It was supposed to showcase ancient Aboriginal stories and promote cross-cultural understanding. Instead, a "songline" exhibition due to open last night at the South Australian Museum, one of the nation's leading art institutions, has been postponed indefinitely after a group of traditional owners threatened legal action.
The exhibition - years in the making, and intended as the first in a series of shows stemming from a A$800,000 ($854,604) research project - depicts the Ngintaka creation story, tracing it across a remote, 486,000sq km desert region where Western Australia and South Australia meet the Northern Territory.
Although the museum and other state institutions, including the Australian National University (ANU), have consulted widely with community leaders across the region, a group of male elders from the Anangu language group has expressed outrage at the publicising of what they say are secret men's stories.
The group members - who include Yami Lester, a revered elder who presided over the handback of Uluru to traditional elders nearly 30 years ago - say they never authorised the songline project, which focuses on two creation stories: Ngintaka (the perentie lizard, a large native goanna) and Kungkarangalpa (Seven Sisters).
This week, their lawyer, Shawn Berg, wrote to the South Australian Museum, threatening a Federal Court injunction if the exhibition went ahead. On Thursday, with artworks already hung and invites issued, the museum posted a terse announcement on its website saying the show would not be opening until permission had been obtained "from all relevant parties".
The decision was welcomed by Lester, who had accused other Anangu of "stealing our stories". He told the Australian: "We feel happy our voice has been heard." But it dismayed more than 50 Anangu people who had travelled to Adelaide from the far-flung APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands for last night's gala opening.
The wider project, called Alive with the Dreaming!, brought together academics and art curators in a venture to map the songlines of Aboriginal Australia - the journeys undertaken by ancient spirits - and preserve them for future generations.
Instead, the project - co-ordinated by the ANU and funded by the Australian Research Council - has become mired in bitter internecine politics. David Miller, chairman of the Anangku Arts and Cultural Aboriginal Corporation, the peak body for APY artists, told the Australian most traditional owners supported the Adelaide exhibition.
"We are the cultural elders," he said. "We are all sitting around now, asking each other 'How come this one's going to be closed?"' Another Anangu elder, Frank Young, said some of the show's opponents were not traditional law men. "These people here, they are the traditional owners of the country," he said, referring to those who travelled to Adelaide.
"They said that they [Anangu traditional owners] wanted to record it on CD because their young people were very engaged in Western education, were learning a lot from CDs, from TV," Diana James, a senior research associate at the ANU who coordinated the project, told ABC radio.
' Lester, though, told the Australian last week: "Some of our people just want to sell off Aboriginal culture for money."