Sharing astronomical narratives from country

Sharing astronomical narratives from country

Aboriginal narratives are shared through symbols and with materials made from and of country, and provide a connection to country and a portal to a metaphysical or spiritual dimension.

Sharing astronomical narratives from country

Aboriginal narratives are shared through symbols and with materials made from and of country, and provide a connection to country and a portal to a metaphysical or spiritual dimension.

Two case studies are provided which describe groups of Aboriginal artists who use astronomical references to the Seven Sisters constellation in their work. Both groups of artists have provided works for the recent Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

The Seven Sisters narrative is a widespread cultural complex of religious and ceremonial practices and beliefs. The Pleiades constellation represents the Seven Sisters who are chased by a lustful prospective husband, Wati Nyiru. This is an important Jukurrpa or ‘Dreaming,’ terms that refer to Aboriginal cosmology, encompassing the creator and ancestral beings, the laws of religious and social behaviour, the land, the spiritual forces which sustain life and the narratives which concern these (Currana, W.,1993). The Seven Sisters or Pleiades constellation story represents relationships between men and women, masculine desire and feminine caring, family bonds, the unexpected powers of magic, and the extraordinary power of our landscape to be created through story, song, dance and painting. As the Seven Sisters are pursued by a lustful man, their journey created waterholes, hills, trees, bush foods, wind and rain. In a final attempt to escape from their pursuer, the sisters turned themselves into fire and ascended to the heavens to become stars. The seven sisters can be found in the night sky today as a cluster of seven stars that is part of the constellation of Taurus or the Pleiades.

Tjanpi Desert Weavers

Established in 1995 Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council created to enable women in remote central deserts to earn their own income from fibre art. Tjanpi represents more than 400 Aboriginal women artists from 26 remote communities on the NPY lands. The NPY lands cover approximately 350,000 square kilometres across the tri-state (WA, SA, NT) border region of Central Australia. The Tjanpi Desert weavers began as basket weavers but moved into sculptural installations made in collaborative workshops and their works which are both daring in scale, colour and pattern have established them within the contemporary art world.

Made primarily from a combination of native desert grasses, seeds and feathers, commercially bought raffia (sometimes dyed with native plants), string and wool, Tjanpi artworks are unique, innovative and constantly evolving. Tjanpi has an extensive exhibition program and is represented in national and international public and private art collections. In 2005 Tjanpi was awarded the 22nd Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award for their collaborative piece, Tjanpi grass Toyota, made by 18 women from Papulankutja.

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers created a major work, the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition, at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra in 2017. The Story of the Seven Sisters came alive with flying woven works that are life size and burst with energy and colour1. These sculptures are part figurative, part spirt and capture the metamorphosis of spirit to corporeal form. These transformative elements of the narrative are a central part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming or Jukurrpa, and appear in many Jukurrpa.

Branches were collected and bound together to build the core of the figures. The artists inserted wire to create the strong frame and then added grass and fixed it with string and wool.

Ernabella Arts

Established in 1948, Ernabella Arts is Australia’s oldest, continuously running Aboriginal Art Centre. Ernabella Arts is in Pukatja Community, at the eastern end of the Musgrave Ranges in the far north west of South Australia2.

Pukatja was the first permanent settlement on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands). The Presbyterian Board of Missions established the mission in 1937, and a craft room was established in 1948. The first craft products were hand-loomed woven fabrics and hand-pulled and knotted floor rugs with a unique pattern that became known as ‘the Ernabella walka’ or anapalayaku walka (Ernabella's design).

In recent years, long after commencing working as artists, senior women decided to leave behind the walka (pattern) of the early days and to depict their Tjukurpa (sacred stories of country and law). The centre’s reputation lies in the adaptability and innovation of the artists who have been introduced to many different mediums since the craft room began. Today its varied group of artists is a mix of young and old, men and women. There are very senior Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara men including NATSIAA winner Dickie Minyintiri. The members of Ernabella Arts are always reinvigorating their centre, seeing it through its evolution from the first incarnation as a craft room, into a culturally strong contemporary art centre. In 1996 a ceramics workshop utilising the skills of ceramicists from the Jam Factory was conducted and today ceramics is a dominant medium at Ernabella Arts Centre. The Ernabella artists carve hand-built ceramic vessels using a sgraffito method either on earthenware covered with white slip, or on white stoneware painted with a layer of dark terra sigillata. Using clay that is collected from the rain-washed silt in their own community to make terra sigillata holds added meaning and symbolism for the artists.

Alison Milyika Carroll worked with a group of female artists to create seven pots representing the Seven Sisters as part of the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition. The women started by collecting the plants, taking photographs, drawing and looking at the smallest detail on the leaves and thinking about shapes and colours. It was decided that the work should include the Kapi3 – representing water as well as five bush food; honey ants4, witchetty grubs5, quandong6, fig tree7 and bush tomato8. In addition to the seven pots for the seven sisters a pot was also created for Wati Nyiru, the pursuer, by Ernabella artist Rupert Jack9. They built this pot as the largest and designed it to be displayed at a distance from the women’s work.

Classroom activity - The Arts (Visual Art) Years 5 and 6

Students will learn about the Seven Sisters songline through the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition resources available. This includes accessing the online collection and viewing artworks from the exhibition. Students will learn answer inquiry-based learning questions based on three concepts: symbols, metamorphosis and country. These questions will encourage students to think critically about Western artistic practice and promotes metacognition and a personal exploration of cultural values and social systems.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Explore ideas and practices used by artists, including practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, to represent different views, beliefs and opinions (ACAVAM114)
  • Explain how visual arts conventions communicate meaning by comparing artworks from different social, cultural and historical contexts, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks (ACAVAR117)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 5 and 6 in The Arts (Visual Art):

  • students explain how ideas are represented in artworks they make and view
  • describe the influences of artworks and practices from different cultures, times and places on their art making
  • describe how the display of artworks enhances meaning for an audience

Teacher notes
These activities are best suited to a double lesson.

Activity 1 - Understanding the Seven Sisters songline

Suggested timing: one lesson

Required resources: computer and screen/projector to show videos and artworks to class

Students should watch the following video in order to learn about the Seven Sisters:

Stanley Douglas narrating story (National Museum of Australia):

Students should then explore the artworks of the exhibition and choose an artwork to discuss in Activity 2:

  • The tjanpi sisters from the exhibition interactive10 or museum collection11
  • ‘The objects’ (pots) from the exhibition prospectus12

To explore further, see also:

  • ‘Featured artworks’ on the exhibition website13
  • Digital dome experience - Travelling Kungkarangkalpa Art Experience14

Activity 2 - Responding to artworks

Suggested timing: one lesson

Required resources: online version or printout of chosen artwork from Activity 1

The inquiry-based questions below refer to three conceptual categories; symbols, metamorphosis and country

Symbols encourage students to think about how we use shapes, pattern and colour to represent a range of ideas, identity and belonging.

Metamorphosis focuses on alternative definitions of time, being and belief. Aboriginal and cosmology has a circular notion of time and being. In Aboriginal cultural practice, one is part of the landscape or country and there are not the same divisions between the human state of being and the animal and plant world. In the cycle of life and death, everything is in a constant state of metamorphosis or change.

Country refers to how we relate to the natural world around us and how it informs our sense of identity. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have links to the ‘country’ through language and cultural practices including dance, songs, stories and totems. Aboriginal Australians may be connected to ‘country’ in terms of descent from a particular ancestor, or cultural authority and identity from both sides of their family, so they may have many stories and totems that link them to complex social structures and a sense of family and identity.

Students should use their knowledge of the Seven Sisters and discuss the below questions in relation to their chosen artwork. The teacher should facilitate discussion in small groups or as a class.

  • How do Aboriginal people use symbols in art work? What symbols do you notice in your artwork?
  • How do the stories in Aboriginal art work connect to country and Identity?
  • What appeals to you about your chosen artwork?
  • How does the art work documented incorporate Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge of astronomy?
  • How does the artwork tell a story of change or metamorphosis?
  • What other ways do Aboriginal people share important narratives? Consider the relationship between visual symbols, dance and song.

Extension questions:

  • Aboriginal people continue to live with these stories and share them with their young people, how does this reinforce a relationship with country?
  • Consider how the visual depiction of The Seven Sisters differs both in symbols and in medium as it travels through different communities.
  • Consider how Aboriginal people have accommodated new mediums and artistic practice to express their narratives.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.