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Under a shared sky

Cite Magazine

The Square Kilometre Array mega science project has ambitious celestial aims: looking deeper than ever before into time and space to help answer our questions about the early history of the universe. However, the new connections it is creating on the ground are also proving an extremely important aspect of the project, as its Shared Sky exhibition clearly demonstrates.

People looking at artwork in gallery

While separated by a vast ocean, the Yamaji people of Western Australia and the people of San descent in South Africa have much in common: they share the same latitude and view of the southern sky, they have a similar history of cultural dispossession following colonisation, and both have recently marked the arrival in their quiet, ancestral landscapes of some very modern and sophisticated technology.

Their traditional lands in the Murchison region of Western Australia and the Karoo region in South Africa’s Eastern Cape are the chosen sites for the $2 billion international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. Different types of telescope infrastructure are being hosted at each site, combining to create the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, capable of capturing unprecedented levels of information from some of the farthest reaches of the universe.

While it is their remoteness, sparseness and lack of radio activity that lends these sites their scientific attraction ­– they are, literally, some of the quietest places on earth – the celestial knowledge of their first inhabitants is also exciting the scientists working on the SKA, as are the possibilities the project offers for reconciliation.

“We have learnt an enormous amount from each other, and I think we are showing how science can drive activities that work towards reconciliation in interesting ways,” explains Professor Steven Tingay, Curtin’s Professor of Radio Astronomy and co-director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

Tingay, like others involved in the project, was in awe of the flat, ancient, pristine land on which the Australian SKA radio telescope and its precursor infrastructure was intended to be sited and was keen to learn more about its history. In 2009, discussions between astronomers, astrophysicists and local indigenous artists started to open some interesting doors.

“We got together with a group of indigenous artists from around the region who had already been painting their stories about the night sky and visited Boolardy station where the Australian SKA site is located,” he elaborates. “They walked their land with us and shared their perspectives on the night sky. In return, we showed them new views of the sky through binoculars and telescopes and talked about the proposed SKA project and what we hoped to achieve.

“These were eye-opening discussions for us as scientists. An important reference point for many Aboriginal people is the huge Emu in the sky, which is made up not of bright stars, but of dark patches running along the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomy’s study of black holes, dark energy and matter is relatively new, but we realised that Aboriginal people had been relating to the dark spaces in the sky for a very long time. It was incredibly inspiring.”

The artworks resulting from these initial interactions, exploring both traditional and telescopic views of the sky, formed the exhibition Ilgarijri – things belonging to the sky, which was shown at Curtin before touring internationally.

When it was announced in 2012 that the SKA project would be split between Australia and South Africa, extending the art project to the Karoo region was seen as an ideal way for the SKA to build connections across countries as well as cultures.

While the Western Australian indigenous artists continued to explore their relationship to the sky through paintings, collages, sculptural installations and emu egg carvings, artists of San descent worked collaboratively at the Bethesda Art Centre, on the edge of the Karoo, to produce large embroidered quilts inspired by the celestial creation myths of their ancestors. Fortunately, these ancient stories were meticulously recorded prior to the extinction of their language in the late 19th century.

These works have now been brought together in the Shared Sky exhibition, curated by the John Curtin Gallery’s director, Chris Malcolm. Excitingly, two of the San descent artists travelled to Perth for the exhibition opening at Curtin, along with the Bethesda Art Centre’s founder, and all three spent time in the Murchison region with the Yamaji artists, furthering opportunities for collaboration and exchange.

Shared Sky is all about learning from one another, respecting and celebrating the ancient cultural wisdom the artists are connected to, alongside the new knowledge and vision of the SKA,” Malcolm explains of the exhibition, which sees the distinctly different (though equally rich and colourful) artworks from both countries linked by spectacular time-lapse images of the night sky, as tracked by the SKA astronomers.

“It reflects the internationally collaborative spirit at the heart of the SKA and reinforces its potential for respect, healing and reconciliation. Both of these communities have had their connections to their land, their languages and their cultural identity seriously disrupted. This project provides an opportunity for reconnection with the richness of their pasts in the context of their lives today.”

In 2015, the exhibition will start its global tour in Cape Town, South Africa before travelling to more than 10 SKA partner nations across five continents, encouraging many more people to reflect on the important links between art, culture and science.