Genestreams Songlines Sculptures background briefing & working with communities

Note: Films featuring people mentioned in this story may be viewed at the end of this webpage.


In the early 1990s, Nyoongar Man, Dr Noel Nannup began the process of creating a map of the ‘Traditional Aboriginal Songlines of Australia’ with particular focus on the south-west.  In the process, he met and gave a copy of his map to Carol Pettersen, a family kinship.

Noel Nannup’s map of the songlines of the south West

In 2006 Ben Beeton began a series of artist residency projects to focus on the ecology, geology and deep time history of Australia’s natural systems. In 2016 he commenced a project titled ‘Following the Leeuwin Current’ through which Ben intended to follow the Leeuwin current from the Kimberly along the coast to Tasmania via a sequence of connected artist residency projects.

While in the Great Southern, he visited the ‘Valley of Giants’ where he met Gary Muir of Wow Wilderness Tours who shared Ben’s passion for constructing evolutionary trees. Together they constructed an evolutionary tree of species at the Valley of Giants.

Later when visiting Albany, Ben met Keith Bradby, CEO of Gondwana Link.

Keith recommended that Ben talk with Professor Steve Hopper, on the origins of plant diversity in the south-west, and to Carol Pettersen about Noongar perspectives. Steve took Ben on country for a day and impressed upon him the depth of time that plants had been evolving in the south-west.

When Ben met Carol, she had with her Dr Noel Nannup’s map of the Songlines of the south-west. Carol was also passionate about her vision of a public artwork of some form that would mark out the Songlines and promote ‘Caring for Country’. She imagined it would become a tourist trail across Australia.

Ben decided after his experience with Gondwana Link and understanding more about the decline of so many species, that he had to put the Leeuwin Current project on hold. Instead he focused on developing a digital interactive visualisation of the Tree of Life, which would function as a learning and teaching tool that he called Genestreams. In 2018 Ben began developing Genestreams in Virtual Reality at the Australian National University.

From 2017 through to 2019 Ben created many concept designs for Carol Pettersen’s vision of a public artwork that would mark out the Songlines and promote ‘Caring for Country’. None of them managed to capture all of the requirements until a break through occurred in 2020 when one of the new Genestreams designs worked extremely well for Carol Pettersen’s vision. The functionality of the design in order to be constructed as a public artwork was refined by Mark Hewson of Torbay Glass Studios.

Thus, the Genestreams Songlines Sculpture project came into being, and Gondwana Link secured funding for the first Genestreams Songlines Sculpture which was installed at Twin Creeks in south-western Australia.

Later Carol showed the completed sculpture to Dr Noel Nannup who immediately saw how it could link into his Songline mappings. Ben and Noel later met in Perth where Noel introduced Ben to the Danjoo Koorliny team, co-ordinators of the Social Impact Project and Festival. At the University of Western Australia Ben filmed Noel talking about how he created the map of the Songlines of the southwest and giving support for the Genestreams Songlines Sculptures project.

Dr Noel Nannup, Professor Steve Hopper and Carol Pettersen are now WA Ambassadors for the project.

The second Genestreams Songlines Sculpture is being installed at the Bunya Mountains in Queensland in January 2022. There is a lot of interest in the Genestreams Songlines Sculptures concept expressed from many other regions around the Australia.

How the Genestreams Songlines Sculpture Unfolds in Communities.

The Genestreams Songlines Sculpture is comprised of two sculptures that operate as one.

Just as a coin has two sides to it so too does this sculpture. The outside of the sculpture features the work of indigenous artists of the region – this is the Songlines Sculpture.

The inside of the sculpture is an evolutionary tree of selected regional species, the art speaks of the ecology, geology and deep time history of the region – this is a Genestreams Sculpture.

The selection of species and the creation of the art which takes the form of a Genestreams Songlines Mural comes first. Installing the Genestreams Songlines Sculpture on site is the final stage in the process.

A Genestreams Songlines Mural created from separate strips of canvas which the artists work on separately is being created at Mount Magnet leading up to the Astro Rocks Festival. Denmark in WA is another community that is developing a Genestreams Songlines Mural. The strips of canvas are then connected to form the mural. (concept image below)

Concept image for a Genestreams Songlines Mural

Songlines Sculpture – Carol Pettersen oversaw the creation of the Songlines Sculpture art at Twin Creeks for the external presentation in the Songlines Sculpture which features 15 artworks from local indigenous artists. In other locations the local project managers will oversee the creation of the Songlines Sculpture art. Carol will offer advice on the process of cultural sensitivity from her experience in ensuring cultural integrity.

Genestreams Sculpture – The internal presentation of a Genestreams Sculpture is based on Ben’s methodology of creating digital artwork featuring drawings, photographs, maps and diagrams on the ecology, geology and deep time history of local natural systems. Ben has developed this style through many artist residency projects across Australia.

Through this process Ben works with his long term collaborator scientific illustrator Mali Moir in the development of the work, aiming to capture the macrocosms and microcosms of natural systems in space and time.

Community involvement is very important and Ben seeks input from local community artists, who may submit digital images of their artwork about the natural environments of their region for consideration for inclusion in the final Genestreams Sculpture artwork.

Ben works with Gary Muir on the development of the base plate of the sculpture in the form of a phylogenetic tree of 15 species which is focused on iconic regional species and threatened species, it also includes the humans.

The entrance to the sculpture at the first sculpture at Twin Creeks represented the humans. Future sculptures will tell the story of the origins of the Earth on the entrance walkway. Ben works with Ben Price, Gary Muir and consulting geologists in the development of this presentation.

A website is being developed which will give each contributing community their own page to share their stories about the region through their Genestreams Songlines Sculpture. Ben seeks to make short films with local conservationists and elders about caring for country to feature on the communities webpage. We hope that the Genestreams Songlines Sculptures will become a place of learning and teaching that schools and people from around the planet will visit and gain insights into culture and environment.

The Genestreams Songlines Sculptures team enthusiastically looks forward to connecting and working with communities in the development of further sculptures to mark out songlines and promote caring for country. We hope that, as Aunty Carol envisaged, the Genestreams Songlines Sculptures will become a tourist trail across Australia that celebrates cultural and ecological connectivity to the land.

Mount Magnet Genestreams Songlines Mural & Artwork Details

Genestreams Songlines Artwork for Mount Magnet

Leading up to the Astro Rocks Festival our purpose was to create a cross cultural Genestreams Songlines artwork for Mount Magnet that would tell multiple stories about the perspectives of the traditional owners, the ecology, geology and deep time history of the region. It is our goal that the artwork will be featured in a Genestreams Songlines Sculpture for Mount Magnet. We hope to be opening the Mount Magnet Genestreams Songlines Sculpture at the Astro Rocks Festival in 2022. This webpage provides information on some of the contributing perspectives that informed the work.

Elders Vince Jones and Carol Pettersen with the artwork for the proposed Mount Magnet Genestreams Songlines Sculpture