Songlines: The Power and Promise. Lynne Kelly & Margo Neale

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Author: Lynne Kelly, Margo Neale
Category: Australian Indigenous Music
Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Thames & Hudson Australia Pty. Ltd. 207pp. Ltd/National Museum of Australia, 2020, 2017 pp.
ISBN: 9781760761189 (e-book available)
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“Songlines divulge powerful lessons about what it means to be human and live on this earth. They offer us the promise of connectivity to each other and our planet in a fragmenting world.” Margo Neale

Songlines: The Power and Promise is shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2021 and is the first in a series of six books aimed at giving the general reader an in-depth understanding of Australian Indigenous expertise in six areas. Each book will be co-authored by Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers and the series is edited by Margo Neale, senior Indigenous curator at the National Museum of Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. Forthcoming titles include Design by Alison Page and Paul Memmott (2021); Country by Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe (2021); Healing, Medicine and Plants (2022); Astronomy (2022) and Innovation (2023).

Neale’s co-author of Songlines is Lynne Kelly, a science writer working as an Honorary Research Fellow at Latrobe University. Part of Kelly’s research investigates the transmission of scientific and technological knowledge among small-scale oral cultures such as Aboriginal Australians, the Pueblo people and some African cultures. Her research indicates that such knowledge is encoded in myths, rituals and mnemonic devices and is transmitted through performance, art and story-telling.

In the introductory chapter, ‘First Knowledges’, Neale explains how Songlines, related to Dreamings or Dreaming tracks, ‘connect sites of knowledge embodied in the features of the land. It is along these routes that people travelled to learn from Country’. And again, in chapter two, she discusses the use of the word ‘Songlines’ as a cross-cultural term for the concept of Tjukurpa, Altyerre, Kujika and other localised terms for Songlines or Dreamings. There are so many layers of meaning to these concepts that Westerners can only begin to comprehend, yet our understanding can be enhanced by books such as this and must certainly be further enhanced by exhibitions like Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters (2018). The Songlines project and the exhibition preceded this book and are part of a collaborative effort by Western and Indigenous researchers to create a permanent interactive digital archive.

Neale’s evocative description of the Seven Sisters exhibition sent this reader to the National Museum of Australia website where those who missed the exhibition can experience some of the excitement and mystery of this awe-inspiring event. See https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/songlines.

The Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition was accompanied by a beautiful book, written in collaboration with Aboriginal knowledge- holders from Martu country and from Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands. In the Introduction of this book Neale states that the elders with whom she was working knew they must in future use Western ways of storing their knowledge so that it will always be available to young people after they, the elders, have passed on. It is exciting to read in this book and to see on the National Museum of Australia website how the latest technologies are being used to protect and share Indigenous Australian culture. Hopefully this record of the exhibition, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, will remain a fixture on the NMA website. The exhibition itself was held from September 2017 to February 2018; it was then moved to Perth and is scheduled to tour internationally to Britain (2021), Germany (2022) and France (2023). 

Cover of Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, edited by Margo Neale, published by National Museum of Australia Press

In chapter three of Songlines: The Power and Promise Neale also describes how the Aboriginal-managed archive, Ara Irititja (meaning ‘stories from long ago) was set up, to digitise the Songlines, to ‘preserve cultural knowledge and record story, song and performance using various Western knowledge systems’. Indigenous and Western knowledge systems were to be integrated thus creating what Neale describes as a ‘third archive’, which aims to combine the advantages of Western archival systems with ‘the Indigenous people’s own knowledge systems, while transcending the objectifying systems that underpin the modern Western archive’. See https://irititja.com/sharing-knowledge/overview/ . Ara Irititja has already produced its first app, ARA WINKI No 1: https://irititja.com/products/the-app-arawinki/ . It is impressive to read of the many other Australian Aboriginal Communities creating collaborative ‘intercultural, multidisciplinary projects’ like these with a view to preserving their knowledge in a contemporary way and connecting with non-Indigenous Australians.

The second half of Songlines: The Power and Promise  consists of six chapters written by Neale’s non-Indigenous collaborator, mnemonist Lynne Kelly, who compares the Songlines to an Indigenous ‘encyclopaedia’ containing information about categories such as ‘animals, plants, genealogies, geology, climate and seasons, land management, geography, astronomy, calendars, natural resources, ecology, religion, laws and ethics, among many others’. It has been memorised over generations and constantly refined.

She goes on to explain how our neural pathways are engaged and she connects Australian Indigenous Songlines learning with that of other ancient cultures throughout the world. Kelly suggests that an understanding of how the Songlines work may be used by non-Indigenous people to enhance their own lives and describes her experiments in memorising long lists through the use of codes or places, songs, stories, memory boards and artworks. As she says, ‘we are all working from the same brain structure, dictated by the same neuroscience’.

The chapter ‘Songlines Embrace the Globe’ goes on to show how oral cultures throughout the world, such as the Native American, Inca, Pacific Island and African cultures, used similar kinds of ‘Songlines’ to record stories of their creation, their ancestries and significant events. Kelly’s chapter on Australian Aboriginal art (‘Art Is Culture Made Visible’) demonstrates how art has always been ‘an integral component of the knowledge system’ and she describes some of the paintings seen in the Seven Sisters exhibition as well as rock art and other Indigenous forms of art. The explanatory diagrams on page 54 are particularly informative and a coloured plate of the painting Kungkarangkalpa—Seven Sisters would have been a good addition here (costs and copyright problems may have prevented this).

 Kungkarangkalpa—Seven Sisters, 2015, by Tjungkara Ken, Yaritji Young, Maringka Tunkin, Freda Brady and Sandra Ken, Tjala Arts, acrylic on canvas, National Museum of Australia, © the artists / Copyright Agency, 2018

This chapter, ‘Art is Culture Made Visible’, would also be an excellent introduction, for the uninitiated, to the many kinds of Australian Indigenous arts, from cave painting and rock art to wood carvings and sculptures to sand-painting, body painting, bark painting and painting on a wide variety of media.

In the chapter, ‘The Promise of Songlines’, Kelly suggests ways in which non-Indigenous readers could use some of the Songlines’ ‘memory aids’ and ‘knowledge techniques’ that Indigenous cultures ‘have been perfecting for millennia’. Her ideas are persuasive and her research with the students at Malmsbury Primary School shows that many Indigenous knowledge techniques can be used to enhance Western-style teaching. But little reference is made here to the spiritual element of Indigenous Australian Songlinesthey are not only a knowledge repository but, as Kelly herself tells us in the chapter ‘Songlines Spiral Forever’, ‘many Aboriginal people when they walk on Country … experience the past of the ancestors and every time span that has existed and will ever exist. Anthropologist WEH Stanner coined the expression “everywhen” when he was grappling with this Aboriginal sense of time and place’.

There are many layers, some of them restricted, to the knowledge preserved in the Songlines. For example, some of the Songlines represent ‘men’s business’ and some ‘women’s business’, and some knowledge is forbidden to outsiders. Storing Songlines digitally is a brilliant and exciting innovation, especially as seen in the Seven Sisters Exhibition and Ara Irititja, and one hopes that it will be possible to control viewing so that only certain people see the most secret of ceremonies or Songlines, if and when they are included in this ‘third’ archive to make it a complete repository of Indigenous Australian knowledge?

Songlines: the Power and Promise is an excellent introduction to Australian Indigenous Songlines and to ways in which aspects of them may be amalgamated into Western-style teaching and into the everyday experiences of non-Indigenous readers. Books listed under the heading ‘Further Reading’ offer a number of ways of learning more about the art mentioned in Songlines: the Power and Promise and a visit to the National Museum of Australia’s website is also highly recommended.

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