The first large special exhibition in the Humboldt Forum was dedicated to ivory and thus to the slave economy in Africa. Basically, it could have been about colonial history as a whole – and the history of the collections of the Ethnological Museum. The opportunity wasn’t really used, and when “Songlines”, a takeover from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, now opens behind the castle walls, then curiosity is accompanied by a little surprise.
The Humboldt brothers have next to nothing to do with Australia, and unlike the South Seas, the continent is rarely represented in the Berlin collections. Australia and Germany are celebrating the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year: so a cultural exchange among friends?
The Humboldt Forum – further collection rooms will open in September – sees itself as a learning institution. And as is immediately apparent: it is good to learn from the Australians. The traveling exhibition marks a paradigm shift. Conceived by representatives of indigenous communities, it contains “lessons critical to movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo and other environmental and climate movements,” says Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the Museum of Canberra, the Australian capital. A lot can be adopted for other worlds.
“Songlines” has already been shown in the British port city of Plymouth, from where James Cook, the “discoverer” of Australia, once sailed, and it will go to the Musée du quai Branly next year. In Paris in 2013 there was a major show by the artist community from Papunya, which was created in the early 1970s in the desert of central Australia.
However, the “Songlines” (with the German subtitle “Seven Sisters Create Australia”) are different. They follow inner needs. Aboriginal stories are in danger of disappearing. Young people are losing touch with a tradition that goes back more than 65,000 years. No active culture is that old. And so, ten years ago, a long journey of many thousands of kilometers began, with artists and museum people, a caravan on the trail of eternal narratives.
The “Seven Sisters” is a central myth, to use the European word, a fundamental narrative, they also call it “law” in Australia, “Tjukurrpa Kungkarrankalpa” in the original language. The seven women cross the deserts of Australia, vast spaces, on the run from the male pursuer and tormentor Wati Nyiru. He is able to assume forms of nature, to transform himself into a rock, a tree, a fruit, into animals – this is reminiscent of the eternally horny god Zeus, sometimes swan, sometimes bull. “Songlines” are the country, the art, the past and the future all rolled into one.
The first impression of the exhibition, which invites you to linger and wander around, is overwhelming. 300 objects, mostly large-format paintings: “Yarrkalpa (Hunting Ground)” measures three by five meters, created in 2013 as a collective work by eight women from the Martumili Artists. Sandy areas, waterholes, fire spots, a huge area is shown, a topography of the country and the people. A video shows the work at the work on the spot outside, the singing, the incorporation of the patterns and the colors.
Thirty years ago, the North Rhine-Westphalia Art Collection in Düsseldorf presented the first serious exhibition of Aboriginal Art in this country. The painting seems abstract to us, reminiscent of the pointillists. But the circles, the patterns, the lines, all the forms – occasionally a human or animal figure appears in them – have a concrete meaning, describe an event from the existence of the “Seven Sisters”, report on the adventurous actions of the pursuer, who is can only be shaken off for a moment.
The exhibition room sounds polyphonic. Life-size hosts greet you on video screens, and murals are projected into a dome tent. “Songlines” works with plenty of multimedia, which perhaps corresponds to the old idea that these paths are walked, painted, told.
It’s perfectly fine to enjoy the aesthetics of the painting, even if Margo Neale writes in the very good catalog that the very idea of the songlines is completely foreign to western thinking. Even indigenous words were not enough to capture this “law of dreaming”, which “provides a structure for the conduct of life, but also functions as a knowledge system”. But obviously also in art objects, as materialized here in ceramics.
Bruce Chatwin once aroused great interest in Australia and its First People with Dream Paths (1987). But the successful novel – not a non-fiction book – also promoted many misunderstandings and clichés. The songlines sought by the nomadic British writer are preserved by custodians and conveyed in ceremonies. This exhibition, which is under the supervision of digital community elders, sees itself not only at the entrance. You feel well guided and protected, and that is necessary.
Because the stories of the “Seven Sisters” are full of horrors and dangers. Like almost all creation stories and grand myths, they contain the element of male violence. Rarely is this expressed as clearly as in these desert tales, whose survival is no longer a matter of course.