News / Arts & Entertainment

African Art Show Offers Celestial Twist

"Starkid," by Owusu-Ankomah of Ghana, is part of the "African Cosmos: Stellar Arts" exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s African Art Museum in Washington. (Photograph by Jonathan Greet, image courtesy of October Gallery, London)
"Starkid," by Owusu-Ankomah of Ghana, is part of the "African Cosmos: Stellar Arts" exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s African Art Museum in Washington. (Photograph by Jonathan Greet, image courtesy of October Gallery, London)
TEXT SIZE - +
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."

African Art Show Offers Celestial Twisti
|| 0:00:00
X
Susan Logue
July 02, 2012 7:44 PM
Astronomer Carl Sagan referred to the cosmos as “the greatest of mysteries.” Long before space exploration was possible, before we had powerful telescopes to examine the stars and planets; humans have looked to the heavens, searching for answers about what lies beyond. Cultural astronomy is at the heart of a new exhibition at the National Museum of African Art in Washington. VOA’s Susan Logue takes a look at “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts.”
Related report by Susan Logue  


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.

Modern stargazers

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."

Star sounds

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.

Artful messages
 
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.

Star search

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.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category

Saxophonist Craig Handy has an exciting new band called 2nd Line Smith, which combines the organ-jazz repertoire of Jimmy Smith with the “second line” rhythms of New Orleans parade music. Craig Handy joins "Beyond Category" host Eric Felten at Washington’s Bohemian Caverns jazz club to talk about the music and perform with the band.