As tense as a Hollywood epic, and as multi-layered as Greek mythology, the Seven Sisters dreamtime story rivals some of the great narratives.
Seven sisters leave Roeburn in Western Australia, tracking east over 500 square kilometres to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) lands in the Northern Territory and South Australia.
The sisters are pursued by an evil shape-shifting spirt, a man called Wati Nyiru or Yurlu, who drives them across the land and into the night sky where they become the Pleiades star cluster.
“The sisters don’t want to marry the Wati Nyiru, but the Wati Nyiru was a really tricky man,” said Tapaya Edwards, a cultural ambassador of the Pitjantjatjara nation.
This creation story is shared by many clans in the Western and Central deserts, and it has now influenced a major Australian exhibition described as a world-first in scale and complexity.
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is a collaboration with Aboriginal elders who are custodians of the story. It will open tomorrow at the National Museum of Australia.
“It wasn’t a museum idea, it was an Anangu idea,” said Margo Neale, the museum’s senior Indigenous curator.
“They came to us and said, ‘Our songlines are being broken up, we want you mob to help us put them back together again’.
“That means tracking the Seven Sisters songlines, in this case, across three deserts.”
The exhibition features the world’s highest resolution DomeLab — a cave-like experience which projects images of the only known Seven Sisters rock art at Cave Hill in South Australia.
More than 100 detailed and vibrant paintings and 66 weavings, spears and sculptures are on show; each piece tells a story on the sisters’ journey, allowing visitors to ‘walk’ the songlines.
For several years the museum worked with custodians of the Seven Sisters songlines, said Mr Edwards.
“The elders wanted to show the Seven Sisters story to the wider world; we had a big meeting and a community consultation to talk about how we were going to make it, it was a big, huge process,” he said.
Mr Edwards, who dances the story he’s known since childhood, said elders wanted the wider Australian public to know about their tjukurpa — an Anangu word which describes the creation time where spirits shaped the landscape.
“The sisters are running and forming [the country], they are making rock holes, clay pans, bush tomatoes and all Anangu are now seeing this when they go for hunting,” he said.
“They recognise the sisters made this.”
Dr Neale hoped the exhibition would encourage the preservation of more songlines, which she said were being lost as elders passed away.
“Sharing it with all Australians is very much part of preserving it.
“If you live in this country, you need to know its creation stories. There is an urgent need for this exhibition right now.”
Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters opens tomorrow and runs until February 2018.