Songlines: the living narrative of our nation

Songlines by Cassie Willis

Songlines by Cassie Willis

To celebrate NAIDOC Week 2016, Arts NSW commissioned Aboriginal designer, Cassie Willis to design the feature artwork for the Songlines themed eNews. Cassie describes the creative process for the commission below. 

I am fascinated by Songlines that are so significant to our culture – the criss-crossing paths on the landscape that mark the route and sacred places created by Ancestral Beings during the Dreaming.


Songlines are also an oral ‘road map’ deeply connected to the landscape as a memory tool, or mnemonic device, to encode and recall important information. In other words, songs are sung about markers in the landscape to encode information about place, how to navigate, understand ecology, plants, animals, secure food and water, remember important details and stories, strengthen social connection and connection to country, reinforce identity, wellbeing.

Especially, when combined with the dynamism and ritual power of dance, ceremony, mythology – Songlines order and embed knowledge about the world and self. Yet their source of wonder and complexity certainly does not end there as my understanding continues to develop.

Also, it is important to note that Songlines mean different things to different people and groups.


For instance, while doing this project I have also been reading Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s wonderful essay in the current issue of The Monthly where he describes the deeply personal nature of song cycles and songlines for Yolngu people. He says ‘our song cycles have the greatest importance in the lives of my people. They guide and inform our lives. A song cycle tells a person’s life: it relates to the past, to the present and to the future. Yolngu balance our lives through the song cycles that are laid out on the ceremony grounds. These are the universities of our people, where we hone and perfect our knowledge’.

Design Process

With the design process, I definitely wanted to try and honour the process of Indigenous knowledge and so I had a couple of yarns in consultation with people as well as reading up, watching and listening to stories via film and radio. Then while I drew I also listened to Bill Yidumduma Harney, senior elder, master storyteller, artist and songman of the Wardaman people, sing songlines from his homelands near Katherine in the Northern Territory, and that was really powerful. Basically, the final design came about while listening to Bill sing.

This project has really demonstrated how it’s the process of making, and connecting with others to share stories within that process, that keeps culture alive.

The end result is healing and transformative personal power that comes from learning and participating in culture, and that speaks directly to how Songlines help to strengthen social connection, connection to country, reinforce identity and wellbeing.

This has been a really special and unique project, thank you Arts NSW!

To find out more about emerging Aboriginal designer, Cassie Willis, please click here

To find out more about NAIDOC 2016 events taking place across NSW, please visit the Arts NSW eNews section.

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Published: 4 July 2016