DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

Gavin Jantjes, South Africa Untitled (1990)
Since the beginning of humankind, men and women have stared at the skies, trying to find meanings in the world above them to help them understand the world around them. And the awe and mystery those ancient sky watchers found in the stars, moon, and sun have been reflected in art since man first began placing designs on cave walls or clay pots.

Now, in the latest major exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art entitled African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, curators have put together an impressive showing of how African artists haved used the universal language of astronomical art to help explain:
  • the formation of creation stories and religion
  • the cycle of life, death, and rebirth
  • the forecasting and marketing of seasons and agricultural cycles
  • the planning of communities and navigating both on land and at sea
Egyptian tribute to the sun god
Divided into several rooms, the exhibition begins with the ancient Egyptians, who built many of their most majestic pyramids and other structures to align with the stars. One such example is found at Napta Playa in southern Egypt, where a structure was used for setting the summer solstice about 7,000 years ago, more than a millennium before a similar circular structure was completed in Stonehenge, England.

Tribes and cultures from many of the 55 countries that make up Africa today are represented in the comprehensive exhibition, which includes masks, figures, crafts, weavings, and more modern art forms such as painting and video.

Dogon stool
In many of the African creation myths, the 1st people descended from the sky. (Insert alien theories here, anyone?) The Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria envisioned the cosmos in the form of  intricate lidded containers, in which the upper half represented the sky and the lower half the world of the living.

Plank mask ceremony
The Dogon people of Mali pictured the cosmos as 2 disks forming the sky and earth connected by a tree. They captured that depiction in the ornate figured stools they created for special occasions. They also engaged in a special cosmic connection by using extremely tall plank masks in ceremonies "to reach to the heaven as a way to bridge earth and sky."

Ghana's Akan people used celestial sayings to convey appropriate behavior within their community. Such as this one: "Like the star, the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself [alone]."

The Nafana people of Mali were captivated by the moon,, contending that "without the moon there would be no life" and painting their faces in white designs and using round moon masks to symbolize the power of the moon over man's life.


Moon masks
While most of the exhibition focuses on older African cultures, there are representatives of modern art, too. The most recent, and indeed one of the most intriguing of those examples, is Deep Survey, a large screen piece of installation art created in 2007 by a South African artist who used video from an actual cosmic survey of African skies and added recordings of reversed nature sounds from outside his studio.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you are interested in the cosmos, the art exhibition here is just part of a real star-show here in the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. You can also view Cosmic Collisions, Infinity Express, Journey to the Stars, One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure, and The Stars Tonight at the National Air and Space Museum; The Evolving Universe and Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt at the National Museum of Natural History; and Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

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