The same stars shine down on South Africa’s Central Karoo and parts of Western Australia. But over thousands of years, different eyes have watched these shared skies, and woven the bright points of light and the darkness between into the lyrical creation myths of the first peoples of both continents.
There is the story of the Girl Who Threw Ashes into the Sky to make the Milky Way – or what the !Kung people call the Backbone of the Night. This same girl threw up a root, white when young and red when old, to make the stars. Then there is the story of the children who threw an old man with the sun in his armpit up into the sky to light the day.
From across Indian Ocean, there are more tales, fables and heavenly instructions, like when the shadow of the Great Emu looms, to tell the Yamaji people when to collect emu eggs. The formation comes from the Yamaji seeing beyond the stars, to the dust clouds and matter between the heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye; a scientific subtlety lost on even later science-focused civilisations.
These stories explaining the universe – this indigenous astronomy – have now been gathered and depicted in a series of quilts that went on exhibition at the John Curtin Gallery in Perth on 30 September 2014, where they will remain until 2 November. The show, Shared Sky, is an “ingenious collaboration between science and indigenous art’ and runs concurrently with the SKA Engineering meeting in Perth. The meeting brings together the teams from around the world who are working on the design of the first phase of the Square Kilometre Array telescope, to be built from 2018 in South Africa and Australia.
South Africa SKA director Bernie Fanaroff believes that science and art have much in common: “They are both about beauty and aesthetics – most science is beautiful, and so is most art. The quilts, are really beautiful in themselves – colourful and dynamic; science is like that too.”
The Shared Sky exhibition brings three artists from the First People group at the Nieu- Bethesda community arts centre in South Africa’s Eastern Cape together with Australian artists descended from or connected to the Wajarri people who lived on the land that is now the site of the Australian SKA.
This land is 700km north-east of Perth, at Boolardy Station in the mid-west region of Western Australia.
The Aboriginal artists are from the Yamaji Art Centre, which is a “strong advocate for social justice and the promotion of respect and awareness of Yamaji culture’. The centre is 100% Aboriginal-owned and operated.
Sandra Sweers is the lead artist at First People group. She prefers to work with textiles, is also a printmaker, and sometimes works in stained glass. She facilitates drawing at the centre and often participates in shows at the centre as an actor, clown, dancer and singer. Sweers, like all the artists at the centre, is a recovering alcoholic from a difficult background. In her younger years she identified as Coloured, but now also embraces her Xam Bushman heritage, which she depicts strongly in the Shared Sky works. Gerald Mei, also of Xam heritage, works with stained glass and mosaics and has a special fondness for painting with oils. At 18, he is the youngest artist at First People and having overcoming his shyness and getting used to working with mostly women, is an enthusiastic quilt maker.
Both sets of art, South African and Australian, have an organic feel; swirl motifs, recurrent soft geometrics, the ochred colours of the arid lands the artists live on, all combine to create vivid tapestries imagining the dawn of humanity, and the stars above. The Shared Sky exhibition is scheduled to arrive in South Africa early in 2015.
SAinfo reporter, SKA