Guest Voices: Philatelic Images- African Imagery of the Skies

Our guest post this week is by Matthew V. Cassetta, a foreign affairs officer and collector of islands & African stamps.

Courtesy of author

Historical evidence has shown us that ancient Africans studied the sky and formed theories and tales to explain its mysteries, leaving enduring myths and calendars as well as megalithic sites that have changed our views of how the ancestors of modern Africans related to their cosmos.  Other contributors to this blog have provided accounts of significant African sites such as Nabta Playa in southern Egypt, and Ng’amoritung’a on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, whose calendars charted the Earth’s alignments with the Sun and the movements of the stars.  We can only wonder what exciting new discoveries await archaelogists and historians on the continent as their research progresses.
Philately presents us with a rich tapestry of images selected by independent African nations to celebrate some of the astrological wonders observed by their societies.  Such stamp issues fall into two main categories: stamps that depict astronomical discovery, often by recognizable scientists; and stamp issues that depict the natural phenomena of the cosmos, giving hints to how ancient peoples may have viewed phenomena such as meteors, constellations, and planetary movements.

Courtesy of author

Researchers and scientists have unraveled the mysteries of the cosmos over time like a puzzle, finding new stars and planets with ever-more powerful instruments.  Several African postal authorities have honored such scientists as Galileo and Copernicus, as well as the discoveries they have uncovered.  Djibouti issued a 1984 airmail issue (left) to commemorate the successful creation of Galileo’s telescope prototype in 1609, which allowed him to see and document elements such as sunspots, the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter.  Modern scientific advances have also been celebrated on African stamps, such as Mali’s issuance of a 1980 airmail stamp (below) celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, which made headlines around the globe when announced by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in March 1930.

Courtesy of author

Courtesy of author

Perhaps the most enduring images however, are those of the phenomena that delight societies who look up at the night skies and marvel at what they see.  Constellations of stars have been the subject of many stamp issues, and most recently from African nations such as Namibia and Mauritius.  Pictured here (right) is one such image from a 2002 set of Mauritius showing the pattern of stars which make up the Scorpius sign (others in the set show the constellations Orion, Sagittarius and Crux).

Courtesy of author

Eclipses and comets are also popular themes which have been depicted on recent African stamp issues.  These images reflect the wonder that these events inspire in those that look on them from below, and connect modern societies with their anscestors who passed down tales and legends inspired by similar phenomena.  One very beautiful example can bee seen on a 1973 issue by Senegal (above) showing the dramatic phases of light and dark over the local landscape, produced by a total solar eclipse that ocurred on June 30 of that year.  Similarly, nations across Africa and the globe featured the March 6, 1986 passing of Halley’s comet on many local stamp issues.  Pictured at the beginning of this post is one from Malawi, showing the comet passing through the starry night sky over the country.  The much-celebrated passing of Halley’s comet occurs just once every 75 years and inspired skygazers worldwide to witness this thrilling and rare occurrence.
Astronomy on the African continent evokes rich traditions and proud historical achievements.  We can expect new generations of African researchers to take research and discovery to exciting new heights and to uncover further clues and evidence to how ancient cultures related to the cosmos.

Willem Boshoff On His Art

Teens at the Smithsonian’s ARTLAB+ produced and recorded a series of interviews with our own Chris Kreamer, curator of the African Cosmos exhibition, South African artist Willem Boshoff, and astrophysicists at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Check out the third in this series of interviews below, which highlights South African artist Willem Boshoff, whose work is featured in the exhibition:

Guest Voices- South African Astronomy Stamps

Our guest post this week is by South African artist Marcus Neustetter, whose work is featured in the African Cosmos exhibition.  To see his work, visit:

On the invitation of the South African Post office to design a stamp series celebrating South Africa’s role in astronomy, I further developed my existing research and network at the intersection of art science and technology. My contribution was beyond the designing of the stamps, to negotiating the inclusion of various agencies and facilities, as well as acknowledging the traditional history and astronomical societies that make the local approach to astronomy rich and layered.

The astronomy stamps series designed by Marcus Neustetter

While I was focused on designing each stamp and the first day covers to be both accessible and artistic in conceptual approach and execution, a few key elements maintained throughout the design process. I wanted to work with the technology of the stamp, which resulted in the perforated stamp sheet, the foiling, that echoes the mirroring of the technology used in most of star observation– integrating my own drawings into a dialogue with the facilities, agencies, or represented data.

The marks, drawn in the dark while observing the space between the stars in the night sky of Sutherland in the Karoo region, and data collected from the different observatories, has informed the representation of what I like to call the unexplainable, the unknown, the imaginary, the magic.

For more information and a closer look at the stamp series, click here.

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.

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

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.

Guest Voices- African Creation Myths

Our guest post this week is by Jarita Holbrook, researcher at UCLA and among the first African American women to earn a doctorate in astrophysics in the USA.

A Yoruba lidded bowl representing the separation between the living (earth) and spiritual (sky) realms. National Museum of African Art collection.

The idea of myths and legends possibly containing scientific truths about the sky is not new. Studies trying to tease out astronomy facts from the narrative of myths have been fraught with methodological errors center around the question of ‘what myths are the best candidates for having astronomy content?’ Books have been written in answer to this question that offer guidelines for identifying celestial motifs in myths across cultures.

My 2008 analysis of African creation myths focused on identifying common cosmological themes that appear in more than one ethnic group. For that study, the myths selected were chosen from published sources—which can present problems that should be taken into consideration. For example, oftentimes the person recording the myth has: a) combined several versions of the myth into one version for simplicity, and b) changed the language used in the myth in order for it to read better for academic audiences. It is rare to impossible to find original transcriptions of African creation myths.

A theme that I explored was the origin state of the universe revealed in African creation myths. The broad categories of original states were a seed, water, and a deity:

1) In West Africa the origin myth begins with a seed. The seed is very small, yet it has the intrinsic property of creating the entire universe. This origin myth is spread among a large family of ethnic groups called the Mande people that spread from Mali in the north down throughout West Africa; the astronomically famous ethnic group the Dogon are included.

2) Some origin myths start with the Universe in a watery chaotic state and often the myth goes on to explain how the Earth is created and the sky is separated from the earth such as for the Yoruba (Nigeria) and the Bakuba (Democratic Republic of Congo).

3) A deity exists at the beginning who creates or aids in organizing the universe. Myths that begin with a deity are found in Muslim and Christian communities, as well as ethnic groups from West Africa to the Khoisan in South Africa.

A second theme was the idea that the content of the origin myth laid out the structure and provided a justification for the current societal order, oftentimes including the lineage of the hereditary rulers. Such myths were found in Islamic Africa on both sides of the Sahara and East Africa, and within some non-Muslim ethnic groups in Central Africa. A particular subset of the creation myths that focus on societal order are those in which the original ancestor comes from the sky and marries a human as found among the Banyoro (Uganda), Bemba (Zambia), and the Bugunda (Uganda).

The Creation Myth of the Temne (Schlenker 1861)

Our fathers did not tell us much about the creation of the world, they only told us that when God made the world, he put it on the head of a giant, who was below it. This person carries the world on the head. They told us that all the trees, and all the grass, and all things, which grow on this earth, are the hair of the head of this giant; and all living creatures are the lice of his head. He, on whose head the world was put before, has died, and another man carries this world again on the head. When they put the world on him, he was in a sitting posture, and turned towards the East. They told us that this person turns himself, but that he turns softly, so that people cannot know it; except that time when he turns towards the West, then men know it; because at that time there arises an earthquake, so that houses and trees fall down. At that time when this person falls down, and dies, the whole world is at an end, and every thing in the world will perish. After a long time God will [t]ake this world away, that he may put again a new world. God did not make a world lasting for ever; after a long time he will put a new world again. What the black and the white people say respecting the world, that this world will be at an end some day, is truth.

Many of the myths represent a dynamic or changing Universe, where much has happened since the original state. In particular, two myths projected that the Universe would be ending in the future: the Temne of Sierra Leone (above) and the Amhara of Ethiopia.

These themes and categories were designated to search for perhaps regional differences and similarities, however, the only clear linkages I found were between related groups and neighbors, and those of the same religion such as Islam. It was a fun process of reading dozens of African creation myths to arrive at these categories and conclusions, however, dozens hardly covers the entire African continent.

Dear readers, please contribute the African creation myths you know as well as comment on whether your myths fit into any of these categories.

References Cited

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Bergland, A. I. 1976. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Johannesburg, Cape Town: David Philip.

De Santillana, Giorgio, and Hertha Von Dechend. 1969. Hamlet’s Mill; an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Boston: Gambit.

Dupuis, Cf. 1794. Origine De Tous Les Cultes Ou Religion Universelle. Paris: Agasse.

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———. 2010 Submitted. African Cosmology: Cosmology & Social Order. In Arya Bhattiyam: Perspectives of the Universe Bangalore: The Srinivas Jyothish Vigyan Research Foundation.

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