Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Navigating the Indigenous World

‘Zugubal’ 2006. Travellers paddle a gul (canoe), which is a key symbol of connectivity in Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) cosmology, navigating all the cycles of land, sea, sky and spiritual life. ANMM Collection 00054665. Reproduced courtesy Alick Tipoti and Australian Art Network.

Donna Carstens, Indigenous Curator, Songlines: The art of navigating the Indigenous world, Australian National Maritime Museum, 31 May 2016

For thousands upon thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have navigated their way across the lands and seas of Australia using paths called songlines or dreaming tracks. A songline is based around the creator beings and their formation of the lands and waters during the Dreaming (creation of earth). It explains the landmarks, rock formations, watering holes, rivers, trees, sky and seas.

Clan groups can, for example, demonstrate their infinite knowledge of place in the songs and dances passed down from generation to generation, in turn creating dreaming tracks for their area.

Songlines will often follow on from one another, creating an intricate oral map of place. Earth and water songlines are mirrored by sky songlines, allowing people to travel vast distances and highlighting the deep connection they have to earth and sea. Songlines are central to the existence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and are imperative to the preservation of the world’s oldest living culture and its practices.

Contemporary Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait) artists such as Alick Tipoti and the late Billy Missi have used their art practice of lino print and 3D sculpture to express traditional navigation songlines and techniques to a wider audience. Some of their beautiful works can be found at the beginning of the museum’s new exhibition Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude and in our NAIDOC week exhibition Munuk Zugubal – Saltwater Songlines.

Missi’s linocut work Kulba Yadail (Old Lyrics) relates how Torres Strait Islanders learn to read the stars, moon and the sea to understand the four seasons of the Zenadh Kes and shows the significance of star constellations and seasons in orientating everyday life in Zenadh Kes. The work is divided into three parts: the constellation of the stars, the land and the four seasons of the Zenadh Kes, all of which link together. There are important Zugubal (star constellations) that move through the sky and are intimately connected to the four seasons. One of the most important Zugubal is the Baydham (Shark), which is closely observed in the Western Torres Strait as a signal for changes in the tides, winds and seasons. The four seasons are represented as Sager (south-east trade winds) Gabu Thornar (winter), Naigai (the calm northerly wind before monsoon) and Kuki (the monsoon).

Missi explains, ‘Kulba Yadail teaches us to read the stars, the moon and the sea. Kulba Yadail describes our environment, our culture and also our identity. In our culture, the stories and other knowledge of our world have always been handed down orally from generation to generation since time immemorial. It is this knowledge that provides guidance. From the boys’ perspective, it is their uncles, fathers and sometimes grandfathers who teach them this knowledge. The relationship between the stars and the seasons determines when we can cultivate, hunt and harvest the food from the sea and land.’

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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