Discover the Songlines

Artists must learn the proper way to represent their clan designs and patterns by learning the songlines, ceremonies and dances that accompany them and, most of all, by respecting those who hold leadership and authority over the patterns and designs. The art does not stand by itself.


Yolŋu paintings often refer to the Waŋarr, or the “the time of the first morning,” when powerful ancestral beings shaped the earth, established law and ceremony, and birthed the Yolŋu people. Their actions imprinted patterns on the land itself. Somewhat like the concept of the Christian Trinity, ancestral beings, Country and Yolŋu people today are inseparable and share the same substance.

Ancestral beings traveled over vast areas of Country. These travels connect Yolŋu from different places spiritually, geographically and politically. Each stop on the ancestral beings’ journey is one chapter in an epic poem that criss-crosses and connects the entire continent of Australia. This is why Yolŋu refer to these narratives as “songlines.”

Yolŋu bark paintings are saturated with these ancestral narratives and layers of spiritual knowledge. Elements of these narratives are ceremonially restricted and only known to specific Yolŋu people. The narratives as described on this site are the public versions, which can vary somewhat from clan to clan.

Explore the songlines as told by the Yolŋu curators and collaborators who worked on this project, and how they are represented in paintings.

The Clans All Artworks