For thousands of years, Africans have looked to the heavens for inspiration. These traditions are celebrated in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s African Art Museum in Washington.
Africans’ knowledge of the cosmos dates back further than many people realize.
One of the world’s earliest celestial calendars is found at a place called Nabta Playa on the edge of the Sahara desert. A millennium before Stonehenge was constructed in England, Nabta Playa’s stone array marked the summer solstice.
“Set your clock back 6,000, 7,000 years and the stones line up,” says Christine Mullen Kraemer, curator of "African Cosmos: Stellar Arts."
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The exhibit covers a vast sweep of time and space. An ancient Egyptian tablet honors the star Sirius, whose yearly appearance meant the beginning of the rainy season vital for farming.
There is also art by a modern team of stargazers, working on the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS). For several years, the team has been mapping a patch of sky below the constellation Leo.
"In that very small square, we have been able to define over a million new galaxies as large as the galaxy that our solar system is in, if not larger," says Karel Nel, an artist-in-residence with the COSMOS team.
He’s helping the scientists share their findings with the public through art - including a video that appears to take viewers on a high-speed journey through space, whipping past these newfound galaxies.
"I think that scientists so often are focused on the minutiae of data," Nel says. "What I’ve found with the COSMOS team [is] that, as an outsider, I’m able to bring back some sense of the wonder of the project."
Sometimes that means simply adding touches to the exhibit, like the sound of crickets, to evoke the experience of stargazing under an African night sky.
"When I’m working in my studio in Africa at night, I have my big doors open and when I hear the crickets, they sound to me like the sounds of deep space," he says. "They go beep, beep, cheep, cheep."
You can also listen to the sounds of actual stars in this exhibit.
Just like musical instruments, stars vibrate and their electromagnetic pulses can be converted into sound waves. Depending on the speed or frequency of the vibrations, stars sound like drumming or horns.
There’s a lot of this kind of playful art in African Cosmos, but there's serious art as well.
At the heart of the exhibit stands a huge multi-colored sculpture of a serpent, created from recycled gasoline canisters. Its body curls into a circle and when you get close, you realize the serpent is swallowing its own tail. This rainbow serpent is a powerful symbol among the Fon and Yoruba peoples in Benin and Nigeria.
"It mean[s] prosperity. It mean[s] fertility. It mean[s] hope, too. It mean[s] one day it will come again. One day the good weather will come again. One day the good life will come again," says Beninese artist Romauld Hazoumem, who has created art with a political message since the 1980s.
His work often criticizes environmental pollution and the over-exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. Hazoume used gasoline canisters, which are central to an illegal petrol market in his region, to put a new twist on the rainbow serpent.
"You know I just make a rainbow serpent to show people how we live today in Africa," he says.
Major sponsorship for "African Cosmos" was provided by the South African government, which is trying to drum up excitement and funding for a huge new radio telescope now under construction in the country. It will be capable of picking up signals from the farthest and oldest regions of the cosmos.
"There’s a fine line that separates arts and science," says Derek Henekom, South Africa’s deputy minister of Science and Technology. "On the one hand, we’ve got folklore, legends, myths, stories…and the other hand there’s real science, work that probes a lot deeper. And that’s what we’re doing in South Africa, to construct the largest radio telescope that the world has ever seen."
The telescope will probe deep space for insights into dark matter and the creation of the universe, mysteries which evoke the same sense of awe and wonder at the heart of the "African Cosmos" exhibition.