A collaborative painting from Aboriginal Yamaji Artists from Western Australia and a collaborative quilt from South African indigenous artists exposed at the Shared Sky exhibition
Under Perth’s own starry sky and amidst the smoke of sandalwood and wild mint, an exhibition marking the collaborative efforts of South African and Western Australian indigenous artists came to life on September 30.
With opening remarks from senior academics, scientists and local authorities, John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University became the first proud host of Shared Sky — an inventive collaboration showcasing overlapping cultural mythology and artistic interpretations of the heavens.
A unique exhibition
Brought together under the banner of the Square Kilometre Array, the 300 participants of the SKA Engineering conference taking place in Fremantle, public officials from the university and state government and the artists themselves experienced the marriage of the ancient and modern, the analogue and digital, the artistic and scientific.
The first of its kind, Shared Sky is the culmination of an international effort to deliver groundbreaking artistic expressions representing the engineering and scientific endeavour encapsulated by the SKA. As the project evolves towards producing the largest scientific tool in the world, artistic communities of member countries are telling their own stories of how the skies have unfolded for them.
Director of the exhibition at John Curtin Gallery and curator of Shared Sky Chris Malcolm was extremely happy with the international turnout to the opening, and particularly delighted to see the degree of interest in the conceptual display. “This is really a momentous first step in collaboration between these South African artists and Australian artists who, until this exhibition, have had no direct contact with each other. This is the first of what I hope will be a long series of meetings.”
Mr Malcolm said that this is a particularly unique display of artistic design because of how differently the two communities build their work: “The WA artists largely work individually, and the South African artists work almost exclusively as a collective so their works are collaborative.” One piece being showcased in Shared Sky is especially unique because the WA indigenous artists knew about the nature of the exhibition, and wanted to include a piece mirroring the style of the South Africans.
Connecting science and art through the SKA…
The opening night of the exhibition left deep impressions on the guests, as was reflected in their comments gathered that evening.
Director General of the SKA Organisation Professor Philip Diamond was especially enthusiastic about the creative energy invested in bringing a project like this one to life, and how scientists and artists are capable of inspiring one another. “I think it is fantastic that we are building the SKA, and that these artists can be inspired by what we are doing and produce work of this quality.”
Australia’s SKA Director Brian Boyle felt rewarded by the opportunity to participate in the unique gathering of scientists and artists: “It is an immense privilege to see your work through other people’s eyes; it is an opportunity to stand back and reflect on what it means to other people, and how they interpret your own research. It is quite humbling.” Mr Boyle opined that it is essential for collaborations like this one to continue as the SKA project moves forward: “I think connecting science with society is incredibly important. We’ve got to embed science in our culture – in our artistic heritage and our industrial heritage – and this is all part of that.”
Talking about the notion of Shared Sky, and specifically about the projection of high resolution time-lapse videos of the night sky from both telescope sites in a central gallery, Prof. Diamond felt that an exhibition like this represents an effort by everyone involved to tell the SKA’s story.
…but also Australia and South Africa
On making the effort to build the collaborative artscape, Mr Malcolm said that he “wanted to build a bridge between the two sets of artwork with a shared connection.” That connection was naturally the night sky and the SKA. Mr Malcolm said that the inspiration for the bridging of the two displays with the darkened area featuring a panoramic and scientific multimedia installation added another level of contrast to the project. “We’ve left the material in there very minimal because we wanted to convey a sense of awe and a sense of wonder about the sky. In one sense we wanted to show what the sites look like now, but we also wanted to show what kind of work the project will produce and how that work is itself a combination of things we can and cannot see with just our eyes.”
Western Australia’s MLA for Kalamunda and State Minister for Culture and the Arts John Day was present for the opening of Shared Sky, and noted the growing importance of connecting national cultures through artwork and artistic innovation. “It’s beautiful to see the ancient cultures of Australia and South Africa showing their own impressions of the sky by coming together in an exhibition like this one. It helps to emphasise the degree of international collaboration in relation to the SKA project.”
Minister Day used the opportunity to emphasise how international partnerships like the SKA’s work and the positive externalities it brings – like the sharing of cultures – enriches the community of Australia as a whole. “The SKA is of very great significant importance to Western Australia and Australia; it’s important for the IT industries, the academic world, and all of the universities involved, so it is of enormous importance to the scientific community here in Western Australia.” Mr Day wanted to especially note this importance to the WA community: “The fact that this is happening here in the Murchison area together with all of the very high level academic and scientific input here in Perth is a great opportunity for this state.”
For Bernie Fanaroff, SKA South Africa Director, the exhibition “was about symbolising the partnership between Australia and South Africa” as well as celebrating “the people who come from people who lived on the sites” designated for the SKA, the Yamaji people of Western Australia and the San people of South Africa. “Science is beautiful, astronomy is beautiful to us, art is beautiful”, said Bernie, so the sky’s beauty is a “common theme”.
Sandra Sweers, lead artist from the First People Artists of Bethesda Arts Centre, stressed the shared nature of the artwork’s inspiration. Speaking of the Australian indigenous artists, she said, “They see the same thing as we see, they are interested in the same thing as we are, because we grew up with the sky; grew up with looking at the Milky Way.”
The exhibition was for her “this kind of coming together – the SKA is bringing these two projects looking at the same sky. It’s amazing that they bring people together who have been through the same history.” She was grateful to the SKA project for giving her this first opportunity to travel overseas, and hoped that the artists would “work together in the future through the SKA”.
The sky, a source of inspiration for generation of artists
Sandra was roused to paint by the cave paintings in her area, relics which interact with her people’s understanding of the sky to pass on ancestral stories: “When we look at the sky, we read the story – we know the story. We feel the story, because it’s like somebody – your sister, your grandfather or your grandmother – is telling you the story now, so every story is related to us.” Her ancestors, she said, were amazed at the sky, the moon, the stars, and all that happens in the universe because they enjoyed clear skies in a quiet village surrounded by mountains. Sandra’s ambition, then, was to convey this amazement that is felt in Australia as well as in South Africa, and by artists as well as engineers on the project.
Australian Artist Craig “Chook” Pickett believed the collaboration with the SKA was important to his people because “it’s given the world better knowledge of our connection to the stars. With the SKA, we can see what our stories are in a closer image.” His acrylic on linen, Pain and Suffering, was about the Seven Sisters star cluster, with the “orange waves representing the pain and struggle that is falling upon them as they try to escape from the hunter”. The artist related his painting directly back to his own observation of the sky, saying that “if we look at the seven sisters with our naked eye, we can see six sisters pretty clear, but faintly we can see one, and that’s the sick one. That’s the odd colour, and the hunter is getting closer to that one.” Chook, of the Nyoongar tribe, has been an artist all his life, and professionally for close to 23 years. He aspired to show on canvas these sisters “struggling from pain and continuing to run”; reflecting human struggle in the stars. Chook’s passion for painting has been embraced by his son Kyle Pickett, who also had his paintings displayed in Shared Sky, along with Chook’s partner.
Inspiration and motivation
“Mind-blowing,” said Dr Bärbel Koribalski, Science Leader at CSIRO, appreciating decorated emu eggs at the exhibition. Originally from the University of Bonn, Germany, she recalled that when she started working in Australia twenty years ago she participated in a collaboration between astronomers and artists at The Rocks in Sydney; one which resulted in beautiful images. “It’s such a big thing for us trying to communicate what we do, and it tends to be a difficult thing for scientists to communicate. We don’t like talking in headlines for a newspaper. ‘I found a black hole!’ No, I never say that. ‘Assuming this, assuming that, it may be.’ But with pictures we can talk a bit more, and with an artist, we can make these pictures more beautiful.” Her artist friend taught her about colour composition in art; that “blue goes forward, and red goes back,” so “a viewer doesn’t need an explanation,” and “sometimes, to capture a person’s imagination better, you need to turn it around.”
Jader Monari of Italy, surveying the artwork of South African participants, said that the SKA “brings a quantum leap to the advancement of all humanity, something that transcends all borders”. This technical engineer from INAF found the exhibition to be “the perfect unison of art and science”; giving us “the potential to imagine, to go beyond, and to believe that all of the past can be transmitted to the future.” Shared Sky would in the future be for Jader “a motivation to always strive to do better in this international context of countries collaborating.”
Shared Sky was open at the John Curtin Gallery for a month until 2 November 2014, and is now being packed up before moving to South Africa in early 2015 for the next leg of its international tour.
Special thanks to Amy Steinepreis and Matt Staroste for recording guests’ comments.
To know more about the project visit the dedicated Shared Sky page.