Every year, the Art Gallery of NSW (Australia) features the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Alongside this exhibition are the Wynne Prize for Australian landscapes, and the Sulman Prize for … everything else.
While the Archibald tends to get most of the attention, the Wynne finalists are pretty impressive, and this year’s winner was worth a special mention. The acrylic painting is a collaborative work by five sisters from the Ken family, who live in a remote Aboriginal community in South Australia. The Seven Sisters depicts a Dreaming story** of seven young sisters escaping the advances of a man from ‘another skin group’. They eventually land in the heavens as a small bright group of stars; the man follows them into the sky, forever in pursuit but never able to catch them. The songline for the story extends from south/central Australia all the way to the west coast, and so comes in several variations and languages.
**Aboriginal works such as this are an expression of identity – through representations of country and traditional stories – so sometimes I wonder why they wouldn’t be classed as portraits. But I digress.
The group of stars that the seven sisters become is known to many as the Pleiades, an open star cluster that lies 400 light years away within the constellation of Taurus the Bull. It actually contains not seven, but over 3000 stars, and can be seen from both the Southern and Northern hemispheres. Blue reflection nebulae surround some of the stars; these are the result of carbon dust grains reflecting blue light from the stars themselves. The man in pursuit is sometimes thought to be Orion the Hunter, or just one of the stars in said constellation.
Interestingly, this star cluster is associated with mythology across many other cultures: Indian, Greek, Native North American, Maori, and Japanese to name a few. As an aside, the Japanese name for the star cluster is Subaru, which is why the eponymous car manufacturer uses a stylised image of the cluster as its logo. In most of the myths and legends, the Pleiades represent seven sisters. So it’s no surprise that the Astronomical Society of Australia has chosen the Pleiades as the name for the Award that recognises institutions that actively advance the careers of women in astronomy.