Indigenous Australian art bridges ancient and modern worlds in Paris exhibition

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Australia  Gabrielle Sullivan, Martumili Artists  National Museum of Australia
JUN 10, 2023 LISTEN
© Gabrielle Sullivan, Martumili Artists / National Museum of Australia

Indigenous communities around the world are faced with the challenge of preserving and transferring ancestral knowledge. A new exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris is an example of how indigenous Australian elders are finding innovative ways to protect the bridge between ancient and modern worlds.

Dalisa Pigram, a dancer and co-artistic director of the contemporary Australian dance company Marrugeku, has been invited to present a series of recitals as part of the "Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters" exhibition.

Her piece "Gudirr Gudirr" takes its name from the warning cry of the guwayi shorebird from Western Australia.

"Watch out," it cries. "The tide is coming in, you might drown!" It could be interpreted as a universal alarm bell for society in general, but in particular for young indigenous people.

Pigram, who belongs to the Yawuru/Bardi people of Western Australia, created "Gudirr Gudirr" with the Belgian choreographer Koen Augustijnen ten years ago. It was a way to address the past and the present with all their contradictions, pain, anger, frustration and joy.

Using dance, video, music and text, Pigram explores the fallout of colonialism and the trauma of younger generations, lost between cultures. She broaches the topic of young people fighting each other for kicks, and the record high child suicides in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Even after several world tours, the urgency of the message has not changed.

The movements are robotic, hypnotic, blending martial arts with aerial acrobatics. The music is modern, punchy rock, sometimes with lyrics in Pigram's native tongue.

She whirls around the stage using a fishing net suspended from the ceiling. It is an important symbol, representing both friend and foe. While it is a tool for survival to find food, it is also a trap.

"Dalisa told me a lot of stories," Augustijnen told RFI, referring to their chance encounter many years ago. "Then she asked me to give her some 'tasks' or themes to prepare for the dance. This was new way of working for me."

The cross-cultural partnership has enriched both their experiences on and off the stage, with Augustijnen hailing the recital's ability to recount important historical events from a physical perspective.

"Our truth-telling hasn't begun yet, telling both sides of the historical story," Pigram told RFI after her performance on Thursday, adding she was thrilled to be part of the "Songlines" exhibition.

"The youth are still struggling with their place in the world and their connection to culture, their connection to who they are. Also the country is at risk every single day with the different policies, mining and loss of language, loss of elders and all of that. In the last ten years, nothing has changed," she laments.

Decolonising minds

Born in the pearl industry town of Broome, Pigram recognises the wealth of her own mixed Asian and indigenous cultural heritage, and her attachment to the stories and traditions passed down from her elders.

"I can see people [in the audience] processing it. They ask me, 'how did you manage to say all those hard things in a dance?' They are surprised that dance and theatre has the ability to address complex issues."

She says her piece poses questions: "How can we decolonise indigenous minds? Can the past hold keys to the future? And who will pass on that knowledge?"

This question of transfer is raised in the rest of the "Songlines" exhibition.

Passed down through the generations for thousands of years, these oral guidelines continue to provide a spiritual and practical map for the people of today.

They explain moral principles, rules of society, how to care for nature, and essential knowledge for survival in the desert.

The Quai Branly exhibition introduces one of the major pillars of the First Australians' creation legends, known as the Seven Sisters songline.

An evil sorcerer is threatening the lives of seven sisters, who flee into the desert. Pursued relentlessly through what may seem an inhospitable environment, the women learn to survive thanks to their knowledge of the terrain and of nature, guided by the songlines. 

Their story, presented visually, takes place across three of the continent's vast central and western deserts and provides the backbone of the exhibition.

Fragmented knowledge

The museum has gone to great lengths to present a fully immersive experience with nearly 200 works, including 20 multimedia pieces, on display in partnership with the National Museum of Australia.

Curator Margo Neale says that the process of gathering material began in 2010, with the close collaboration with a group of elders from the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in central Australia and the Ngaanyatjarra and Martu in the West.

They expressed concern that many of their descendants no longer have a meaningful connection to their ancestral lands, nor do they have access to the language. The project provided a vehicle to preserve this fragmented knowledge before it was too late.

Recognising the fact that the digital age has changed the way people consume culture and knowledge, there has been a push to make the presentation as interactive as possible.

By following the lines on the ground of the gallery, visitors can listen to the songs and testimonies of the Aboriginal artists and elders as if they were standing there in person. The videos are part of what Neale calls "a living library", assuring that the elders' knowledge does not die out with them.

"They said to themselves that they too had to record their knowledge in digital form if they wanted to maintain a link with the younger generations," she writes in the exhibition notes.

'Everything is alive'

The landscape is described in extraordinary colourful dots, lines, shapes and patterns, all holding their own significance. Each artist has the responsibility to recount the legend, leaning on the ancestral knowledge passed down to them.

"For Aboriginal peoples," Neale explains, "country is a multidimensional concept that includes everything. There is no distinction between animate and inanimate worlds.

"Everything is alive, everything has its place: people, animals, plants, earth, water and air."

"Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters" is at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris until 2 July