The spiralling of family relations which illustrate the way Gurrutu creates cyclical relationships amongst the Yolngu - and gives their Songspirals its name

Jeremy Eccles | 17.02.21

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Review

Artist Paul Klee is famous for saying that drawing was like 'taking a line for a walk’. Can you take a song for a walk? English writer Bruce Chatwin seemed to think so after a fleeting visit to our deserts – off you go, singing and you'll find the way just as if you had a map.


It's one hell of a lot more complex than that. As National Museum curator Margo Neale showed when she put together a First Nations Desert curatorium to tell us their versions of the 'Seven Sisters Songline' back in 2017 – an exhibition that is now being seen at Perth's new museum. She's just added a few thousand words of interpretation to that in conjunction with science academic Lynne Kelly under the somewhat portentous title 'Songlines : The Power and the Promise'.

But they ain't got nothing on the complexity unravelled by the Gay'wu Group of women from their Bawaka Homeland, Gumatj Land, Yolngu Country, NE Arnhemland. Calling themselves after the ubiquitous Dilly Bag – which keeps cropping up in my life recently; all through Tarnanthi's recent exhibition in Adelaide and in the film 'High Ground' – which Yolngu reference back to the Yirritja foundation beings, the Djan'kawu Sisters. They created Country, people, animals, plants, birds, the Law, language and knowledge...and of course, dilly bags to hold not just the food that women gather, but their inherited knowledge, their dreams and their ceremonies.

As you may have inferred at this stage, the literal for Yolngu also includes the metaphorical, the intangible, the unfathomable. Well, unfathomable for us, but a walk in the park for those who've grown up with the powerful traditions and rules of the Yolngu, who couldn't imagine the simplicity of the whitefellars' family trees when they have the amazingly complex spiral patterns of Gurrutu (given a multi-media interpretation at the 2019 Tarnanthi Festival) in which all human and most non-human relationships can be defined.

Perhaps the best way to ease into this complexity is to study the Gurrutu spiral (like the innards of a shell) that appears in the book to introduce us to the four sisters – Laklak, Banbapuy, Merrikiyawuy and Ritjilili Ganambarr (the big green D's for their Dhuwa moiety) and Laklak's daughter Djawundil (the big Y for Yirritja at the top) who have gathered to produce this book with non-Indigenous academics Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Kate Lloyd.

In fact, they originally gathered to develop a tourism venture, but realised they had a duty to go deeper, coming from the mob that had painted the Church Panels to show Christians that they had a powerful religion too, and went on to the Bark Petition to Parliament in Canberra to say it was their land and couldn't just be handed over to a mining company by distant bureaucrats. Unfortunately, that took a long time to sink in; but painting the stories of their Gulf of Carpentaria coastline more recently has succeeded in persuading courts that they should have sea rights as well as land rights.

Next step, the sky. For Songspirals – their preferred word for Songlines – extend equally from the land to the Sea to the Sky. All are Country, with identifiable geographies, and stories. The Sky essentially explains how the stars, weather and winds affect life on the ground. And, as the NMA's 'Songlines' book amplifies, the seasonal movements of that black hole in the sky identified across First Nations Australia as the Dark Emu, can tell the Kamilaroi much about weather, plant development and animal activity.

But, back in the world of never-ending spirals, the women mix their uniquely female keening Milkarri songs with family matters, starting with their mother Gaymala – eldest daughter of the legendary Mungurrawuy Yunupingu and therefore the recipient of “deep knowledge” from him – and her links to all the songs and stories about Wuymirri the whale. Grand-daughter Magnolia (Maminydjama) is a stunning model – and therefore the clan's Guwak, or koel, a messenger carrying Songspirals to the world. Sister Laklak is linked to Wititj, the Dhuwa Rainbow Serpent (who, of course, lies down in a spiral) because her mother encountered a big snake at a waterhole just before her birth. She is the keeper of the stories, but suffered a brain tumour and lost all her English. Despite which, she went on to a Macquarie University doctorate and the tribal award of a sacred digging stick – significant because it, like the dilly bag, came from the Djan'kawu Sisters. But it was stolen by men along with the matriarchal authority of Yolngu women! Now it was being returned.

So the book is described as “a corrective to things written by men and non-Indigenous people”!

Not that Laklak's English language is of much use when translating the Milkarri from her Gumatj dialect of Yolngu Matha – for “English is like talking backwards”, one sister declares; “it's so specific”, while Yolngu words all have many meanings and only an adept can fully appreciate the context in which they are intended. Despite which, we whitefellars reading the translations of five Milkarri in the book actually become part of the Songspiral. Aboriginal inclusiveness is so generous.

And these traditional ladies – all of whom have had significant careers – are inclusive enough to hand their Milkarri on to future generations as pop songs. Their grandsons' band, East Journey has taken up the baton with a Guwak/koel song (also the title of their 2012 debut album) that includes lines like, “With this guidance, I'm going back to the River of Stars, to my spiritual land” - not exactly Tame Impala!

Apart from tripping over the missing spirals of their 'Songlines', the Neale/Kelly book contains much of interest, with an over-arching philosophy that learning about these songs is learning about Australia – for all Aussies. They emphasise the significance of orality – much preferred to non-literate, a term which sounds like a downput for a society which can tell stories that are 37,000 years old. For that's what a description of the eruption of Budj Bim (Mt Eccles in Victoria) could well be. And they say that it's the training in mnemonics that achieves this miraculous feat, not any difference in intelligence.

The words archive and archivist become important – though the difference between Whitefellars' objectivity and First Nations subjectivity is stressed. For Aboriginal archivists, who may also be artists, “doesn't just guard the archive: they interpret and add to it, engaging creatively with it to keep it alive, or to keep its knowledge relevant and active in the present”. With a site, the archivist “activates the knowledge embedded in it by carrying part of that knowledge to that site and carrying away an enhanced experience of that knowledge. A mutual knowledge transfer occurs between place, person and history”.

And it's essential in the interpretation of this story on canvas or bark that abstraction is employed, offering the same multiplicity of meanings that the language does.

Comparisons are then made with other Indigenous peoples – from the Zuni of America describing a route by the shrines encountered along it, to the Trobriand Islanders capable of passing on instructions to build a canoe in song.

'Songlines' from Thames & Hudson is actually the debut volume of a 'First Knowledge Series' from the National Museum. A future volume intrigues, bringing Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe together to discuss 'Country'. 'Songlines' retails at $20.

'Songspirals' is a little older and was short-listed for both the NT Chief Minister's and the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards last year. Coming from Allen & Unwin, it's worth every cent of $35.

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The Dilly Bag women - L to R - Merrikiyawuy, Sarah, Laklak, Banbapuy, Ritjililk, Kate, Djawundil and Sandie


The Martu collaborative painting, 'Yarrkalpa/Hunting Ground' (2013) which forms the inside covers of 'Songlines', both instructing young Rangers about hunting on Country and picturing the 'Seven Sisters Songline'


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