A diverse and rich form of artistic expression that has been shaped by centuries of cultural traditions and practices, Indigneous art reflects the unique histories, beliefs, and experiences of Indigenous peoples around the world. From the intricate beadwork of Native American tribes to the bold and colorful paintings of Aboriginal artists in Australia, each of these art forms have their own unique aesthetic and cultural significance, and play an important role in preserving Indigenous cultural traditions. More importantly they help in educating mainstream audiences about ancient, oft-marginalised cultures that draw their inspiration and ways of life from the natural world.
The art produced by Indigenous Australians is a part of the rich artistic tradition that dates back thousands of years, and is incredibly diverse, ranging from rock paintings and engravings to contemporary paintings, sculptures, and installations. One of the most distinctive features of Indigenous Australian art is its use of symbols and patterns that are derived from the natural world and traditional dream-time stories. These stories are central to Indigenous Australian culture and are passed down through generations in the form of art, music, and storytelling.
Songlines, or Dreaming Tracks, are a central concept in Australian Indigenous mythology. They trace the path taken by the “creator spirits” as they sang the world into existence. Marked by physical landmarks, such as mountains, rivers, and rock formations, as well as by songs, stories, and ceremonies that have been passed down through generations, the Songlines also serve as a way of connecting with the spiritual energy and history of the land, and of maintaining cultural traditions and knowledge.
In recent years, the concept of Songlines has gained wider recognition as a cultural and spiritual practice of Indigenous Australians, and has been celebrated in art, literature, and music as a symbol of the enduring connection between the people and their land. I was fortunate to be a part of one such celebration, at the ongoing exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Having touched upon the topic of Indigenous Australian culture during my Masters, I had some idea about the art, but it was still very eye-opening, and thought-provoking.
With many tableaux featuring the famous dot technique, used to depict stories from the dreaming tracks through intricate patterns and designs, the exhibition focused on the story of the Seven Sisters. According to the oral tradition passed down to generations of Indigenous Australian communities, the seven ancestral sisters traveled across the land, pursued by a man who sought to possess them. Known by different names in different communities (Wati Nyiru, Minawara, Tjilbruke,or Ngalindi), the man represents the forces of chaos and destruction. But the sisters are sometimes able to outsmart him through their cunning and resourcefulness. Powerful spiritual beings who are responsible for creating many of the physical features of the landscape, including mountains, valleys, and waterholes, the Seven Sisters traveled across the land, sang and danced, leaving behind a spiritual energy or “dreaming” that is still present in the landscape today.
This brings me to the title of the post: “Everywhen is happening everywhere.” A famous quote from Bruce Chatwin’s book “The Songlines,” this line highlights the idea that the Songlines connect the past, present, and future, and are a way of understanding the world as an interconnected and ongoing process.
A brilliantly curated, and insightful exhibition, Songlines was more than an education. Though considered a primitive form of art, the techniques used to create intricate patterns and designs and depict the stories from dreamtime were those of professionals. If I could see the metaphor for the importance of protecting and preserving the land emerging through the different tableaux, I could also see how much the motifs, style, and colour templates have influenced modern art and fashion.
But what really spoke to me, was the striking similarity between Songlines in Indigenous Australian mythology and the mythologies of Indian tribal cultures. They both share the view that the natural world is sacred and imbued with spiritual significance, and have creation stories that explain the origin of the world and the relationship between the spiritual and physical realms. Like Songlines, Indian tribal cultures also have locations that are considered sacred, and believed to be the dwelling places of spirits and deities. The rituals and ceremonies are performed in order to maintain balance and harmony between the spiritual and physical worlds. Like all Indigenous art, both have a deep respect for traditional knowledge and wisdom, which is passed down through oral traditions and cultural practices. The stories, songs, and rituals associated with these traditions are seen as essential for maintaining cultural identity and continuity. Above all, both are stuck in the same vicious circle of marginalisation. Just like tribal Indian art, this art too has been dismissed by the more predominant culture as unrefined and not worthy of popular attention. Yet, when it comes to borrowing from their motifs, music and culture for modern art & fashion, there isn’t the slightest hesitation.
I have always felt strongly about the importance of learning about Indigenous cultures, and the exhibition has only made that belief stronger. Even if you don’t have access to a museum that puts together and organises exhibitions like this, it’s important to make the effort to understand these cultures through books, films, the Internet….hell, even ChatGPT !
By understanding and respecting these narratives, we can foster cross-cultural appreciation and preserve the rich tapestry of humanity. In a modern context of sustainability, these narratives provide a fresh perspective on how human societies have long interacted with the environment sustainably. Finally, they help dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding Indigenous cultures, and allow us to appreciate the resilience, ingenuity, and wisdom embedded in these traditions, and their ongoing contributions to our world.
Though not my preferred genre of art, I am so glad that we went for this extremely illuminating, edifying, and soul-satisfying experience.