Tracking The Seven Sisters

Last year I had an idea to photograph the stars one morning and noticed a clump of stars to the north. 

My partner saw this picture I’d taken and identified them as the Peliedes.

She later directed me to an article that discussed how in various parts of the world these were known for being a group of women (sometimes a mother with daughters) fleeing the Orion group of stars, viewed in places as a man but elsewhere as a bear.

It was fascinating to learn a similar story seemed to be told all around the world about the same cluster of stars. This Nexus article argued the story appeared in Denisovan societies, which places it very early in human migration around the world.

So when the National Museum of Australia started promoting their Songlines exhibition, I was curious to learn how various Australian Aboriginal groups shared similar stories.

The exhibition builds on the stories from the lands of the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra peoples, which cover three deserts in an area of 600,000sq km.

The story of the Seven Sisters fleeing a shape-shifting male character varies in different parts of the continent but there is a unifying theme in recognising the threat men pose for women and girls.

In some versions the male Wati Nyiru tries to ingratiate himself to the women but is unable to control his lustful impulses. For example, in one telling the penis has other ideas and tries to interest the women by pretending to be a carpet python so they will eat him.

Other parts of the story vary in the details of which waterholes the women dug in their travels, or where the water course becomes hidden. In this way the story serves to instruct on how to survive in the outback.

In some places some women are interested in the man pursuing them, elsewhere they are frightened. In some stories they trick him and at least one telling involves them weeing on him. It was interesting to sense how the tone shifted but unclear whether that was a result of particular storytellers or the cultural traditions they recounted.

The exhibition illustrates the story of the seven sisters in a variety of ways, including video of dances and animations, as well as paintings, pottery and woodcarving.

It demonstrates the complex nature of representation in Aboriginal art, which combines symbolic and geographic representation to link nature and culture.
Songlines embody the stories of the ancestors’ creation of country itself. They are a belief system. But they are also akin to maps – stories about the land that, understood, spoken or sung, can be used to navigate on foot or even by vehicle. Given that this continent’s Indigenous populations represent the oldest continuous civilisations on earth, the songlines can even be seen as foundation stories of the cosmos.

The central role of art in this exhibition makes it feel as though it might be better placed in the National Gallery than the National Museum. I understand the exhibition developed from an Anangu initiative and the result doesn’t attempt to draw too many connections or boundaries in each telling of the seven sisters story, which frustrated me a bit as I didn’t have the time to compare and contrast them while shepherding my kids through in under an hour.

My kids had mixed reactions but when I began to joke about the magical penis, they became more interested. This fantastic phallus is acknowledged in varying tones by the different artists and elders involved and, again, is interesting to sense the different morals and sensitivities involved.

In hindsight I can see that my expectations for the exhibition were somewhat shaped by the cross-cultural comparison in the Nexus article. Songlines is fascinating for the glimpses into various cultural traditions and was a bit surprising in how it uses contemporary art to show these, but it left me hungry to learn more -- which isn't such a bad outcome.

Image above shows Seven Sisters Songline (1994) by Josephine Mick, from the APY region