Posted to the Ethnos Project by on March 28th, 2014


Three articles that capture the current cultural debate around an Aborignal Australian songlines exhibit…

Songlines project sparks indigenous culture war

March 22, 2014, from a post written by Nicolaus Rothwell

It seemed like a dream arts project for the remote western desert’s Aboriginal communities — a research and exhibition series sponsored by great educational and cultural institutions in the nation’s capital, ethically well-founded, managed by a team of academic and curatorial experts. It would be the first enterprise to map the songlines of indigenous Australia with the tools of modern science, and do so with Aboriginal participation, in a cross-cultural spirit, co-operatively, preserving knowledge, advancing understanding. It would show the world the depth of desert life-ways and history. Even the title chosen for the project expressed the sharp excitement its proponents felt: Alive with the Dreaming!

This excitement was shared by the Australian Research Council, which gave the venture funding of more than $800,000 in its 2011 round of grants. Fittingly enough, the project’s first focus was the most famous of all the songlines, the Seven Sisters story, which winds its way across the dunes and mesas of the desert rangelands. It is a tale of pursuit and subterfuge: a wily man gives endless chase, the sisters flee. For years it has been portrayed by outsiders as a women’s story. One past attempt by anthropologists to research its sites was a women-only affair. The saga has already inspired many majestic artworks by painters in the best-known desert communities, so it was a natural theme for a high-profile exhibition. But there was scope in the new project to explore the meaning of the songlines even further. Were they not, after all, a kind of continent-wide geographic imprinting? Those mazy tracks could be portrayed at last in their true light — as emblems of identity, “rich in spiritual, ecological and economic knowledge”, paths of “iconic significance in the national cultural heritage of indigenous and non-indigenous Australia”.

Fine words for a beginning, but three years on the songlines dream has turned into a nightmare for the Aboriginal desert people caught up in its coils: the museums advancing the project grasp little of the depths of the inland’s religious system; the consultations with song-cycle custodians to date have been bizarre and ill-managed; there are elaborate paper protocols and safeguards but, in practice, no is a word Aboriginal art researchers just don’t understand.

The upshot is that on the eve of the first Songlines exhibition, opening this weekend at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, the Pitjantjatjara desert people of the state’s north are in extreme tension, divided, full of anguish. The exhibition has its coterie of Aboriginal backers and its fierce opponents. It is faction against faction, family against family. No collision in recent decades between the grand designs of the mainstream world and an Aboriginal resistance campaign quite rivals this one for its long-term impact: its controversies dominate the community night-time fires. Senior men and women in the heartland talk of little else.

What began as a dewy research scheme to exalt desert art and knowledge is increasingly being seen in the bush as a mortal threat to traditional law and culture.

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Researcher defends Aboriginal songline project

March 27, 2014, from a post written by Emma Sleath with Nadine Maloney

An Australian National University (ANU) researcher has defended a cultural project which is under attack by elders in the APY Lands.

ANU researcher Dr Diana James has responded to fresh criticisms about a research project about to be showcased in an exhibition in Adelaide. The Ngintaka exhibition is part of a collaborative project involving researchers and Indigenous knowledge holders of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in northern South Australia. The exhibition showcases the Ngintaka (giant Perentie) songline, a major creation story in the region, and is opening at the South Australian Museum this weekend.

But in an article by Nicholas Rothwell in last week’s Weekend Australian senior men from the community of Amata spoke out against the secret knowledge of the Ngintaka songline being made public.

Mick Wikilyiri, a custodian of the Ngintika site at Amata said;
“It’s a place for us, it’s for us, us poor people – it’s who we are. Its power comes from underneath the ground…I feel really emotional and hurt that people are trying to harm me this way.”

Amata senior man, Willy Kaika, was also quoted; “It’s men’s dreaming, secret, our sacred ceremonies and places, they have to leave it alone. We don’t want outsiders to touch it. We want them to go away.”

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Exhibit opens despite objections from traditional owners

March 28, 2014, from a post written by Emma Sleath with Nadine Maloney

The Ngintaka exhibition, due to open at the South Australian Museum tonight, is back on.

The South Australian Museum announced a postponement of the exhibition yesterday in the midst of a cultural dispute that led to the threat of a legal injunction by 11 traditional owners from the APY Lands.

But this afternoon, organisers and the Anangu traditional owners involved in the exhibition, were informed that the opening was back on. Liz Tregenza, General Manager of Ananguku Arts (who are managing the Ngintaka exhibition) says the South Australian Museum is now satisfied that correct processes have been followed.

“After some considerable work pulling documents together, we’ve been able to show, together with APY council [the statutory landholding body for the APY Lands], that the appropriate processes have been followed and the appropriate people consulted,” she says.

Co-ordinator of the Songlines project, Dr Diana James, says only three of the traditional owners whose names were on the injunction letter had the authority to speak for the Ngintaka songline, and two of those custodians had had their names used without permission.

“The lawyers for APY Council were very clear…about who had the authority to speak on this particular songline and of the ten men whose names were on that list, there were only three with authority,” she says.

“One of those men [Mick Wikilyiri] suffers from dementia…and was not consulted, that was the same for another man, Ronnie Brumby, whose name had been used without permission.

She says the third custodian, Yami Lester, had his wishes respected in regard to the songline that traverses his country in Wallatina. “Yami Lester has a limited area of the homestead that he has a lease on, Wallatina [and] his right to speak for that area has always been respected – once we were informed by APY that he didn’t want us to go there, we did not as part of the research project.”

Earlier this week, Adelaide-based Berg Lawyers contacted the SA Museum threatening a legal injunction unless the exhibition was postponed and authorisation obtained from the traditional owners listed.

The traditional owners represented by Berg Lawyers included Yami Lester, Mick Wikilyiri and Willy Kaika, all of whom are quoted as being opposed to the Songlines project in a recent article by Nicholas Rothwell in the Weekend Australian.

Speaking with ABC Alice Springs’ Nadine Maloney, Yami Lester said he felt ‘glad and happy’ that the exhibition opening had been stopped. “They’re stealing our stories, and I don’t want them doing it anymore,” he said.

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