It is unusual for a deputy government science minister describing a transnational telescope project to share space with a Smithsonian museum director who remembers reciting “Star Light, Star Bright.” But then “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” is one of the most unusual exhibits to appear at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
The exhibit, which opens Wednesday and features 100 objects from antiquity to the present day, is co-sponsored by South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology and centers on science and the human need to connect. In paintings, carvings, masks and mixed-media works, it examines human relations with the sun, moon, stars and celestial phenomena, and centers on themes in cultural astronomy, which notes that, for time immemorial, everything that draws breath has looked to the sky for meaning.
The exhibition “takes as its starting point that universal experience of looking up and being amazed and transported by the celestial firmament above us,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. “It’s the first major exhibition that brings together art and science focused on Africa’s keen observation of the heavens.” That knowledge was used “to track movement through space, to regulate agriculture and the ritual calendar, and to inspire individuals.”
She cites an exhibit reference to Nabta Playa, a site near the border of Egypt and Sudan where stone circles and sun dials date back nearly 6,000 years — a thousand years before Stonehenge in Britain.
“I’m not with the department of arts and culture,” says Derek Hanekom, South Africa’s deputy minister of science and technology, “but there’s a connection between the depiction of sky stories, the desire to know more and to express knowledge.”
There is no linear flow to the exhibit; each piece is a singular artistic response to the big ideas of the cosmos and an attempt to find meaning in whatever piece of the universe the artist finds him- or herself. It draws much of its power from the sweep of time.
There’s an Egyptian mummy board from roughly 1,000 years B.C. that covered a singer in the temple of the sun god Amun-Ra. A 7th century B.C. golden, winged scarab shows a beetle pushing dung across the desert like the sun moving across the sky. A late-19th-century Yoruba gourd depicts the universe as a lidded vessel with the top representing the sky, the bottom the Earth, and covered with carved deities.
“I live quite close to the cradle of mankind,” says South African artist Karel Nel. His “Trembling Fields” is a carbon silicate work focused on the dislocation of light. His “Deep Survey” video is a computerized mapping construction of thousands of galaxies and stems from his participation in a worldwide project to map a two-degree-square area of the sky. Looking up, our earliest ancestors “were most probably as awed as we are today,” he says. “I think it’s one of the great shared human experiences.”
In invoking connections over time, Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, notes that Tuesday is Juneteenth, a celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, and says that she hoped the exhibit had special resonance for young people in communities facing a technological divide. “In this contemplation of the heavens, I hope they are able to say, ‘Aha! I didn’t know that Africa contributed to knowledge in this way.’ ”
Artist Romuald Hazoume, from Benin, picked up on the themes of slavery and environmental exploitation in his massive “Rainbow Serpent” — a circular piece fashioned from recycled gasoline cans. The idea of a rainbow fits in a section of “Celestial Guidance,” which examines how Africans use stars, moons and rainbows to address earthly concerns in a way that shakes out to be all part of a universal connection.
opens Wednesday and runs through Dec. 9 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Visit africa.si.edu.