Gavin Jantjes
b. 1948, South Africa
Acrylic on canvas
National Museum of African Art, purchased with funds provided by the Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, 96-23-1

Brilliant gesture! A Khoi San myth recounts how a girl dancing around an evening fire threw glowing embers into the night sky, where they remained as a wide, shimmering pathway illuminating the celestial firmament: the Milky Way. To set the historic frame of deep time, Gavin Jantjes rendered the dancing figures in a style reminiscent of southern Africa's ancient rock paintings.

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts shows how the sun, moon, stars, and the phenomena of lightning and rainbows inspired the arts of Africa for thousands of years.

We have all experienced the wonder of gazing at a night sky filled with stars. Our imaginations take flight. We journey to the heavens, inspired by its majesty, and we recall stories about the constellations shining from above. Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, Africans have used their celestial observations to chart their movements through the land and to create their agricultural and ritual calendars.

  • One of the world's earliest "calendars" is found at Nabta Playa in southern Egypt, where standing stones mark star alignments and the summer solstice. The site dates some 7,000 years ago, more than a millennium before Stonehenge in England.

Calendar circle at Nabta Playa, Egypt, January 1997
Photograph by J. McKim Malville

The Important Stars Among the Multitude of the Heavens, copied 1733
The Mamma Haīdara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu, Mali
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
  • Centuries-old manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu, Mali, record local observations of the sky and reflect the transmission of astronomical knowledge across the Sahara Desert.
  • Sighting the Pleiades star cluster heralds the rainy season in many regions of Africa.

The stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters, shine brightly in this 2006 view from the Cassini spacecraft. Hundreds of stars make up the cluster, but only a few are visible to the unaided eye on earth.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa, 2008
Photograph by Christine Mullen Kreamer
  • The first scientific observatory in sub-Saharan Africa was founded in 1820 as the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope in what is now Cape Town, South Africa. The country continues to be a leader in astrophysics on the African continent.