African Cosmos: Stellar Arts: An Exhibit and a Book

by Jay M. Pasachoff

For over a decade, National Museum of African Art curator Christine Mullen Kreager has been compiling ideas about African artwork relevant to cosmology. Her work has culminated in an excellent exhibition in this Smithsonian Institution museum, which is on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Dr. Kreager was kind enough to give a personal tour to my wife, Naomi, and me in September; the exhibit will remain up until December 9th, and is worth a trip. Further information can be found at information may be found at http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/cosmos/index.html.

The mounted exhibit is in several parts, described at http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/cosmos/celestial.html. The Sun god in ancient Egyptian lore is familiar to most of us, and begins the exhibition. Most of the exhibition deals with African carving from the most recent centuries. Of particular interest to me, since my visit to the Dogon country in Mali in 1970 to see the beautiful escarpment and help film dancing, was one of the highpoints of my life, was the set of masks from that part of Africa. I learned, also, that the carved wooden Yoruba bowl I brought back from Africa then contained the sky or heaven represented in its upper part and the physical world in the lower.

Art from other parts of the African continent are also featured, such as moonlight memories from peoples of the Congo, that help fill a large, high-ceilinged exhibition room. Some spectacular huge, modern pieces take advantage of the space. The website contains relevant blogs, grades K-8 educational curricula, and more.

Dr. Kreager has edited the catalogue for the exhibition, with subtitle “African Cultural Astronomy from Antiquity to the Present.” It is a magnificent book, beautifully illustrated in color and black and white on glossy paper and weighing 2.5 g. Each of the 20 chapters has end notes and references, though the overall book lacks an index. One of the chapters is even by an astronomer, Katrien Kolenberg of the CfA, whose time visiting Africa was expedited by a program of the Commission for Education and Development of the IAU. Kreager’s own chapter includes a discussion of the duality views of the Dogon, and the fairly well-known problem of the Dogon thinking about a companion star to Sirius, though clearly there is no possibility that they saw it given that they had no telescopes, leaving the possibility that the knowledge had been invertently communicated by a visiting 19th-century anthropologist.

Readers of this Newsletter will all be interested in the book, and should try to see the exhibition if they are near Washington before it closes. The book is of a quality that it should be in institutional libraries. At $60 list (and only $36.70 for pre-order at amazon.com) it is a steal for personal reading and a worthwhile activity for individual intellectual breadth.