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An ongoing exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art asks visitors to consider the connections between art and science — and how they each attempt to explore the why, when and how of our existence. "African Cosmos: Stellar Arts" illustrates how the stars and planets we see in the sky have been influencing African art and ritual for generations.
One of the first things visitors see as they enter is a meticulously painted Egyptian mummy case from about 1,000 years B.C. It was made for a female singer in the temple of the sun god Amun-Re.
Further along, there are masks, some of them 20 feet tall, elaborately carved from a single tree. Exhibit curator Christine Kreamer says the masks create a symbolic bridge between two realms when they're used in rituals.
"We have the connection — sky and earth made by some of these masquerades that literally soar to the heavens when they are performed," she says. That connection resonates throughout this exhibition — the experience of looking up at the sky and wondering what it all means.
"Keen observation of the heavens from the very earliest moment of humankind have informed the way people are thinking about their place in the world, and thinking about those age-old questions of who we are, what is our purpose here, what are our next steps," Kreamer told visitors to the exhibition opening. She said those questions are addressed by the art in the exhibition.
Dr. Mae Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut to travel into space, told her audience that art and science help us tie the world together. "A thousand generations before me, one of my ancestors looked up at the stars, reached out her hand, couldn't touch them, and then decided to track the movements of the heavens," Jemison said. "That person ... figured out the stars were moving in relationship to one another."
Jemison told the audience that the exhibition shows not only that art and science spring from the same font of human creativity, but also that space exploration is as old as humanity. "Imagine the incredible insight, observation that had to happen. That's how space exploration started — that's when it started," Jemison said.
But it's staggering to see how far that exploration has gone. A worldwide team of scientists is working on a project called the Cosmic Evolution Survey, or COSMOS. They're mapping a tiny sliver of the universe in which they've found more than a million galaxies. A computerized reconstruction of their work is on display here.
South African artist Karel Nel is the project's artist-in-residence, and created a soundtrack for the film from the crickets he hears outside his Johannesburg studio. "They do, in a sense, evoke night as one lies out looking at the stars, but that is kind of [a] metaphorical sound for deep space," Nel says.
The voices of the universe are also on display here, in a section called "Star Sounds." Deborah Stokes, the museum's curator for education, explains that astrophysicists at the European Southern Observatory used oscillations — variations — in the light pulses coming from the stars to create sound waves. "They take the oscillations and the data, and they create — they speed up those oscillations so ... we can hear them actually within our range of hearing," she says.
A major aim of the exhibition is to show that Africans have been studying the cosmos in a sophisticated way for centuries. Curator Christine Kreamer points out that a thousand years before Stonehenge, one of the world's oldest celestial calendars existed at a place called Nabta Playa on the edge of the Sahara.
Benin artist Romuald Hazoume says it's important that visitors understand that that level of scientific sophistication is just as present today. "It's very, very important to be here, and to show people; we are not poor in Africa," he says. Hazoume contributed a massive structure to the exhibition — using recycled gasoline cans, he built a rainbow serpent swallowing its tail.
South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe says the work on display illustrates how humans in the past integrated their knowledge of art and science. And, he says, the exhibition can help solve a problem shared by both Africa and America. "We are still struggling to get black South Africans into science and technology," he says. "An exhibition like this one goes a long way in exciting young people about science."