Venue: Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery, & the Levinsky Building of the University of Plymouth.

Who with: Edelgard and her German niece.

Curators: “‘Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters’ has been entirely conceived and curated by a team of First Australians, led by Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia and custodial elders from across the Central and Western Deserts of Australia.Often, a multidisciplinary exhibition.”(https://www.theboxplymouth.com/events/exhibitions/songlines)

When I hear the word Aboriginal, my mind takes me back several centuries which reflects, perhaps, how I have been conditioned into thinking that the culture is a long-lost one, that it was destroyed with the ‘progress’ introduced in the late 19th and early 20thC.

Then I see that this work was created this century, that it is of the here and now. The paintings are acrylic on board / canvas / cotton / paper – I did not see any of the work that was dyed using local plant or minerals. The artists are living and working NOW using contemporary materials.

Location, setting, atmosphere:

It was curated over 6 spaces available at the Plymouth museum and art gallery, and Plymouth University Art Institute. We are seeing the work as the artists and the Australian National Museum want it to be seen.

Shape-Shifting:

Alison Milyika Carroll, 2017: “Who are a group of women that work together in our culture, that know about their country and the plants and the animals around them and use this knowledge as they travel?

The Seven Sisters of course!

The sheer variety of the presentations advertised for this National Museum of Australia artwork exhibition in Plymouth attracted me: film, photography, painting, sculpture, music, singing, folk lore – all exploring environmental relationships. What I had not expected was how harmonious this exhibition would be, leaving me at the end, trying to tie all those threads together over the 45 minutes journey home.

The location, in the cultural centre of Plymouth, could not have been improved.

The setting in a remodelled museum and art gallery where the maritime history of Plymouth and the voyages to the rest of the world take centre stage could not have been more appropriate. Everything was pristine, and the squadrons of helpers there to facilitate your navigation through this exhibition representing personal voyages of discovery, helped to create a stimulating busy atmosphere in the spaces. There were many children there too because it was the schools’ half term week.

How appropriate were the spaces?

The first space I was aware of was a type of lobby in which the project was introduced with text, images and filmed sections.

Starting lobby painting.

If the rings signify the healing properties of smoke on the women’s breasts, I wonder why there are only 13 of them?

The second was a long room with a middle island housing paintings, sculptures, carved wheat scoops and woven bowls.

Woven bowls above wheat scoops.

This huge painting dominates the first space and, for me, represents the paintings on show from subject matter to execution:

Largest landscape painting in the second space.
detail in the major landscape.
major landscape notes detail found in the Livinsky Art Institute.

I wonder why the figures were placed on a mirror when most of the action described took place on sand:

A group of figures sculpture arranged on a mirrored surface in the main hall.

The third space housing the ceramics and some watercolour paintings was a convoluted area maximising the space for plinths holding the vases, walls for the interpretations and paintings, and a small shelf high up for more ceramics.

ceramic vases displayed in a room with a complex layout with watercolour paintings as well as sculptures, acrylic paintings and films.

The fourth space, in Tavistock Place, was the film dome. We had to wait outside the dome for some spaces to be available. Once inside, we could lie down on some platforms so that we could view the projections in the sky-like space above us. I loved this aspect of looking up at what we were shown. This had the metaphorical effects of elevating the videos and images, as well as making you feel that you were lying in the Australian grassy landscape while watching a heavenly revelation. The narration was clear and brought the works we had seen together. As a space this was superb.

Your entire field of vision was taken up by the films and images projected above you:

A projection onto the roof of the dome of one of the images in the main exhibition.

The fifth area was indoors again and took the viewer on a continued journey along the longlines.

The painting at the entrance to the 5th space.

This painting was, perhaps, the one that gripped me most. Its circularity in composition and shape plus the earthy colours and continuation of the story of the songlines encapsulated for me the harmony inherent in the whole exhibition.

An example of hoe the title ‘Songlines’ was depicted in this 5th space:

The songline depicting the road they travelled.

The final area, in the university Arts Institute space, gave a few more details of how one particular painting was made, more films and songs from the journeys, and an area where people can experiment with paint and colour.

It was good that the experiences were broken down into different localities because it gave me time to digest the complex expressions I had seen and heard as I went from one space to the next. I also liked the space-within-a-space layout in each different area because it made me more aware of the interrelationships between all the different disciplines and added to the richness of the experience.

Highlights:

The dotty landscapes appealed to me from the aspect of the attention to detail and the sheer tenacity of making each individual dot which must have taken hours of patient application. I also loved the ceramic pots and the carpets in the lobby area.

One of my favourite paintings:

Kungkarrangkalpa 2013: When women dance the Seven Sisters inmates for Kuru Ala, they put circular designs on their breasts to signify healing rings of smoke. The dotted lines are the marks made by the women’s dancing feet in the sand.
My favourite vase.

There was a joy in the exuberance of the colour and the sizes of some of the paintings. The different shapes of the ceramic pots made me want to caress them in their perfect rotundity and fabulous designs.

The prickly straw figures, on the other hand, kept me at arm’s length and looked rather alien and stiff whereas everything else had a fluidity which bobbed you along the lines of discovery.

What I took away with me about the work:

I loved the complexity of the ideas expressed here through the multi-media approach. This is something I did for my own degree exhibition and, if I ever develop another body of work sufficiently, my aim is to deliver the same format because I know it works and it gives viewers more to think about on a subject.

I am drawn to multi-media artwork because I don’t believe that any one medium satisfies my need to express what I see or feel. In landscapes, for example, just the visual is unsatisfactory because sounds are very particular to specific places. Adding a collage or drawing element to a landscape, portrait or macro images can add an element of recalled experiences related to the subject of the image. Yes, editing your work is a discipline in itself but limiting the expression to just one medium is limiting, in my practice.

Would it have helped, for example, if there were fewer paintings, ceramic pots, sculptures or Slonglines which would help the viewer focus on what was being expressed rather than how it was expressed? I think you could argue for both the optional responses here.

Yes, it would have helped to have just a few salient examples because then you could appreciate each new or different expression more. There was repetition in that some of the pieces were revisited in the dome and in the final space which gave some behind the scenes details. That is not altogether a bad thing because you saw the same pieces in different contexts and this helped to make them more memorable.

Thanks to my study colleague, Catherine Banks who is looking closely at topography and landscape in her current project, I saw the work of Tanya Houghton “Songlines, here and now”. This is the introduction to her work:

Anya Houghton introduction.

Houghton calls her songlines ‘Here and Now’. Having seen the ‘Seven Sisters’ Songlines’ , I am not sure if the inference that I am getting is that the Aboriginal work is not of the here and now which surprises me because I saw exhibits which were made from 2004 to 2019. Whereas the Plymouth exhibition has a very strong emphasis on the people whose journey is being depicted, the Houghton body of work specifically has that direct people reference removed.

That aspect of the work appeals to me because I too work with an absence of all figurative representations. Could one criticism of the work be that most of the images in her work could have been taken anywhere? Yes it could, but, for me, there are enough site-specific images in the body of work to anchor it to the Songlines journeys. We are looking at the body of work rather than at single images – just as we do so in the Seven Sisters’ work.

What I took away with me about me:

There are 2 aspects to this work which, to me, makes them unique and reflect how I like to work too:

the first is that they created a drawn / painted ‘songline’ for each of their journeys through their country from west to east. This journeying complex of music, lyrics and topology defines harmony both literally and metaphorically: in every exhibition space you are reminded of how aware the artists are of their natural and human surroundings and how responsible they feel towards them.

The second astonishing aspect was the artists’ awareness of their responsibility to their offspring: they have, for example, ‘collated workbooks as a learning tool for the younger generation in the creation of the Seven Sisters ceramics installation. Younger artists collected plants, took photographs and illustrated the smallest details of their shapes and colours in collaboration with senior artists.’ (An interpretation board in the ceramics space)

n example of the art notebooks for the benefit of children yet to come.

The space that also had the work of older artists and a quotation by Darren Jorgensen (2017) struck a chord with me: “With fragile bodies and wobbly hands those experiencing the end of their lives have different sensibilities and wisdoms. They whisper the Tjukurrpa.”(Songlines). As a person experiencing the end of my life, I felt deeply touched by that wisdom. Although my body can be said to be fragile, my hands are still firm, and I am stimulated by colour and complexity in exhibitions.

Older women are not relegated to a scrapheap. Their work is valued and exhibited with the others.

I need to get down and develop either my seaweed or my trees and the landscape project.

I must set myself a routine in which I give myself a chance of getting something done. I can’t rely on chance to settle down to a project.

Whatever project I settle down to, I know that macro will play a part in it.

Notes:

I have learned from both the Plymouth exhibition and the Houghton body of work that I can have images in my work which can have been taken anywhere but that it is the landscape specific images which hold the body of work together. The rest of the artwork can be taken out of context but it is made stronger by its inclusion in the other artistic, multi-media expressions.

I took this image of my rucksack just before I left the venue. The lines were reminiscent of some of those in some of the exhibits but stripped of their colour:

Perhaps this signifies the start of my own exploration of landscapes yet unknown, with their own mountains to climb, poems to emerge, shapes to be developed and significance seen in retrospect?

2 thoughts on ““Songlines tracking the Seven Sisters”review.

  1. That looks to be such a wonderful and stimulating exhibition Anna – the earth colours, mark-making and vibrancy zing off the screen for me. I’m so pleased you felt such inspiration from the visit.

    Liked by 1 person

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