Songlines: The NMA Exhibition & Classic Bruce Chatwin Book

The Songlines

  12+   Over many years and many moves, I've cultivated and culled my book collection so I now have a manageable library: books I haven't got around to reading and those I plan to read again ... one day! Somewhere along the way, I misplaced a favourite from the 1980s, a book I had always looked forward to re-reading, The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. A visit to the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) was a perfect opportunity to learn more about the importance of Songlines in Indigenous culture and to replace my copy of Chatwin's classic book.

I first read The Songlines in the late 1980s. I was an Australian living in England, viewing my country's Bicentennial Celebrations from afar. But while I had set off from Australia as a "proud Aussie" backpacker, the debate and documentaries on the treatment of Indigenous people triggered by the celebration of "200 years of colonisation" left me feeling uncomfortable. It also made me want to know more. And so I read Chatwin's The Songlines and books by other non-Indigenous writers, like Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, and Indigenous writers, like My Place by Sally Morgan and When the Pelican Laughed by Alice Nannup.

It may seem strange that it was Bruce Chatwin, an English writer, who introduced me to a foundation of Indigenous Australian culture, Songlines. But when I was in school in the 1970s very little was taught about Indigenous people, or "Aboriginals". We learnt they had been in Australia for 20,000 years (now revised to over 60,000 years!) and were nomadic. When they weren't on "Walkabout", Aboriginals sat under trees in parks and drank a lot. A few became famous footballers. None were ever our neighbours.  

Reading parts of Chatwin's The Songlines recalls the commonplace racism of the time. Descriptions of Indigenous people as "Blacks", "Abos", "Boongs" and "Coons", and the women as "Gins". And the reaction to "Land Rights people" who supported Indigenous claims over their traditional lands: "You're standing in the way of progress. You're helping [Aboriginals] destroy white Australia."

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However, the focus and beauty of Chatwin's book (and what's seared into my memory) is his search for a definition of Songlines for Indigenous people. He learns they are more than "maps". They are Dreaming-tracks, means of bringing the Dreaming into existence, sacred and ceremonial sites, title deeds to traditional lands, trade routes and ways of communication. Songlines can stretch vast distances and language barriers. "A Dreaming-track might start in the north-west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea [in the south] near Adelaide."  

The Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the NMA (15 September 2017 to 25 February 2018) is an Indigenous-led exhibition about a founding Dreamtime narrative, the Seven Sisters Dreaming. It uses Indigenous ways of passing on knowledge through traditional artwork and modern multimedia, including videos, overhead projections and VR (virtual reality) screenings. There's also a shop in the art centre hub, where you can buy paintings, baskets, sculptures and merchandise "sourced from directly from the art centres involved in the exhibition." And a Penguin Vintage Classics edition of Chatwin's The Songlines!

© 2017 Robert Fairhead 

Robert Fairhead

A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website,

His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.

Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.

His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.

Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.