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: http://www.marcusneustetter.com/

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.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Visualization of SKA dishes at night. Credit: SKA Organisation/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

  • Yesterday marked the end of a two-day summit hosted at the University of Pretoria to discuss the future of the SKA South Africa site. Astronomers and government officials discussed the benefits that would arise from the project, with human capital development named as the priority.
  • This week Morocco hosts the Global Hands On Universe conference, which brings together teachers, scientists and educators from high schools, universities, research centers, and science centers from around the world to discuss various topics in science education. Global astronomy projects and the connections between astronomy and culture will be key points of discussion for this week’s conference.

Theories of Creation

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 second in this series of interviews below, which highlights the astrophysicists involved in this exhibition:

Cosmic Connections

Kifwebe moon mask, Songye, Democratic Republic of the Congo, early-mid 20th century; National Museum of African Art collection

Thunder Diety Staff, Yoruba, Nigeria; National Museum of African Art collection

 

Read on to learn more about these pieces…

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!