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Culture

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters

This exhibition contains names of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It also contains allusions of a sexual nature.

Image: National Museum Australia

Songlines map the journey of Ancestral beings as they travelled across country. They hold sacred knowledge and are a way of passing knowledge on from one generation to another. Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is an interactive exhibition that follows the ancient songlines of the seven Ancestral sisters who flee and fight a love-struck, shapeshifting sorcerer, a man called Wati Nyiru or Yurlu.

This songline has been brought into the National Museum from Aboriginal communities to share and preserve the story for generations to come. The Martu, Ngaamyatjarra, and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples collaborated with the National Museum and the ANU to create a powerful depiction of the songlines in this exhibition.

We were lucky enough to speak with Aunty Margo, one of the curators. She discussed how this exhibition came about and, in doing so, has redefined how Indigenous artists engage with institutions like the NMA. Elders in the communities approached the NMA and expressed a desire for their stories to be told because they fear these stories may be lost as younger generations seem to lack interest. They want their stories to be documented and accessible for generations to come.

The Seven Sisters Dreaming story tracks across much of Australia, with the exhibition following through these three communities’ interpretations of the songline. The story follows the seven sisters in their plight to escape the man who wants to wed the oldest sister. As you walk through the exhibition, you walk with the songline, following the sisters as they flee the sorcerer. The Seven Sisters is a tale of resilience, survival, and the strength of the sisters in overcoming dangers together.  

The exhibition features artwork from over 100 incredible artworks. Each piece represents a different part of the story; a different interpretation of a songline passed down over thousands of years. The art complements the spoken words to pass on the knowledge of songlines.

‘We are all Kanguru pulka, big sisters, to the young women. Like in the Seven Sisters story – we must teach and protect our young sisters. This is like our paining, too. When we work together as a family, we are learning and teaching each other and our young sisters and daughters … this important Tjukurpa.’

Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, Maringka Tukin, and Tjungkara Ken, 2016

Aunty Margo at the NMA recommends going through the exhibition once, then going through again with the audio tour. Immerse yourself in the culture of the Seven Sisters songlines this summer. The exhibition is open at the NMA until 25 February.