“African Cosmos” Tells Celestial Stories From Humanity’s Cradle

According to the Khoisan of southern Africa, once upon a time girls were dancing around an evening fire, and one of them was inspired to throw some embers into the heavens. There the embers stayed, forever illuminating the firmament as a softly glowing band of light—the Milky Way.

The tale is just one example of African cultural astronomy captured by artists and now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

“Untitled” (1989-1990), by Gavin Jantjes of South Africa
—Picture courtesy National Museum of African Art

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” which officially opens Wednesday, is being billed as the first major exhibit at the museum to highlight the connection between art and astronomy, tracing our observations of the heavens as seen reflected in decorative pieces from ancient Egypt to 21st-century Benin.

“The work of an artist is to understand, interpret, and depict the world around us,” Derek Hanekom, deputy minister of Science and Technology for the South African government, said today during a press briefing.

For instance, he said, “in every culture we have a [unique] story of Genesis, of creation. … And other cultures have other names and stories for the stars and constellations in the sky.

“Science builds on those stories and on humanity’s quest to know more about the world.”

Astronomy in particular connects cultures across vast distances, since we largely share the same sky, according to museum director Johnnetta Cole.

“So many miles from the center of our ancestral home, we have very little difficulty relating to these works of art [in the new exhibit],” Cole said.

The collection, for example, combines an ancient Egyptian relief depicting the bright star Sirius, an 18th-century sky map from Timbuktu, 19th-century wooden “moon masks” from Côte d’Ivoire, and several 21st-century light installations by contemporary African artists.

“Art and science have both questioned the nature of reality for centuries, in their own ways,” noted Karel Nel, a professor of fine arts in Johannesburg and one of the show’s featured contributors.

By combining artworks from Africa—the birthplace of modern humans—with one of the oldest sciences, “African Cosmos” offers a long, deep look at how our visions of reality have been changed by the very human pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

“Starkid” (2007), by Owusu-Ankomah of Ghana
—Picture courtesy National Museum of African Art

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