‘African Cosmos,’ at National Museum of African Art

Gavin Jantjes’s painting of mythical star throwers, reminiscent of ancient South African rock painting, is in “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” at the National Museum of African Art in Washington.



Under an African Sky, Gazing Up With Awe


Published: August 30, 2012

WASHINGTON — When the sun sets in rural Africa, the world changes. Temperatures drop. New scents rise as street dust settles and cooking fires start. Markets empty, voices quiet down. Bodies and eyes that struggled all day with heat and glare relax and move toward sleep.

The most dramatic difference, though, is visual.

It comes when the stars appear; first a twilight sprinkling of them, then a tidal wave washing across the sky, covering and soaking it. At such a sight jangled daytime thoughts tend to give way to admiration, inquiry, meditation.

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RAINBOW SERPENT-Romuald Hazoume made this predatory creature – the “Rainbow Serpent” – out of recycled jerry cans that are typically used to carry gasoline. He 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.

“African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art here, an exhibition packed with celestial bodies and patches of darkness sending forth light, invites comparable responses. Broadly it’s a show about the extent and persistence of cosmological consciousness in art, old and new, from the African continent. It’s also a bold demonstration of a more specific reality: In Africa art and science, including astronomy, have always intersected.

Organized by Christine Mullen Kreamer, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, the exhibition opens, scientifically enough, with a reference to an instrument of exacting measurement: a circle of upright stones at Nabta Playa in Southern Egypt that functions as the world’s oldest known astronomical device.


HEADREST-In the central African Luba culture, twins are called “children of the moon” and are associated with divination and the spirit world. This Luba headrest supported by two female figures arm-in-arm suggests twinned spirit mediums. The rising moon serves as a metaphor for a heightened state of awareness and clairvoyance that occurs during spirit possession. This headrest was crafted in the mid to late 19th century.

Some 7,000 years after being built, at least a millennium earlier than Stonehenge, the grouping still accurately clocks sunrise and sunset and points to some of the sky’s brightest stars: Sirius, Arcturus and those in Orion’s belt. A bit later Sirius was worshiped by sky-scanning Egyptians as the force that engineered the annual flooding of the Nile. But Sirius was just one in an extended family of deities, all embodiments of natural elements: air, water, earth, stars. Despite spats and betrayals, they kept the cosmic machinery ticking. And approached with deferential prayers and gifts, they issued passes to the afterlife.

A lithe, gilded mummy cover in the show, made for a woman who worked as a temple singer, carries a hieroglyphic inscription in which the owner implores the sky goddess to please, please raise her up, in death, among the stars.

Mummy board


MUMMY BOARD-According to Egyptologist Lana Troy, this image was designed to cover the mummy of a woman who served as a singer in the temple of the creator/sun god Amun-Red, the most important Theban god. In hieroglyphic inscriptions carved into the tomb, she asks the sky goddess Nut to spread her wings over her so that she may ascent to the heavens and join the stars.


From Egypt the show takes a leap across the Sahara, to what is now Mali, in West Africa. The first stop, via a wall text, is Timbuktu, a city renowned for its manuscript libraries filled with, among many other things, astronomical treatises. In these books science was usually at the service of religion: the calculation of lunar phases and stellar coordinates was crucial to Muslim worship. In the 17th century, when Christian Europe was rejecting a Sun-centered concept of the universe, astronomical books in Islamic Africa were getting the cosmic story right. (The museum had planned to include manuscripts from a library in Timbuktu in this show, but as recent political turmoil there worsened, the loans became impossible.)

The Mali journey mapped by the show continues further to the Bandiagara region of cliffs and scrub brush settled by Dogon peoples, who trace their origins to a creator-spirit descended from the sky. An important feature of Dogon theology centers on a deity identified with the star Sirius and a companion star, Sirius B, invisible to the unaided eye. Although the second star was recorded for the first time by Western observers only in the 19th century, the Dogon suggest that their awareness of it goes far back into antiquity.


Recently art historians have expressed doubts, proposing that the Dogon came to know of the star only a few decades ago through contact with anthropologists. By conventional Western standards the debate must stay unresolved because, like many other sub-Saharan cultures, the Dogon have no written histories, meaning they have no retrievable, verifiable past, no authentic history at all.

Is this so? Western culture has implicit faith in the written or printed word. Ideas, including history, become real — graspable and authoritative — only when written. By contrast, much African history is based on oral traditions, passed down generationally in poetry and song, or encapsulated in visual forms like sculptures, paintings, weavings, beadwork, architecture, bodily scarification patterns and performances.

Female figure

FEMALE FIGURE-In this sculpture by the Dogon people of Mali, the cosmos rests upon a female figure, whose head is represented by the dual disks of sacred sky and secular earth connected by 11 primordial beings. The shape of the female body conveys Dogon ideas about the feminine ideal and emphasizes the powerful life-giving and nurturing capacities of women.

Entire cosmologies, who knows how old, are built into, and dramatized in, Dogon masquerades, through masks, like those in the show, some towering into the sky, others designed to scrape the ground. A fairly simple-looking Dogon stool — two horizontal wood disks, with carved figures standing on one and holding up the other — is a diagram of a layered universe, and an image repeated, and an idea reinforced, in many other forms. A remarkable female figure in the show has a miniature version of this cosmic image for a head, as if the vision of it had consumed and transformed her every thought.

An image like this is art in the interrogative mode and in the active voice. If the full meanings of such images seem unreadable without certain cultural knowledge, it remains clear that meanings are there to be read, and that the systems of historical knowledge that feed into them are rich. Understanding those meanings and that knowledge becomes possible when we start to trust the culture that produced them, start letting go of reliance on what we already know.


STOOL-In this stool, the Dogon people of Mali describe the cosmos as two disks forming the sky and earth connected by a tree. The supporting figures represent the founding ancestors in their descent from sky to earth. The zigzag patterns suggest the path of their descent, a reference to Lebe, the first human and priest who was transformed into a serpent after his death. The disk on top serves as an alter surface for libations.

Ms. Kreamer’s show subtly encourages such letting go. Labels explain objects in standard art historical or anthropological terms, but the groupings, with their interplay, complicate the view, expand it metaphysically and metaphorically, across African cultures. We can find similar but varied models of the universe in the Dogon stool made in Mali in the 19th or early-20th century and in a Tabwa basket of a later date from Congo, some 2,000 miles away.

Figure pair

FIGURE PAIR-Made of wood and beads, these figurines were crafted between the 18th to 19th century by the Tabwa peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


We see the concept of clothing as spiritual armor in a Yoruba priest’s robe scintillating with beaded patterns of lightning bolts and vipers — things that strike fast — from Nigeria, but also in a natural-color cotton wrapper made for an Asante king in Ghana and decorated edge to edge with black talismanic symbols.


STARKID-“Starkid,” by Owusu-Ankomah of Ghana captures a sense of wonder about the universe and our place in the world. The artist depicts three powerful human forms against the lively backdrop of traditional motifs from his homeland of Ghana.


And in the dynamic atmosphere the show sets up, where everything exists in a state of potentially multiple meaning, individual details glow: the dollop of white moonlight painted at the bottom of a Luba divination bowl from Congo; the galaxy of gilded stars, moons and suns floating, as if in deepest space, on an Akan chief’s cloth hat from Ghana; and from Ivory Coast the touch-polished smoothness of two Baule moon masks as dainty and delectable as cookies.

Royal Stool

ROYAL STOOL-This Royal Stool was crafted circa 1860 by the Asante peoples of Ghana. The stool is believed to have belonged to the Asante king Kofi Kakani (1837-1884).

The glow extends to new art too. A video projection by the young artist Marcus Neustetter, playing over a gallery wall at the entrance of the show, is a simulation of theaurora borealis. A short, witty 2003 film called “Day for Night” by William Kentridge transforms an image of ants swarming over lines of sugar on a tabletop into a telescopic view of tremulous constellations shape-shifting in a night sky.

Mr. Neustetter and Mr. Kentridge are both from South Africa, as are several other artists in the show, though a few of them, like Gavin Jantjes, whose painting of mythical star throwers is in a style reminiscent of ancient South African rock painting, now live elsewhere. With its dancing, grafittilike ease, Mr. Jantjes’s picture has a playful feel, though much of the contemporary work in the show does not, even when that may have been its intention.

The immense misshapen sun in a 1996 acrylic-and-crayon work by the South African Garth Erasmus suggests a hovering alien spacecraft sent to burn Earth to cinders. The half-abstract “Night Flight of Dread and Delight” by Skunder Boghossian (1937-2003), who was born in Ethiopia and taught art in Washington for 30 years, is in every way fabulous, but it’s also nightmarish, with its shattered-rainbow sky and predatory birds.

Romuald Hazoumè, from Benin, also uses rainbow imagery — the show has a lot — but his feels even less benign. His immense sculpture “Rainbow Serpent” (“Dan-Ayido-Houedo”) is based on a symbol of a self-devouring snake that is considered a lucky charm in Fon and Yoruba cultures. But his version of it, assembled from hundreds of plastic gasoline canisters, is as dark and crushing as a juggernaut wheel. Mr. Hazoumè’s use of recycled materials and his bitter take on the culture of waste are familiar, but this show lets us see him, as we rarely do, working on an ambitious scale.

The exhibition also lets us see the National Museum of African Art in a way we seldom have of late. It appears to now be at a positive point in its history, after a long, frustratingly becalmed period that saw loan shows coming and going, but little inside creativity. Ms. Kreamer was there but seemed for some reason to be given little to do.

The institution seemed to pick up steam in 2009, when Johnnetta Betsch Cole arrived as director. “African Cosmos” is the second of three homegrown exhibitions geared to changing perceptions of Africa by focusing, through art, on its contribution to the history of world knowledge. (The first show, under way before the new leadership, was “Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art,” in 2007. The third, “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” is to open next spring.) Ms. Kreamer is certainly busy; she seems to have been given a free hand in helping to determine where the museum is going and how it’s going to get there. Judging by her recent work the directions will be manifold and pursued with imagination and passion. At the end of the day the future of a museum that once fell short is now looking up.

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

WHEN AND WHERE Through Dec. 9. National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington.

MORE INFORMATION (202) 633-4600, africa.si.edu.



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