Share in the wonder of the Shared Sky exhibition

[written June 5, 2015]

Stuart Buchanan
3 min readJan 19, 2018
Corvus the Crow, by Kevin Merritt. The artist was inspired by one of the SKA scientists’ favourite constellations. All images by Stuart Buchanan (with kind permission from the National Gallery)

South Africa will soon be home to one-half of the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The other half will be hosted in Australia, and together this project will probe deeper into the night sky than ever before in an attempt to answer some of the fundamental questions about the universe, and the origins of life. These are questions we have been asking since the dawn of humankind, and the Shared Sky exhibit celebrates this sense of wonder through traditional art.

The Jewellery Box, by Barbara Merritt. The Australian artists are descendants of, or connected to, the Wajarri people who, 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

Every culture around the world has looked up and noticed the rhythms of the sun, the moon and the stars, and seen unusual cosmic events like comets and eclipses, and sought to understand them, and incorporate them into their stories about life, death and whatever follows.

In a way, we still do — albeit with the use of cutting-edge technology and scientific reasoning. This is the motivation behind building the biggest-ever radio telescope, and what it seeks to find will be of benefit to all of humanity.

Hydra the Water Serpent, by Nerolie Blurton

For these radio telescopes to work, they need to be placed somewhere quiet and undisturbed. Which is why South Africa’s Karoo desert, and Australia’s Murchison area, are ideal. While the technology sits at these two sites, it is looking at the same shared sky.

The first peoples who lived in these areas also looked up at the same sky, and saw the same stars. The Shared Sky exhibition, currently on display at the National Gallery in Cape Town, celebrates the ancient wisdom of the San and Wajarri people through a series of artworks done by artists who descended from those cultures.

Take a look at some of their artwork below:

Emu in the Sky by Kyle Pickett. The dark patch in the Milky Way (known as Jirdilungu to the Wajarri), known today as the Great Rift, was seen as an emu (Yalibirri), and used as a guide to when the right time was to collect emu eggs, an important meal
A close-up of one of the figures in Creation of the Milky Way, by the First People Artists from the Bethesda Arts Centre. Tragedies of the last two centuries devastated the traditional hunter-gatherer populations of the Karoo, and the First People Artists working in Nieu Bethesda are trying to heal the suffering by connecting the richness of a past that has been lost with the talent and inspiration of the present
The Girl Who Made Stars, by the First People Artists. Part of this creation myth reads: ‘You who are wood ashes, you will altogether become the Milky Way and sail through the sky, following your footprints, so people coming home by night can see their way.’
Origin of Death by the First People Artists. The myth goes that there was no death until one day, the Moon cursed the Hare and all of humanity
Creation of the Sun, by the First People Artists

Shared Sky is an inspiring, must-see exhibition that embodies the spirit of the international science and engineering collaboration that is the SKA project, and a humble reminder that whatever our roots, and wherever we are, we are all trying to make sense of the world around us.

The exhibition has been extended until June 21. Visit the Iziko Museum’s website for more information.

This display shows both ancient and modern names for objects in the sky
The South African National Gallery is located in the Company’s Garden in Cape Town

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