WRIT­TEN IN THE STARS

An in­ter­na­tional as­tron­omy project has brought to­gether the works of in­dige­nous artists from Western Aus­tralia and South Africa, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

AGROUP of sci­en­tists and artists is peer­ing heav­en­wards on a star­lit night at re­mote Boolardy Sta­tion, 700km north­east of Perth. As­tronomer Steven Tin­gay, di­rec­tor of Curtin Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Ra­dio As­tron­omy, fol­lows the up­ward ges­ture of Ya­maji artist Char­maine Green as she points to one part of the starry fir­ma­ment. She di­rects him and his sci­en­tific col­leagues to look closely and tell her what they see.

The sci­en­tists’ eyes are drawn to bright pin­pricks of light; they con­nect star to star, or­der­ing them into con­stel­la­tions and audi­bly recit­ing their names — Orion, South­ern Cross, Milky Way. In this man­ner, across Western civil­i­sa­tion, gen­er­a­tions of stargaz­ers have stead­fastly sought ce­les­tial or­der amid the bright­ness.

But Green and her fel­low artists ex­hort their guests to look again. Look for the dark­est spots, Green urges, and form them in your mind’s eye into a fig­ure. Sure enough, a long, el­e­gant emu fig­ure re­veals it­self among the dark clouds of the Milky Way. The sci­en­tists soon find them­selves recog­nis­ing it eas­ily, both in the night sky and in the art of Ya­maji artists whose work is shown to them.

“There are cer­tain times of year we look up at the sky and we look to the dark places,” says Green. “We see the emu be­come vis­i­ble around the emu egg-lay­ing time and we know we can gather the eggs.” She ob­serves: “It’s in­ter­est­ing that we look at the same sky, yet ev­ery­one’s not look­ing at what oth­ers see.”

Tin­gay was one of the in­sti­ga­tors of this cross-dis­ci­plinary out­ing, con­ducted on West Aus­tralian land al­lo­cated for the world’s big­gest ra­dio te­le­scope project, called the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray.

“We’re us­ing tele­scopes to reach out to the most dis­tant reaches of the uni­verse and dis­cover things never seen be­fore,” says Tin­gay. “And we’re do­ing that from this re­ally an­cient land­scape that’s been un­der the own­er­ship of the Wa­jarri Ya­maji peo­ple for tens of thou­sands of years.”

The $2 bil­lion Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray is a global mega­science project to de­velop the world’s largest and most sen­si­tive ra­dio te­le­scope; it is be­ing built in re­mote lo­ca­tions in Aus­tralia and South Africa by a con­sor­tium of 11 coun­tries.

The choice of a re­mote pas­toral sta­tion in Western Aus­tralia makes sense when you are try­ing to lis­ten to the faintest “whis­pers” in space. Murchi­son Shire is the size of the Nether­lands. It has a pop­u­la­tion of just 110 peo­ple, lit­tle ra­dio noise, few cars and almost no elec­tric fences, mi­crowave ovens or mo­bile phones.

“It’s one of the qui­etest places on Earth,” ex­plains Tin­gay. “If you look at a map of the globe that shows man­made ra­dio in­ter­fer­ence, there’s this very clear patch over Western Aus­tralia.”

Next week, more than 300 as­tronomers and space en­gi­neers will con­verge on Perth to dis­cuss the SKA, its scope and fi­nal de­sign. Some will travel north to Boolardy Sta­tion to in­spect the Murchi­son Wide­field Ar­ray, one of Aus­tralia’s pre­cur­sor SKA in­stal­la­tions that uses fu­tur­is­tic sci­ence to look back to­ward the ear­li­est mo­ments of our uni­verse.

“We’re also look­ing to­wards the galac­tic cen­tre, at su­per­nova rem­nants,” says Tin­gay, who is di­rec­tor of the MWA. Images from the MWA’s low-fre­quency ra­dio ar­ray have al­ready de­liv­ered much new in­for­ma­tion. “We’ve in­creased the num­ber of known ex­ploded stars in our galaxy by at least 20, which is just amaz­ing.”

The fact the SKA will strad­dle two con­ti­nents means it will im­pact on the lands of two in­dige­nous peo­ples — the Ya­maji of Western Aus­tralia, and the San peo­ple of South Africa’s Ka­roo re­gion in East­ern Cape Prov­ince. It has led to the Shared Sky ex­hi­bi­tion, a cel­e­bra­tion of the cos­mol­ogy-cen­tred art of both groups, open­ing in the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin Univer­sity in Perth.

In a cen­tral gallery, huge time-lapse images show the el­e­gant track­ing by ra­dio tele­scopes across the sky. But in gal­leries on each side, in­dige­nous Aus­tralian and South African artists ex­press their ce­les­tial be­liefs through acrylic paint­ings, tex­tile quilts, sculp­tural in­stal­la­tions and even on carved emu and os­trich eggs.

“They show how a so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand- ing of ce­les­tial me­chan­ics res­onates with the work of liv­ing artists,” says Chris Mal­colm, di­rec­tor of John Curtin Gallery, who cu­rated the show. “And they are shar­ing those in­sights with sci­en­tists work­ing to un­lock the se­crets of the uni­verse.”

A small SKA art ex­hi­bi­tion was held in 2009 but this is a far more am­bi­tious show. Green, who runs Ya­maji Art Cen­tre in Ger­ald­ton, about 400km north of Perth, says more than 20 lo­cal artists have pro­duced 60 works that “look beyond our own tra­di­tion, be­cause we have seen through tele­scopes, we’ve googled and we’ve re­searched con­stel­la­tions, new gal­ax­ies and ne­bu­las”.

“We’re still in­ter­ested in our sto­ries of how we see the sky but we’re look­ing at how as­tronomers are talk­ing to us about their per­cep­tions of the sky. A lot of artists are ex­cited by the idea of look­ing at the sky dif­fer­ently.” Th­ese for­ays into Western as­tron­omy have led to paint­ings with ti­tles such as Betel­geuse, Hy­dra and Corvus.

Emu eggs carved with de­pic­tions of the Milky Way have been matched with col­lab­o­ra­tive “map” paint­ings of night star clus­ters, the first such images pro­duced by Ya­maji artists.

Em­blem­atic of this new in­spi­ra­tion is a work Tin­gay lists among his favourites. It’s a sculp- ture of spin­dle-like ra­dio an­ten­nas cas­cad­ing from sky to Earth, or from gallery ceil­ing to floor. “Char­maine saw we’d dis­carded an­ten­nas which we no longer needed,” re­calls Tin­gay, “and she said, ‘We can do some­thing with them.’ She wrapped them up in dif­fer­ent colours of wool, in­spired by pro­tect­ing what’s pre­cious.”

In another gallery is the work of 20 South African artists from Bethesda Arts Cen­tre, in Nieu Bethesda, not far from the site of the South African SKA pro­to­type. Mal­colm says the Ya­maji and San share as­pects of cre­ation sto­ries dat­ing back thou­sands of years, re­flected in the ap­pear­ance of the Milky Way in art­works from both Africa and Aus­tralia.

Bethesda’s di­rec­tor, artist Jeni Couzyn, set up the art cen­tre to “rein­tro­duce a sense of iden­tity to dis­in­her­ited peo­ple of mixed de­scent, and to fa­cil­i­tate them to be­come artists”.

The artists — many of them mem­bers of what were for­merly called Bush­men tribes — have grown up in an area of Africa lit­tered with as­ton­ish­ing rock en­grav­ings. The startling etched images, which will also be dis­played at John Curtin Gallery, point to a tra­di­tion of star­watch­ing dat­ing back 20,000 years.

But large em­broi­dered quilts have be­come the art cen­tre’s forte, “a way of ex­press­ing and

Il­gari Inyay­i­manha (Shared Sky) ex­plor­ing the rich mean­ing of the San cre­ation mythol­ogy within the con­text of the artists’ con­tem­po­rary lives”. Seven quilts will be dis­played in Shared Sky.

Among a small group of South African artists who, with Couzyn, will visit Perth for the ex­hi­bi­tion is tex­tile and print maker San­dra Sweers, whose San roots, which for years were the cause of ex­treme dis­crim­i­na­tion, have be­come a source of artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion. Another is 24year-old Ger­ald Mei who, ac­cord­ing to Couzyn, is among sev­eral San artists who have tri­umphed over tough up­bring­ings, town­ship life and al­co­holism to suc­ceed as artists.

Cu­ra­tor Mal­colm says he marvels that in­dige­nous cul­tures have long ac­cepted “there is more that ex­ists in the uni­verse than is vis­i­ble as points of light”. Yet Western sci­ence has only rel­a­tively re­cently em­braced chal­leng­ing no­tions such as “dark mat­ter” and “dark en­ergy”.

Com­mis­sioned by the Aus­tralian and South African gov­ern­ments and the in­ter­na­tional SKA Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Shared Sky will travel to five con­ti­nents in the next two years to cel­e­brate the SKA project. Even­tu­ally, a book will ac­com­pany the ex­hi­bi­tion on its or­bit. “It will have all sorts of ex­perts talk­ing about in­dige­nous as­tron­omy and an­cient pop­u­la­tions’ un­der­stand­ing of ce­les­tial me­chan­ics,” Mal­colm says.

For Tin­gay, new ex­pe­ri­ences have emerged from his pro­fes­sional fel­low­ship with Green. “Char­maine pushed us all out of our com­fort zones — she even had us writ­ing po­etry about the ex­pe­ri­ence and per­form­ing it, which was pretty con­fronting for me.”

Per­haps fit­tingly, the ra­dio-de­rived images as­sem­bled so far from the Murchi­son Wide­field Ar­ray re­sem­ble ra­di­ant dots on a dark can­vas, in­ter­spersed with faint bub­ble struc­tures and com­pli­cated clouds of gas with mag­netic fields.

“Each of th­ese dots is another galaxy mil­lions or bil­lions of light years away,” says Tin­gay. “Th­ese are ob­jects way out­side our galaxy.”

Green and the Ya­maji artist group say they will con­tinue to track the progress of the world’s big­gest as­tron­omy project on their doorstep, not least be­cause — un­like many min­ing op­er­a­tions in the re­gion — “the beauty of the break­away coun­try will still re­main”.

Wa­jarri elder and artist Kevin Mer­ritt de­scribes it thus: “It fas­ci­nates me be­cause look at me here, a grain of sand in the whole uni­verse. The size of it makes the mind bog­gle and I guess each in­di­vid­ual can’t de­scribe how they feel.”

Green’s feel­ings hint at an even more el­e­men­tal hu­man re­sponse to the Earth’s shared sky. “When we’re out­side think­ing about loved ones passed away, we look up and think how big the uni­verse is and how small we re­ally are.”

(de­tail), a col­lab­o­ra­tive paint­ing by Ya­maji Art Cen­tre artists, top; a col­lab­o­ra­tive quilt de­pict­ing the cre­ation of the sun, from the Bethesda Art Cen­tre in South Africa, left

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