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