Gavin Jantjes, South Africa. Untitled, 1989-1990, Acrylic on canvas. (Franko Khoury)

Christine Mullen Kreamer never went to art museums as a child growing up in a large Irish family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. But in college, she took classes in subjects she had no experience in and developed a long-lasting affinity for African art. After doing fieldwork in Togo and earning a PhD in art history with a specialization in African art from Indiana University, she wound up consulting for the Smithsonian, eventually becoming the deputy director and chief curator at the National Museum of African Art, where she is curating “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts.” Kreamer explains the significance of the exhibit:

“This is the first major exhibition to really bring together both traditional and contemporary art to explore Africa’s contribution to the history of knowledge of the heavens and how this knowledge [influences] works of art.

“It’s groundbreaking, and we hope that it will inspire visitors to connect to their own experience of observing the heavens.

“We want visitors to come away with two things: first, that Africa has a long and rich history of extremely sophisticated artwork, and second, the objects encode meaning related to the celestial bodies. The Tabwa from the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, have a particular type of design found in beadwork, basketry and body ornamentation called balamwezi, translated as ‘the rising of the new moon.’ Other works of art are performed during the full moon, so celestial bodies are referenced in that way. The Bamana people of Mali wear antelope crest pieces that honor chi-wara, the mythic ancestor who brought the knowledge of farming to the Bamana people. We’ve also got a rare fragment of an ancient Egyptian stone tablet showing the deification of the star Sirius, into the female deity Sopdet.

Headrest. Luba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo Mid to late 19th century. (Franko Khoury)

“People who haven’t traveled may have a certain preconception of Africa, yet our careful selection of the best works counters any preconception that African art is not sophisticated. There’s a lot of powerful teaching [in the exhibit] about what it means to be human.”

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

Runs through Dec. 9 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Visit

Dr. Christine Mullen Kreamer, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. (Photograph by Franko Khoury, 2010)