LAY OF THE LAND

Songlines – The Seven Sisters Dreaming – Paris

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  Songlines is an exhibition of Australian tribal art depicting the Dreamtime story of kungkarangkalpa – the Seven Sisters. This creation Dreaming forms a Songline stretching 4000km across the whole Australian continent, and as a consequence, several tribal groups share the Dreaming, and are custodians of its sacred sites on their land.

  The Seven Sisters are ancestral beings who came down from the sky. When men saw the women they wanted them to be their wives, but this was against clan law, so the women drove them away with their digging sticks. A powerful shape shifting spirit man also wanted one of the sisters for his wife, and so the women decided to flee across the country. The spirit man followed them, and in their attempts to evade him, the Sisters created various features in the landscape, such as sand hills, rock outcrops, water holes, and caves etc. Eventually the Sisters escaped by transforming themselves into fire, and ascending back up into the sky where they became the Pleiades star group.

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  The paintings in the exhibition represent the locations and events of the Dreamtime story, however there are several levels of meaning encoded within the paintings. For the general public, only the ‘children’s version’ of the story can be revealed, while initiated members of the tribals groups are the only ones who know the full meaning of the symbols and markings used.

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  Most of the paintings are displayed on the gallery walls, but some were laid flat on the ground, and for me this seemed to somehow bring them to life. I remember reading that when used in ritual sand paintings, the designs were created with the intension that they would be viewed from below, i.e. by the Dreamtime forces residing within the earth. Anyone familiar with the ancient Cup and Ring rock carvings found in Britain will perhaps see a distant echo or resonance in this tribal art.

  The Songlines exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to see these paintings and other art pieces in the flesh, along with digital collaborations with the artists themselves. The whole event is a dignified and positive celebration of beliefs and culture from a people who have until quite recently suffered appalling racism, and are still marginalised in their own country. Currently they are campaigning to have a Voice in the Australian parliament (link to ‘A Voice’), and unbelievably there is a political campaign to prevent this. Against this background, the artists and their communities continually strive to preserve their identity and culture, and pass it on to the next generation. The Songlines exhibition is part of this effort, as well as their traditional art, they have also embraced digital and online resources, with some elders recording their knowledge in secure archives kept by the communities.

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Many thanks to the Songlines Curatorium, and good luck to them.

The Lay of the Land

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