African Cosmos: Stellar Arts
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
To November 30, 2014
Organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and curated by Christine Mullen Kreamer, LACMA’s recent exhibition African Cosmos: Stellar Arts offers insight into the rich history of African cultural astronomy and its relationship to visual arts. Located in the Hammer building, which houses the Museum’s special exhibition projects, African Cosmos includes an array of material objects and select artworks that span from antiquity to the present day. With highlights from Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, the works comprising the exhibition point to the diversity of astronomical beliefs that exist across the continent, as well as the shared belief in the interconnectedness between the sky and the earth.
The study of cultural astronomy, which deals with the distinct ways in which culturally specific practices relate to celestial beliefs, focuses the curatorial premise of the exhibition and of its accompanying catalogue. In it, one finds writing by artists, curators and scholars on topics such as Nga astronomical rituals, Yoruba cosmological performance, and of Ethiopian cosmic imagery. As the exhibition’s extensive catalogue demonstrates, African astronomical knowledge has existed for millennia, yet its varied practices and cultural histories have rarely been acknowledged in the West. Mullen Kreamer’s combined exhibition and publication seek to remedy this absence, emphasizing the ways in which astronomical beliefs of peoples across Africa have contributed to practices of timekeeping, navigation, agriculture, art-making, family, mathematics and spirituality.
Within the exhibit, African Cosmos consists of three small galleries that communicate how astronomical beliefs have influenced African material production over time through ethnographic display, and more contemporary presentation modes like video installation and curatorial didactics. Ranging from themes such as the role of solar passages, cosmic models, lunar cycles to celestial deities, the exhibition’s arrangement seams together a multiplicity of divergent African beliefs and Indigenous practices. One work in particular was especially striking: the elaborately beaded cotton tunic encased in glass, which is speculated as originating in a Baba Adesina family workshop in Yoruba, Nigeria, and is dated early-20th Century. Typically worn as regalia by Yoruba kings, the tunic’s intricately beaded pattern is representative of a number of things − the triangles symbolize the jagged path of lightening in the sky, as well as the impressive power of Shango, who is the Yoruba god of thunder. This historical example hangs as if still on the back of a king or priest dedicated to Shango, embodying an important celestial belief found in southwestern Nigeria.
While the exhibition’s critical contemporary engagement was lacking − especially considering the abundance of aesthetically and conceptual rigorous work being produced by African artists today − the overall curation related the importance of cosmic faith throughout the continent’s history. Fortunately, its accompanying catalogue sheds further light on contemporary practices such as by British-born Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare who explores notions of space as the next colonial frontier; Pretoria-based artist Berco Wilsenach’s work on decentering the ‘cartographic gaze’; or of Marcus Neustetter from Johannesburg, who appropriates old photographs of the sky as viewed from the Southern African Large Telescope. Ultimately, whether your interest lies in art history, science, religion, anthropology, sociology or otherwise, at its core, the exhibition African Cosmos raised faraway yet familiar questions of what it means to be human in this world, or another.
Ellyn Walker is a writer and curator based between Toronto (Tkaronto) and Kingston (Cataraqui), on Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat land. Her work is informed by critical art history, decolonial theory and anti-racist methodologies, and focuses on modes of cross-cultural engagement within the arts as potential sites for resistance, re-imagination and (re)conciliation between Indigenous peoples and diverse settler communities. Her writing has been published in such venues as Prefix Photo, PUBLIC Journal, Fuse Magazine, the Journal of Curatorial Studies, BlackFlash and C Magazine, among others. Ellyn is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University where she looks at the politics of alliance in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices.