Shared Sky stems from a vision by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation to bring together, South African and Australian artists in a collaborative exhibition celebrating humanity’s ancient cultural wisdom. This vision embodies the spirit of the international science and engineering collaboration that is the SKA project itself, bringing together many nations around two sites in South Africa and Australia, to study the same sky.
Shared Sky connects artists working in remote communities from either side of the Indian Ocean that have ancient cultural connections to the two sites where the SKA will be located. Both locations were specifically chosen for their radio-quietness and relative isolation – fundamental requirements for a successful radio telescope facility. Prototype ‘precursor’ telescopes are already active at each location, some of which will eventually become part of the much larger SKA telescope – the world’s largest-ever radio telescope.
Through this global collaboration involving governments, scientists and engineers from over 20 nations, the SKA radio telescope will capture unprecendented levels of information, often from the farthest reaches of the Universe. By enabling scientists to see deeper into space, further back in time, and with greater clarity than has been possible, the SKA will greatly enhance humanity’s knowledge of the Universe.
The exhibition reflects an understanding of the world that has been developed across countless generations observing the movements of the night sky. Minister Pandor says of the exhibition: “While Shared Sky successfully reflects on the ancestral interpretations of the night sky from indigenous people from both South Africa and Australia, it also touches on South Arica’s flagship science programmes. South Africa has a rich fossil heritage, allowing for world class research in human origins. At the same time, we host top astronomers exploring our place in the universe.”
Being located on similar latitudes on both continents, the two sites in Australia and South Africa present essentially identical views of the night sky to the people who have lived there for tens of thousands of years, and to whom some of the oldest known artwork on earth can be attributed. Shared Sky explores how this understanding resonates in the work of living artists that are sharing their insights with scientists working to unlock the secrets of the Universe.
Shared Sky also embodies the idea that no borders exist in the sky and that the night sky is an increasingly scarce natural resource that belongs to and is shared by all humanity.
The movement of objects across the night sky has been a profound source of inspiration for the artists since time immemorial. The desire to understand this has informed creation myths and stories among human populations across the globe for countless generations.
It is what has inspired both groups of artists in this exhibition, and what drives the large international teams of scientists and engineers developing one of the world’s greatest scientific endeavours in Australia and South Africa: the SKA
In South Africa, artists who are descendants of |xam speaking San people and others of the central Karoo work communally to produce artworks at the First People Centre of the Bethesda Arts Centre in the small village of Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape. They have produced collaborative artworks in textiles that explore their own creation myths and celebrate the ancient culture of their ancestors that survived in the harsh environment of the central Karoo desert region for millennia. These large art tapestries reflect a visual language that stretches back to a time of great antiquity. Fragments of ostrich eggs between 65-75,000 years old have been found which show evidence of decorative engraving, a distant connection to the lost art of rock engraving so evident across South Africa’s central Karoo region. Art forms like these flourished from the end of the last ice-age approximately 12,000 years ago. The story-telling traditions of these artists’ forbears would have remained largely a mystery if it were not for the comprehensive archive of the Bleek & Lloyd Collections. It comprises verbatim interview accounts of hundreds of traditional |xam stories translated into English. Although little evidence exists of the specific purpose of the rock engravings and paintings that are still in situ in the Karoo, they do afford tantalising glimpses of the culturally specific ritual significance of this extinct petroglyphic practice.
For Yamaji people – indeed many Aboriginal communites right across southern Australia – the appearance of the dark shape of an emu stretched out along the length of the Milky Way has heralded the season for collecting emu eggs for thousands of years. In Western Australia, the Yamaji and other Aboriginal artists who have created artworks for Shared Sky are descendants of, or connected to, Wajarri people that until the mid-19th century were still living a largely traditional way of life, hunting and gathering on the land that is now the site of the Australian SKA. The Yamaji Art Centre in Geraldton, Western Australia is a community arts organisation and strong advocate for social justice and the promotion of respect and awareness of Yamaji culture. It is through the auspices of the Yamaji Art Centre that the artists have connected to Shared Sky and visited the Australian SKA site, spending time talking to the scientists and, under the stars, sharing their stories about the night sky. Though most have not lived on this specific land, they create artwork throughout the Mid West region to promote their culture and continue the process of teaching their own communities the stories of their ancestors, reviving dying languages and nurturing Aboriginal culture to maintain connections to their traditional Country.
The resilience of culture
Shared Sky presents an unprecedented opportunity for these peoples, who share so much through their common colonial histories, to reflect upon the countless generations of proud custodianship of their respective homelands and draw strength and inspiration from each other. That these communities developed such rich and distinctive cultures over thousands of generations in absolute isolation – and an entire Indian Ocean apart – yet share so many deep concerns for the preservation of their cultural heritage, is fitting testament to the power of collaboration. Stories passed on through meticulous oral traditions from one generation to another across the millennia, and the profoundly complex understanding of celestial mechanics common to both cultures, has been brought together in this way through the cultural agency of the Square Kilometre Array project and the willingness of scientists to reach out and appreciate alternative ways of seeing.
Shared Sky is brought to you by the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Organisation, Manchester, UK; SKA South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa; SKA Australia, Canberra, Australia in collaboration with Curtin University’s Institute of Radio Astronomy.
Shared Sky was developed in collaboration with Yamaji Art Centre, Geraldton, Western Australia and the First People Centre at the Bethesda Arts Centre, Nieu Bethesda, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Shared Sky is hosted by Iziko Museums of South Africa, a national flagship institution and an agency of the national Department of Arts and Culture, at the Iziko South African National Gallery.
Shared Sky has been curated by Chris Malcolm, Director, John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University, Perth, Australia, as international currator in partnership with John Parkington, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of Cape Town. Shared Sky is presented in South Africa in collaboration with curator Sandra Prosalendis, exhibition designer Elsabe Gelderblom and Carol Kaufmann, Curator of African Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town. The Shared Sky exhibition will be open to the public from the 06th of February till the end of May 2015.Shared Sky will be officially opened by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, on the 13th of February 2015.