Gallery of past work

Monday, 11 January 2016

Bruce Chatwyn, Songlines and marks on the carpet

In an effort to find out as much as I can about Aboriginal culture since I returned home from Australia at the end of last year, among other things, I'm currently reading Songlines by Bruce Chatwyn. Recommended to me by a friend, this book is a fascinating account of Chatwyn's travels across the country and his search to investigate the mysteries of Aboriginal belief systems and way of life.

Reading this book has reinforced what I had suspected. Although traditional Aboriginal life  has existed largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years and may appear to us amazingly simple and primitive, their cultural and spiritual life is complex, vivid and above all extremely private.

The Songlines of the title are the ancient and invisible pathways that cross Australia in all directions and connect Aboriginal communities. They lie over the land as 'ways' of communication between far flung tribes.

The songs were passed along the lines to 'reveal the creation of the land and the secrets of the past' and often went unrecorded visually unless they were drawn very simply in the sand by mothers explaining them to their children. The iconography representing them is deceptively simple in form. Circles of many kinds, dots, dashes, lines and horseshoe shapes predominate.

I suspect that the idea that the representation of Songlines or (Dreaming tracks) should be regarded as art is a purely Western concept, but I find the work fascinating in its beguiling preoccupation with symbolic marks. Like the life the marks represent, it is on the surface simple but at root extraordinarily complex. 

Interestingly, there was a wonderful, specially woven carpet in the arrivals lounge at Alice Springs Airport that features all these symbols. I spent some time enjoying it as we waited for transport to our hotel, that day late in arriving. The shapes, colours and sense of movement captivated me and have stayed with me since I returned home. 

At the time, knowing something of what it might represent, it seemed particularly appropriate to me that this work of textile art should be found on the floor of an airport - that embodiment of travel and communication in the modern world. Definitely a case of the new and modern meeting the ancient and it seemed bright, beautiful and perhaps even optimistic. But now I have read some of Bruce Chatwyn's book, I realise that things are not so simple. To the Aboriginal, there is hardly a mountain, cave or river creek that has not been sung. Everywhere is a sacred site. 

We in the Western world tread hard and heavy on the land. I can only hope that the building of the airport and the coming of visitors has not obliterated too many songs.


  1. Aboriginal art and culture, what little I know about it is fascinating, we were lucky enough many years ago to see an exhibition of Aboriginal artifacts and paintings in Melbourne.
    Reading your post reminded me of the ley lines across our own country I might have to do a project on this someday.

    1. Seeing the Aboriginal art and culture was definitely the most fascinating aspect of our trip. We were lucky to visit several sites and a cultural centre while we were in Australia.
      And yes - the ley lines - maybe not such a far stretch and an interesting focus for work. I will watch and see if anything comes of your thoughts.

  2. We just visited a friend in Brisbane recently who promises to take me to see aboriginal places and arts if I return. I hope I can do so
    (Coming over here from Marja-Leena's blog).

    1. Sorry it's taken me rather a long time to reply and to welcome you from Marja-Leena's blog.
      I do hope you manage to see Aboriginal places - the experience has fired me with thoughts and ideas. It's a fascinating and inspiring subject.


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