Date: January 21, 2010

Title: Ilgarijiri: Aboriginal Art Meets Modern Astronomy


Podcaster: Megan Argo

Organization: ICRAR ( and Yamaji Art

Description: Ilgarijiri means “things belonging to the sky” in the Wajarri Yamatji language of the Murchison region of Western Australia, the location of the Murchison Radioastronomy Observatory and a potential location for the Square Kilometre Array. The Ilgarijiri project brought together indigenous artists (from the Y Art cooperative in Geraldton) and radio astronomers (from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth) in an exchange of perspectives about the night sky. This episode of 365Days describes the project and includes some audio from an evening spent sharing stories of the sky around the campfire in outback WA.

Bio: Megan Argo is an astronomer at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2010, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


Ilgarijiri means “things belonging to the sky” in the Wajarri Yamatji language of the Murchison region of Western Australia, the location of the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory and a potential location for the Square Kilometre Array. The Ilgarijiri project brought together indigenous artists from the Y-Art cooperative in Geraldton and radio astronomers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth in an exchange of perspectives about the night sky.

For most of us, the constant glow of light pollution blocks out many of the fainter stars in the night sky. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to travel to somewhere remote, far away from the ubiquitous lights of urban centres, you may have been surprised by just how much there is in the night sky that is normally invisible.

In the same way that optical telescopes need to be located far from cities in order to minimise the problems of light pollution, radio telescopes are also best located far from population centres to reduce interference from man-made radio transmissions. Television and radio signals, mobile phone networks, wireless communications – all of these technologies are a part of the modern world, but can completely swamp the extremely weak radio signals coming from astronomical objects.

Because of this, the next major radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, needs to be built in one of the most radio quiet places on the planet. On the shortlist are two such locations: the Karoo site, located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa, and the Murchison region of outback Western Australia. Both areas have low population densities, so have little in the way of radio transmissions, but this also means they have very little in the way of light pollution.

The Ilgarijiri project was created to bring together Indigenous Australian artists from the Murchison, and radio astronomers working on the Square Kilometre Array, to exchange perspectives and interpretations of the night sky that we all share, as part of the International Year of Astronomy.

In March 2009, three astronomers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Perth travelled to Boolardy station, deep in the heart of the Murchison, to meet up with a group of artists from the Yamaji Arts collaboration based in Geraldton. During the day, the group toured the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory where the Murchison Widefield Array is currently under construction, before returning to Boolardy station for an evening of observing using both telescopes and the naked eye.

While the 88 constellations familiar to most astronomers are constructed by joining the dots between the brighter stars in the sky, not all cultures view the sky in the same way. The Indigenous people of Australia comprise many different groups, each with their own traditions and beliefs about both the land and the sky. They inhabited the land for many thousands of years before artificial light was invented and stories of the sky form an important part of their culture. The changing view of the stars matches the changing environment, marking the seasons and the availability of different food sources.

One of the most striking patterns the Yamaji artists showed us was the Emu, an enormous bird which stretches from the Southern Cross down the thick band of the Milky Way.

Despite being recorded on Boolardy station, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town, there is still some background noise in the following clips due to a generator that was running not very far away.

“When we were little and our mother used to tell me when you see the Emu in the sky, you don’t see the whole lot first. Early in the year you just see his head, and the head is where the Southern Cross, and the little star is the eye of the Emu. And then as the months go by the Emu gets bigger and bigger and when you see the whole Emu in its line that’s telling us when the emu’s laying eggs and sitting on the nest.”

“When the emu in the sky sort of turns around and is all the way across?”

“When the first rains come, so we get the weather included with the stars.”
[end audio clip 1]

But, rather than being made up from the stars themselves, the Emu is only visible in the dust lanes. Its head is a dark dust cloud near the Southern Cross, its neck passes down between the Pointers and its body stretches out across the sky, taking in a huge section of the Milky Way.

“Lot of non-Indigenous people, they can’t see it. So we told our friend from Radio MAMA, we said, just look for something that’s not there! (laughter) It’s not meant to be up there, have a look, you might see it. So he went out camping and he told his non-Indigenous friends ‘just look up and have a look’ and they couldn’t find it, they said nope there’s nothing there.”

“Well it’s a different way of looking at the Milky Way. Instead of looking for the stars and the patterns in the stars, you’re looking for a pattern in the spaces between the stars which is really, really different, isn’t it? Different way of looking at the same thing.”

“So you’re not looking at the stars you’re looking at a blank.”

“It’s easy to show our kids, they find it straight away.”

“You need a really dark sky to see it properly, so from Perth or probably from Geraldton, probably really hard to see because the sky is really bright.”

“And I guess we teach them that we only see it that certain month, when its time to go out hunting. So they see it then, so they look up there any other time, November or December, they wouldn’t see it.
[end audio clip 2]

As well as learning some of the Yamaji patterns in the sky, Professor Steven Tingay pointed out some of the western constellations.

“What is Steve looking at now?”

“So this is the hunter that we talk about.”

“We always look at the stars and not the black spaces in between.”

“Yeah, that’s right, opposite.”

“I think the spear you were talking about is this one? Is that right?

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“So the hunter that we talk about is this guy. These are his shoulders, and that’s his head, and this is his belt and he has a sword hanging off his belt and these are his feet. So you sort of have to look a little bit upside down. So that’s the hunter that we know as Orion. And Orion has a dog. And that’s the eye of the dog, and his front leg, and then his back legs…”

“Oh yeah I can see that now you’ve pointed it out! First time I’ve ever seen that!”

“Can you do that again?!”

“So that’s the eye of the dog, and that’s the brightest star in the sky, called Sirius, and this is his front leg, and his back, and then his two back legs.”

“Oh yeah, I can see him now.”

“It’s pretty cool.”
[end audio clip 3]

Following an evening of stargazing and exchanging stories around the campfire at Boolardy station under the clearest and darkest skies most of us had ever seen, the artists began sketching out ideas inspired both by the telescopic and unaided views of the sky. The result was a collection of more than eighty unique pieces of Indigenous art exploring the theme of things belonging to the sky, and the strong connections with the landscape, which has subsequently toured Australia throughout 2009.

Thanks go to all the artists and astronomers who participated in the project, and to the Halleens for their hospitality at Boolardy station.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, you can visit the Ilgarijiri blog at

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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