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)
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

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Los Angeles singer-songwriter Irene Diaz has a modern pop take on the jazz torch-song tradition. She sat down with Larry London on this edition of "Border Crossings" to perform and talk about her music.