Guest Voices: Dark Matter & the Cosmos

Our post today is not by a guest, but our own Curator of Education Deborah Stokes!

Drawing by Deborah Stokes

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.

Pablo Picasso

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts opened at the National Museum of African Art on June 20—the northern Summer Solstice.  I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about educational programming for the exhibition, which is comprised of ancient, traditional, and contemporary African art that links to notions of the Cosmos, our place in it, and its visual expression.   As an educator, I want to challenge visitors to rethink what they think they know about Africa when they come into the museum space, and in this exhibit, the sciences of astronomy and astrophysics are a powerful tool for helping us do just that.

A significant component of the exhibition is science based, and thus I was introduced to (and had to wrestle with) the rarefied work of astrophysicists and their vocabulary: electromagnetic spectrums, exoplanets, hot jupiters, supernovas, dark energy, extragalactic drastic events, black holes, and accretion power, to name just a few.  It took time to synthesize the information, and I struggled to write a helpful family guide to tell small pieces of a big story – the Universe and our place in it.

Having dedicated my working life to engaging with art and its unlimited power to take me places through visualization and imagination—I admit I was now glazing over in a mental stupor. In conversations with patient colleagues at the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and the National Science Academies, my questions and their answers would take me to the ends of the cosmos as I could process it—unable to absorb all their brilliant work and deep thoughts without my brain exploding.

Everyone has a concept of an infinite universe that conforms to one’s own limited imagination—my personal version was somewhere at the starry night, both above my own head and in Van Gogh’s version at the Museum of Modern Art, that being my first (museum) love and where I discovered modern art on my own terms.  It wasn’t until I spent a few days at SAO in Cambridge, Massachusetts, training on the World Wide Telescope and given an opportunity to visually experience some of the building blocks of our breathtaking universe that I felt something happening to me. Contradicting some of my own visual expectations—my experience of the world expanded.   The time spent learning to create my own tours inside the corridors of the various galaxies surprisingly changed my view of my place in the world, and I emerged with a renewed perspective on both the literal and the lyrical.

Art teaches us that if we ignore the negative space, we risk seeing only that which we expect to see, rather than what is there.  The negative spaces in a sculpture or painting become part of the overall composition, echoing and engaging the surrounding space with its own currents of energy.  Awareness of negative space (voids) enables us to let go of our presumptions and be open-minded to new possibilities.

I’ve read that Einstein was the first to formulate that empty space is not nothing.   Astrophysicists tell us that ordinary matter makes up only 4 percent of our universe.  Roughly 23 percent of the universe consists of dark matter, mysterious stuff that exerts gravitational forces but doesn’t interact with light. Another 73 percent is dark energy, an even more enigmatic component that permeates the universe.  Scientists have been searching for explanations and visualizations of its invisible presence.   Dark energy brings to my mind associations of the intangible, the ethereal, and the obscure;  mysteries of darkness and light; sometimes reminders of a sinister elemental world, observed or imagined; silence, solitude, mortality.  I find that these pulses can be astonishingly present when observing works of art with focused attention, unmediated – one on one.  Try it…

Energy can have a force but not necessarily mass (form), and art—in this instance, African art—can hold a source of dark energy within its core – a powerful, active interior possessing fierce manifestations of the unseen and a perceived sense of force pushing out toward the viewer – an uncanny sense of presence.  I’ve experienced this energy not only with my own imagining of the sculptures and masks activated through ritual practices, but also when engaging with modern and contemporary art—yes, art can take us places!

In African Cosmos: Stellar Arts there are a veritable constellation of artworks that can function as a catalyst for our imaginations – and that’s what great exhibitions do – give us an experience that shakes us up and moves us in some way,  perhaps to explore the human capacity for awe and wonder in the face of sheer beauty.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Lightning over West Africa; Credit: ESA/NASA

African Cosmos Now Open!

Celebrating the Cosmos opening (left to right): Ambassador Ibrahim Rasool of South Africa, National Museum of African Art Director Dr. Johnnetta Cole, artist Karel Nel, astronaut Mae Jemison, African Cosmos curator Chris M. Kreamer, astrophysicist Thebe Medupe, artist Romuald Hazoumé

Last Wednesday we celebrated both the summer solstice and the opening of African Cosmos: Stellar Arts. We hope you’ll stop by to visit–and share with us your thoughts!

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Slooh image of asteroid passing by the Canary Islands (Credit: Slooh Space Camera)

Guest Voices: Sutherland Reflections

Our guest post today is by Marcus Neustetter, Johannesburg based artist, cultural activist and producer.

Bringing in 2009’s International Year of Astronomy on the night of New Year’s Eve with the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) just outside the small town of Sutherland, I and artist Bronwyn Lace were invited to create experimental night interventions. These were a precursor to two more weeks of land-art and sky-spectacles. Over the subsequent four years the observatory and the community in Sutherland has seen the manifestation of permanent structures, of quiet contemplations and gentle activations across the sometimes hottest, often coldest and undeniably darkest town in South Africa.

The Sutherland project takes place in collaboration with SAAO, scientists Kevin Govender and Carolina Ödman, the Karoo Hoogland Municipality and local community members. The intention is to address the current relationship between the disadvantaged communities in Sutherland and the international telescopic observatory. The resulting arts interventions employ playful activities to fill the liminal space between these two communities and where their realities lie – between the earth and the stars.

Big Bang, Marcus Neustetter, 2012

Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace, 2009

Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace, 2009

Marcus Neustetter and Bronwyn Lace, 2009

Tweetales with the Washington International School

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a Twitter storytime (“Tweetales”) with 4th graders at the Washington International School here in Washington, DC. The students read and responded to tales of Imola & the Moon and Ananse & the Sun, then created digital illustrations in response to the folklore. Enjoy their interpretations of those traditional stories below!


Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

The Solar Impulse flying over Morocco. Credit: MATIC/Solar Thermal

Guest Voices-Venus in Transit

Our guest post this week is by Fikiswa Majola, science communicator at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, located near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Moon and Venus at dawn. Credit: NASA

When it comes to observing the night sky, few things are more magnificent to see than the planet Venus. The planet’s beauty and brightness rivals even that of the brightest of stars. After the Sun and the Moon, the planet Venus is the third brightest object in the sky; depending on the time of it is visible, Venus is also referred to as the Morning Star or the Evening Star. In all African cultures there are names for Venus- both as the Morning Star and as the Evening Star, and stories to accompany those. In the Xhosa culture of South Africa, Venus has not two but four names!

The generic name for Venus is iKhwezi, which loosely translates to “one that shines the brightest.” This is a very fitting name, as of all the “stars out there, it does shine the brightest. Venus the morning star is called iKhwezi Lokusa- “one that shines the brightest at dawn.” iKhwezi Lokusa is associated with diligence as it is up before the Sun is.

The second name for Venus is iKhwezi Lesibini– the second Venus. This is Venus during the day. When young boys were out on the fields and herding livestock, one of the games they would play would be to try to spot iKhwezi Lesibini. This game was to test each other’s knowledge of the planet and the sky. Because the Sun is very bright, it would be very difficult to spot iKhwezi Lesibini during the day unless one knew exactly where to look.

Venus the evening star is the most special- it has two names. The first is uCelizapholo, meaning “asking for milk.” This is visible in the evening twilight when it is time to milk the cows. The second name for the evening star is uMadingeni- the dating star. The appearance of uMadingeni represented the time when lovers would rendezvous, away from prying eyes.

There are similar stories about Venus in various other African astronomy tales. In Africa (as was the case around the world), we were observing the night sky since before telescopes. We used the night sky to indicate the time for important events and also to predict things such as drought and the rainy season.

Today I chose to write about Venus not only for its beauty and its significance in the Xhosa culture, but also because it has had the attention of sky-watchers from around the globe in recent weeks. On the 5th and 6th of June many people got a chance to experience a very rare phenomena, the Transit of Venus. A transit of Venus occurs when Venus passes directly between the Sun and the Earth.  This is a very rare alignment that comes in pairs 8 years apart, but separated by over a century. The previous transit was in 2004, and the next is only in 2117. It is unlikely that anybody living today will see the next transit of Venus.

Now what? Are there any more transits in store for us? The answer is yes. The next transit in our solar system will be that of Mercury in May 2016. Mercury is much smaller than Venus and further away, so the transit will not be as spectacular. There are, however, hundreds of significant transits that we observe elsewhere in the universe.

Astronomers use the transit method as one of the methods with which they detect planets orbiting other stars outside of our solar system, exoplanets. These planets can be detected indirectly by studying the slight changes in a star’s brightness; as a planet crosses in front of a star, the observed light from a star will dim slightly.

Transits in our solar system are very rare and Venus itself is something special. iKhwezi– a planet outshining even the brightest of the stars in the night sky. A planet that, even though it’s just the one, can have up to four different names depending on when it is visible. With the transit we said goodbye to the evening star, uMadingeni, and we will soon be greeting iKhwezi Lokusa.