The Cosmos Seen through African Eyes

By Zeaman, John | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 5, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Cosmos Seen through African Eyes


Zeaman, John, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


AFRICAN COSMOS: STELLAR ARTS

The Newark Museum, 49 Washington St. 973-596-6550. newarkmuseum.org

Through Aug. 11. Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children, seniors and students.

An astounding sculpture greets visitors to the Newark Museum's "African Cosmos" exhibit. Standing higher than 12 feet, it looks at first glance like a giant rubber tire. But as you get closer, you see that it represents a snake swallowing its own tail. It's a scary piece, scarier than its title - "Rainbow Serpent" - would suggest. But also a very clever one, once you perceive that the creature's scales are made of flattened out gasoline jugs.

As for meaning, don't look for a simple answer. Depending on the African culture, the Rainbow Serpent symbolizes a force holding the world together or one that crushes it back into pre-creation oblivion. Sometimes it's a good-luck charm, sometimes a symbol of natural cycles. The artist, Romuald Hazoume, from the Republic of Benin, has also incorporated some masks that reference the evils of the slave trade, while the gas cans are an expression of environmental degradation.

It's a clue to what lies ahead in "African Cosmos," an exhibit from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. (This is the only Northeast venue for the exhibit.) It casts a net of cosmic size, embracing numerous tribes, civilizations, and belief systems from ancient times right up to the present day.

The exhibit's impetus is the universal wonder with which humans have always gazed at the star-studded sky. That wonder spawned cosmologies and creation myths that found expression in art. The term for this is "cultural astronomy."

The exhibit has 70 or so objects, including sculptures, masks, wall panels, headdresses, paintings, video and mixed-media pieces. That's not a terribly big show, but because just about every piece requires grounding in history, science and anthropology, the show feels as dense with information and cross-references as Hazoume's serpent. The show is chock full of symbols for the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, rainbows, eclipses and the Milky Way.

In the first gallery, you learn about Nabta Playa, a site near the border of Egypt and Sudan where a circle of upright stones and sun dials were set up for astronomical measurements. It's similar to the famed Stonehenge in Britain, but was built nearly 6,000 years ago -- a thousand years before Stonehenge.

You also learn that the ancient Egyptians associated Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, with the annual flooding of the Nile, a welcome event for farmers. …

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