d drive out, and while doing these bush trips we’d also talk about the exhibition development and go, ‘What do you think? What if we do it like this?’ We’d go through the exhibition plan and the songlines and the sequence of the paintings with them, and here’s a model that we developed along the way. It was really through the Curatorium that we formally talked about this stuff, even though we did it out in the bush on people’s front lawns quite often. Each year that there was a curatorium, they’d come to Canberra, and the senior custodians of each of the lands that we work with. This is an image here of them before they would get filmed to do the full-length blade. This is them sussing out and having a look at the model as we discuss it, so they understand completely where the footage of them is going to be placed in the exhibition. It was a really open process with a lot of open dialogue. There was nothing new to them when they walked into the space.

I just wanted to briefly say that by being able to use these models and being able to visualise it for the mob, it allowed them to really relate to it, and it made decisions happen quicker. Often, when you’re showing say, the Martu people their songline, as shown along that wall there, on the far wall, they were able to say, ‘Oh, what’s that painting? That doesn’t fit there, that’s the wrong place.’ We were able to really allow them to have a decision-making process in curating the exhibition.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: It was really more than consultation, it was a collaboration between community and us as an institution. As Sita mentioned before, we were sitting on people’s front yards. We were sometimes even presenting the material on the back of a truck because somebody was just passing by that we wanted to talk to, and he would have left the community otherwise. We fit it in with the life that happens out in community, but it was equally important for them to come to Canberra and have a look at the space, and visualise the space. We had two collective gatherings of Curatorium members that the community nominated as representatives with their senior status for the Martu, APY and Ngaanyatjarra lands. These discussions led to the community making clear decisions about the exhibition, and which painting goes where, and which painting is included and which isn’t and so on.

In concluding, extensive and well-documented exhibitions like Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters can really only be realised through true collaboration with community. This has to happen all the way from the beginning and the start of the project, all the way to the opening and beyond. It requires intensive consultation in both spheres: on their country, in the bush and in the city offices.

Adhering to the aspirations of the community and providing them with a lasting outcome needs to be also at the heart of a project like this. This requires a relationship of trust and commitment on both sides, and a lot of effort and resources. During the developing process, and also at the opening, the artists confirmed the successful relationship and they’re proud to show their country and stories to the nation.

SITA MCALPINE: I just want to finish in going back to that early statement by David Miller, ‘You mob gotta help us, those songlines, they’ve all been broken up. Can you help us put them back together again?’ This exhibition really gave people a reason and an opportunity to travel back on country, to really track the ancient songlines and to imprint them in their memories.

However, what happened through this collaboration was also another surprise. By bringing people together from the Martu, NPY and APY lands across that really vast distance, individuals and families were able to reconnect with each other. They lived too far away from each other to have these conversations. By bringing them to Canberra they were able to see each other and verbally link up their songlines, and understand where the story came from before, and where it went to after it went from their lands.

Now this story, that we’ve recorded across 7000 kilometres is archived in films, multimedia paintings, oral histories and is in the process of being returned to the community to the Ara Iratja archive. A surprising thing came out of the exhibition opening that really talks to David Miller’s vision. Mr Newberry that took us on that epic curated bush trip was so excited to see all the mobs together – we had 50 artists here for the opening that live across those 7000 kilometres – he was so excited to see them all [inaudible 00:34:25], he curated another little journey. He made a film and made everyone sit down and connect their stories together. So each individual, each artist told their story in a sequence of the songline, on film, on video so it would be recorded for the future generations.

You may ask what the legacy is of this exhibition, and I think the legacy is about to come. Next stage of recording more stories and linking up more narratives across the nation. It’s a job that will never be finished but we did a pretty good job of starting it. Thank you.


CHRISTIANE KELLER: You’re welcome to ask questions – to the exhibition, or to the development process, or what you have seen.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for insight into the backstory, I’m really looking forward to the exhibition. I purposely waited until I came to the lectures so I’d get more out of it. I was just wondering, what you were saying about the legacy, is it the intention – I get the feeling that the Indigenous elders were looking for a way of preserving the story for future generations, and putting it in a format that appeals more to younger generations. I’m taking from what you said that you’ve developed some form of multimedia video stuff that kids relate to now, an archive of these stories that the Indigenous peoples can show to their kids, either in schools or whatever environments they’re able to do it. Is that what is happening? Is it so that they have something to show to their young community that perhaps don’t want to sit around the campfire and hear the stories any longer, but want to download it on a laptop or watch a video? Is that what you’re hoping to achieve?

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Definitely. I wasn’t going into details about all the different experiences and new technologies we used, but we have created the dome – if you haven’t seen the exhibition, it is a bit hard – but we have created a dome, which is an immersive experience. The content of this experience is actually available on our website, so it’s accessible across the nation and internationally as well.

We created the web interactive, not only from the tjanpi Seven Sisters. Each of the figures was scanned in detail and you can go into each of the figures and turn them around and look at them in detail, but it also contains all the documentation that has been done, including videos and photographs, and stories and so on.

We also did that for Cave Hill, so for one of the dome experiences that was created. The extensive trip to Cave Hill, which we didn’t talk about in this talk, there’s a whole backstory about the cave itself, about the archaeological research that was done. The different layers of painting are unravelled and made to be understood, so that’s available on the website as well.

And then, again, the archive will be returned to community, so community has access to those materials.

QUESTION: Congratulations. It’s a fantastic exhibition, you’ve done an amazing job. I’m interested in the process and purpose of the songlines. Looking at your maps, they cover vast distances and vast areas. It seems obvious that they’re connecting story to landscape to people, but would community members have followed those? It seems almost as if the sites are set up in a chronological way, linking time and space within the story, is that what happens? And did community members traditionally follow those in a set sequence?

SITA MCALPINE: There’s a beautiful quote from Kumpaya, one of the most senior people in Martu country, that remembers being a kid, and she talks about walking the songline with her mum and her grandmother to remember it. The way she described it almost seemed like a job, but I guess as a senior custodian it is your job. Yes, they physically did walk the songline, but it also linked to a lot of nations, through trade routes as well. Often the Martu people know people from Warburton because they used to walk long distances to share ceremony related to that songline, so it connected families across vast distances.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Another story’s probably the epic Martu trip that we did with the ten cars and 30 people, across ten days and 600 kilometres. We actually weren’t very successful in getting to a lot of sites because we couldn’t cross one of the big sand dunes. It was too hard, too steep, no road and too dangerous, so we followed along it. We went to one particular site and it was a really emotional experience because it was a women’s only site, so all the men stayed back. Only the women went there, we went to this site.

The three ladies who were leading us, they knew exactly where it was. They were there as teenagers, 12, 13 and 14, three sisters with their parents, at this particular site. They walked there, this was really before contact, and they haven’t been back to the site for the entire time until 2016. It really was amazing to have been able to, in some ways facilitate, but in other ways also just able to be present at those amazing sites. The memories they are telling about, how they have been there, and where they went from there to the next site, and so on. Although we weren’t able to see it, because of the sand dune. Yes, it was really amazing.

MARGO NEALE [from the stage]: I just want to add that different people, different groups only actually have responsibility for a certain area. So it’s not like Kumpaya was going to travel 7000 kilometres over a lifetime, and then all of these different custodians have different sites, or parts of the songline along the way. That’s why it was interesting that when they all got together, it’s like a TV series. What happened before? What happened next? Because that wasn’t traditional practice to do that. Who knows how far they went, and if they went into another person’s area then there will be some protocol or negotiation to so do.

QUESTION: Was there repetition in the landscape, of aspects of the story across different lands? In the lands, those aspects of the stories across [inaudible].

MARGO NEALE: I missed the first bit of that. What was that?

CHRISTIANE KELLER: If there was repetition of the story across different landscapes, and at different sites across the songline. Yes, there is certainly repetition.

MARGO NEALE: Just to add to that, the repetition is based on different land forms because it’s about creating the country. Even though the broad template remains the same, the details of the land forms will determine the kind of nuancing of the story.

QUESTION: So the landform that would represent part of the story in one particular area would be a similar landform in another area? You could see similarities to the geology, for example?

SITA MCALPINE: Well in the case of rock holes that was the case. There’s a similarity across all of the lands, that rock holes are often connected to the Seven Sisters; but as far as rock formations go they change depending on the narrative of the story. The Seven Sisters were crucial in people knowing where the next waterhole is. By knowing the story, by reciting the song, they knew where the next waterhole was. That was a way of surviving in the desert.


CHRISTIANE KELLER: I think the aspect that the narrative is so visual in the landscape as you have seen in the face, in the Seven Sisters being represented as rocks; but also that place where Betty West was standing. Kununurra is a flat surface and it just has seven rock holes that are about that size so it’s really embedded and alive in the landscape. And that’s why you have to go there to see it to understand.

QUESTION: It’s my pleasure to come here to hear your lecture, I’m [inaudible] from China, but actually I’m Tibetan, our culture is also very spiritual from the main culture in China. What I am interested in is about where is the young people? I’ve noticed that there are no teenagers shown in the pictures. So what I’m interested in is whether is it generation gaps between these peoples? Thank you.

CHRISTIANE KELLER: There was one photo, for example, when the tjanpi Seven Sisters were made the 17 artists who made them – it was quite amazing that some of the women who were there, they were first generation tjanpi artists, so they have been doing tjanpi since 1985; but others that were there, they had never done tjanpi before, so they were in their early 20s. One figure was always done by two artists, and they shared the skills but also the knowledge. Brenda Douglas, for example, I haven’t had a photo in here because we were running out of time to prepare, but she is the young photographer who coedited the film. She’s also in her 20s or so, and on the Karrku bush trip, for example, there were whole family groups, including children. On the Kuru Ala trip to make tjanpi some of the schoolkids came to visit us in camp and actually had a look at what we were doing there. So this exchange is there and people are interested.

QUESTION: What their style – they translate their culture? For example, their songs, some artists style, how to translate them? In some professional school? Or just in their family, to the older generation to translate the style to the younger generation? Sorry, I’m not English native speaker –

CHRISTIANE KELLER: Yes, yes. No, that’s alright.

What I think you’re asking is, how do they learn to make this art, is that right? It’s mostly through participating and watching, so everybody sits in the art centre or in the community. The youngest would see what their elders or their family members do. It’s often also that the style is related to families, and often individual as well, and is handed down. Or people create their own style, it’s quite varied; but it’s not a formal setting of learning, it’s a very informal setting of learning.

QUESTION: So it’s between the family members, and [inaudible]?

CHRISTIANE KELLER: It’s not only between family members, it’s also across the community. Sometimes family members marry into other families, so then they transfer and take on new styles as well. That happens a lot.

QUESTION: I thought the exhibition was wonderful, thank you, and very humbling. For someone who’s lived here all their life, heard about songlines but had no idea about the depth of culture that’s involved. I’m interested to know whether there were any revisions about the songlines from the Yiwarra Kuju: Canning Stock Route exhibition. I know it was mentioned in the Canning Stock Route exhibition – were there any discrepancies within the community about their version of the songlines?

CHRISTIANE KELLER: I think we touched on this in our talk, maybe you want to speak?

SITA MCALPINE: Yes, so you’re right, we did include some of the paintings from the Canning Stock Route exhibition, because there’s a beautiful alignment of the Canning Stock Route with the Seven Sisters songline. Canning picked his route based on the water holes of the Seven Sisters, so we used the paintings from the Canning Stock Route exhibition in this way.

You may recall me talking about that painting that people got the story confused with? That was one case, when the curators were asking about that painting for the previous exhibition, they were most worried about the well, or that one place, so they included all stories. What happened to us was the stories got confused over time, so we had to piece the stories apart to make it just Seven Sisters. So we had to go through a process of talking through those artworks with the artists, to make sure we accurately told the Seven Sisters story. To make sure they felt comfortable with those things being told in the public space.

PENELOPE VAILE: Thank you, everybody, very much, for joining us today for the final ‘backstory of Songlines’ lecture. Please, if you haven’t already, head downstairs to the temporary exhibition and check out Songlines, it’s absolutely stunning. Christiane and Sita may stay for a little while if you want to ask them another question or two, but thank you all very much.


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Date published: 01 January 2018

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