African Axis

Astronomy, Earth Sciences, Myth and Art

Toni Wynn


All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses. 

And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and 

luckier. —Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself


Which way is Mecca? Gavin Jantjes, Untitled, 1989-90, acrylic, National Museum of African Art.  A Khoi San myth recounts how a girl dancing around an evening fire threw glowing embers into the night sky, where they remained as a wide, shimmering pathway illuminating the celestial firmament: the Milky Way. Jantjes rendered the dancing figures in a style reminiscent of southern Africa's ancient rock paintings.

When is Easter five years from now? 

When is it best to plant?

How does astrophysicist Thebe Medupe reckon with his South African grandmother’s cosmos stories?

And are her stories related to earth spirits inhabiting outcroppings on Lake Tanganyika?

How to use mud?  In a Ugandan “removable hair cap” with ostrich feathers, hair and reed fiber, and in Nakunte Diara’s mud cloth and other textiles.

Why have mudfish appeared on more 16th century Benin plaques than any other creature?

Are the stars “a flock owned by a shepherd who can change his shape”?

Is the universe a “lidded vessel”?

Gold symbols have celestial meanings in this Akan crown, Ghana c. 1900-50, velvet, wood, gold leaf  Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.Such celestial metaphors encompass what’s going on down here. Human connection is revealed in the quiet art spaces presented in the National Museum of African Art's African Cosmos and Earth Matters exhibitions and described in the two large, beautiful, hardcover books that accompanied them. We recognize galaxies in handmade circles and spirals.  A reader—a wanderer—looks this vast terrain up and down, end to endless end.

African knowledge in the sciences, mathematics and engineering has been widely ignored. Under Johnetta Cole’s direction since 2007,Abdel Kader Haidara works to organize and reshelve the manuscripts in the Mamma Haidara Library, Timbuktu, Mali. Haidara kept the manuscripts at his home for safekeeping while the library was being renovated. April 5, 2007. the NMAfA promotes understanding of these African contributions, adding to the history of human knowledge. And with these two recent projects, the museum has offered a counterweight to the ponderous hegemony of Western approaches to astronomy and environmental science. 

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, African Cultural Astronomy from Antiquity to the Present and Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, are both much more than exhibition catalogs.

African Cosmos addresses cultural astronomy (sometimes called ethnoastronomy). The editor, NMAfA deputy director and chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer, presents the book into two sections: Historical Overview and Case Studies. The writing and stunning visuals are largely focused on “traditional” art forms, with the last 60 pages of content covering contemporary art, some of which is inspired by traditional culture and art.  

 Calendar circle at Nabta Playa, Egypt, January 1997Covering a broad range of folkloric, anthropological, artistic and scientific interpretations of the heavens, African Cosmos takes the reader from the stone circle and megaliths in Egypt that predate Stonehenge to the work of contemporary astrophysicists such as South African astronomer Thebe Rodney Medupe whose Cosmic Africa project attempts to reconcile science and myth. The ideas, information and images in these books present a constellation of ways of experiencing African earth and sky. 

This lidded basket helps the Tabwa conceptualize the cosmos. Democratic Republic of the Congo mid-20th century, Fowler Museum, UCLA.
We meet Egyptian mythology siblings Nut and her brother/husband Geb, who, if we were to conjure the ideal hosts for both exhibit experiences, would seem to be the top contenders. Goddess Nut stretched her star-studded form across the sky, swallowing the sun (Ra) each night and rebirthing it each morning. From fertile plains to vast desert, Geb held dominion over the earth.

The myths, arts and sciences of many African cultures interpret the seen and unseen in attempts to answer eternal questions. 

There are places where editorial commentary would be welcomed, for Owusu-Ankomah, Ghana, Starkid 2007, acrylic on canvas Collection of the artist and courtesy October Gallery, Londonexample on p. 140, when we learn the initial provenance of a ca. 1860 Royal Asante stool from Ghana:  “British colonial authorities took it from his [King Kofi Kakani’s] palace in 1873.” We can guess the story, but explication would be helpful.

Film is among the non-traditional media covered in African Cosmos. Deirdre LaPin and Frank Speed’s “Sons of the Moon” features the Ngas people, superior sky watchers of Nigeria’s central plateau. In William Kentridge’s film, “Journey to the Moon,” an espresso pot blasts off to discover the studio/galaxy and the artist’s mind. 

Traditional media include vessels of “Containers for Surrogate Moonlight.”  Similar to the practice in which Africans don masks to literally mask individual identity, transcend it and commune with non-material forces, the pots hold Nysemba pigment, which is applied to faces of spirit mediums who consult with the divine.  

The basket of the Tabwa people (Democratic Republic of Congo) represents the earth's surface, the legs are the cardinal points, the handle refers to the Milky Way, and triangular motifs suggest balamwezi, a pattern representing the rising of the new moon.

We are all Owusu-Ankomah’s Starkid, looking up in wonderment. And then shaking our heads as we learn that the first international conference on African cultural astronomy wasn’t organized and presented until 2006. 

George Osodi, Nigeria, De money series no. 1 2009 Fuji crystal archival print, National Museum of African ArtThe Earth Matters exhibition showcased over 40 artists from 25 African nations, exhibiting art and historic artifacts from the late Edo artist, mudfish plaque, Benin kingdom, Nigeria, mid-16th to 17th century, copper alloy, Field Museum, Chicago.1800s to the present. The earliest dates of the span relate to the end of the international slave trade. That ban, reinstated, in a way, a sense of place that had become uncertain at best for hundreds of years. Africans’ relationship to the land changed again with the advent of colonial rule. With voluntary international travel came a distancing from this very African earth. 

NMAA curator Karen Milbourne, in a YouTube video about “underground,” one of the six sections of the exhibit and book, links art and earth with illustrations of “how the earth as a substance can give concrete expression to abstract thought.” The Smithsonian awarded   Helga Kohl, Germany, Family Accommodation Portfolio Kolmanskop 1994. Collection of the artist Milbourne a Grand Consortium Award for the boundary-defying Earth Matters exhibition. Earth Matters, like African Cosmos, explores the human connection to our greater environment (and, in that treatment, illuminates connections to science, math, technology and engineering), but specifically treats the ways African art relate to African concepts of the earth, and more specifically, the land on which they live, and under which they work—as miners—and are buried. 

Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo b. 1978, Burkina Faso, Untitled, from the The Hell of Copper series ,2008, Chromogenic print, collection of the artist, courtesy La Galerie Particuliere, Paris The chapters, The Material Earth, The Power of the Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface, Environmental Action and Earth Works complement vigorous and informative essays from four working artists: Wangechi Mutu’s “The Power of Earth in My Work,” Clive van den Berg’s “Breaking Surface,” Allan DeSouza’s “Where You Looking At,” and George Osodi’s “Matter, Eco-Ethics, And Composite Space: Thoughts On My Pictorial Compositions.”

Using the premise that we all emerged from primordial ooze, we can approach the Yoruba idea of Ile, earth and water. Is the underground the realm of the ancestors, or is it the cosmos? Miners descend into the earth, over time, altering lives, feeding colonialism, spewing mounds onto the surface. In George Osodi’s intimate, vertical image of men in an illegal gold mine, “De money series no. 1,” (also the cover image of Earth Matters) the men wear the earth they search through. We can almost hear their conversations. 

Romuald Hazoume, Republic of Benin, Rainbow Serpent,2007, mixed media and found objects, courtesy the artist and October Gallery, London. Hazoumè fashions a predatory creature out of recycled jerry cans used to carry gasoline to addresses the exploitation of resources and how this affects communities around the world and over time, including the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade centuries ago and its economic equivalents today.Some of the artworks are creative ways to protest exploitative uses of the African land. Sand reclaims a building in an abandoned diamond mining town in Helga Kohl’s Family Accommodation. Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo's the "Hell of Copper" series opposes the use of Ghanaian land as the world's dumping site for electronic waste.  The  destructive, cyclical consequences of plunder symbolized by Romuald Hazoume's Rainbow Serpent are balanced by its ouroboros meaning of creation out of destruction and the eternal cycle of life.

In Iba N’Diaye’s landscape, Sahel, red dust pushes into sky.  El Anatsui’s use of mirrors in his earth work pyramid of rusted cassava-grater metal shows us ourselves, and that metal and flesh, we all go back to the earth. 

El Anatsui Earth-Moon Connexions 1995 wood, paint,  7/16 x 33 1/4 x 1 3/16,Whitman’s vision of the endless cycle of life in his Leaves of Grass—a work he continued writing through his lifetime—seems to encompass all of the spiritual, scientific and artistic approaches brought to African Cosmos and Earth Matters. Lucky compost, stars and souls traveling: we continue....

The Exhibitions 

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of AfricaApril 22, 2013 – February 23, 2014, The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art (NMAfA).

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, June 20, 2012 – December 9, 2012, NMAfA; February 27 through August 11, 2013, Newark Museum.

The Books 

Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, Karen E. Milbourne, The Monacelli Press, New York, 2013; hardcover: 320 pages.

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts/African Cultural Astronomy from Antiquity to the Present, Christine Mullen Kreamer, The Monacelli Press, New York, 2012; hardcover: 352 pages.

Toni Wynn is a museum consultant and independent writer.