Very few places make you feel as keenly aware of your insignificance as the Michael C. Carlos Museum, repository of mummies and other ancient artifacts that attest to the epic sweep of time. An even more profound contemplation of one’s puniness in the larger scheme of things, “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” looks at how civilizations past and present, from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary African artists, envision eternity in their devotional objects and artwork.
This traveling exhibition, which originated at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, illustrates a timeless human desire shared by artists, scientists and common people, to look to the sky and imagine one’s place in the universe and the nature of existence itself.
That idea is perhaps most evocatively expressed in a contemporary video work and elaboration of the exhibit’s themes.
A collaboration between scientists and South African artist Karel Nel, the arresting, transportive “Deep Survey” uses data from the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS), to picture what it might feel like to move through deep space. A vertiginous plunge into a pitch black sky as stars rush by, is complemented by Nel’s audio track of ambient nighttime sounds. “Deep Survey” feels like a meditation on a shared human impulse to stare at the night sky and contemplate one’s place within a vast, mysterious universe to the strains of owls and cicadas.
Tracing connections between Egypt’s pharaohs, the belief systems of Mali’s Dogon peoples and the religions of the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria, “African Cosmos” finds a continuum in civilizations fascinated by the operations of the sun, the moon, stars, weather and the animal kingdom. “African Cosmos” shows the elaborate belief systems that arose from observations of these natural phenomena. Staffs, amulets, crowns and statues from Mali to Nigeria to Cameroon are used to visualize creation myths and the origins of the universe. Tiny Egyptian statuettes on display show human figures adorned with sun-like discs to show the centrality of the sun in their cosmology. Regarding the scarab beetle rolling dung across the desert, the Egyptians saw a metaphor for the movement of the sun across the sky, a motif of eternal motion captured in an Egyptian coffin lid from 1075-945 B.C. adorned with those same cosmic beetles. The behavior of insects, baboons and the mongoose became instructive illustrations of the greater workings of the universe for the Egyptians, a belief system that can seem at once archaic and profound for showing a deep connection to the natural world that can make modern life feel impoverished by comparison.
A number of wood and metal sculptures created by African artisans across that continent boil down the circumstance of existence into one essential image: tiny human figures raising their arms on high to hold a disk above their heads in a representation of the essential duality at the heart of this show: heaven above and earth below.
One limitation of this otherwise fascinating show is some unnecessarily dense wall text so intent on capturing the historical minutiae of what is being shown. The writing becomes pedantic rather than edifying, losing a sense of the narrative sweep of the exhibition and the themes that unite these objects.