#AfricaLookUp to the Art Open Night

Join us for the Next Open night on the 15th of June 2024

#AfricaLookUp to the Arts

Joyful Mdhluli & Moleboge Lekoloane

On Saturday the 18th of May, we hosted another special edition of the SAAO Open Nights known as the #AfricaLookUp to the Arts (ALUTTA) Open Nights, where Science meets Art. 

The aim of the evening was to host an art exhibition that displayed sketches of the Observatory by members of Urban Sketchers Cape Town and to sketch the current state of the Observatory. What started off as a simple conversation with the lady we saw sitting under a tree on-site sketching – who we later learned is Diana Metcalf – turned into an evening of knowledge sharing and capturing of moments. 

For those who have had the pleasure of partaking in the SAAO history tour, I’m certain that you have seen the iconic sketches of the Observatory from the early 1800’s in the Library. One of the precious items we have on-site are drawings from artists such as Thomas William Bowler who worked for the Royal Observatory from 1834 – 1835 and became one of South Africa’s greatest artists. What was planned for this open night was to capture the current state of the Observatory through sketches, and compare it with sketches from the 20th century. With the most recent sketches, one notices cranes and more buildings in the background, exhibiting the change of the Observatory over the years. What might be normal to us now, might be very valuable to the next generation. This is exactly what we aimed to do, capture the moments not just for us but for coming generations.

Through Diana and SALT’s very own Software Engineer Anthony Koeslag, we were lucky enough to have the sketchers document the evening as it happened. The Urban Sketchers team prepared an informative presentation about Urban Sketching, its history, what it’s like to be part of the community, and most importantly, Diana shared with us her project at the SAAO called “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…52 Weeks of Reportage Ramblings at SAAO”. The project involves Diana spending 52 weeks at the Observatory sketching the site and trying to recreate some of the sketches done by other artists.

We were honoured to have the newly appointed OAD Deputy Director & the Interim Head of Secretariat, Charles Takalana give a presentation about the recent developments in Astronomy highlighting the importance of SALT & MeerKAT/SKAO telescopes. The presentation also highlighted the significance of Astronomy to art. We also had the SARAO Managing Director, Pontso Maruping in the audience. 

The Urban Sketchers and the art exhibition were not the only highlights of the evening. We collaborated with the Africa Week Project to launch their opening event in celebration of Africa Week. The Africa Week project is a week-long collaborative effort that aims to utilize the globally celebrated Africa Day on 25th May to bring attention to narratives of the continent and to share inspiration for visions of the future that can guide experimentation in the present. Initiated in 2023, it now serves as an annual gathering place for individuals across sectors and disciplines and a testing ground for connecting thoughts, ideas, and visions for the future as part of The Africa Week Project. 

Africa Week is an annual opportunity to bring attention to an Africa in Transition and support one another on the journey to reimagine and negotiate the future of the continent in the present. Coordinated by a small team, the week is supported by organizations and institutions across various sectors and disciplines who use a resource exchange network to host, facilitate in-person and/or online dialogue, activities, experiences, and initiatives for the local, African context. 

The launch of Africa Week was a success and a wonderful predecessor to the #AfricaLookUp to the Arts Open Night. During the session, we went back to Africa’s history, particularly South Africa’s journey towards democracy over the past 30 years. We explored what freedom means for the continent’s young people and reflected on where we stand today, especially with over 60% of African countries heading to the polls. It was truly inspiring to hear an elderly woman share her experiences of the struggles in 1970s South Africa and the remarkable progress made for women across Africa. What an exciting time to be African! We have a unique opportunity to contribute positively to the continent’s future. 

As part of the entertainment, we were honored to have Onesimo Siyothula sing us a beautiful Italian Opera song. To quote Diana on her experience of the evening as she shared in her sketch pad: “What an incredible voice to launch Africa Week opening up a circle of transparency as other voices were heard. It was a beautiful patchwork evening of events and memories, sketching and shared hope for Africa. I feel quite humbled to be on this creative journey which already has me being part of something so much bigger than myself.”

Sodam Suleob, one of the presenters of the Urban Sketchers team shared her experience of the evening: “I also learned about how art can facilitate difficult conversations, such as those about ‘freedom’ or ‘Africanity’. With creative storytelling, it can help many Africans learn about astronomy and move forward into a better future. We had an opera singer, poet, skechers, and many others from different disciplines opening up conversations.”

This was a significant event highlighting the significance of merging Art with Science and the importance of understanding our African history. 

Updates from the first ALUTTA Open Night

On Saturday the 20th of April, we hosted our first special edition of the SAAO Open Nights known as the #AfricaLookUp to the Arts (ALUTTA) Open Nights. The ALUTTA open nights are scheduled to happen every 3rd Saturday of the Month in addition to the usual SAAO Open Nights that happen every 2nd and 4th Saturday.

The ALUTTA Open Nights are a project under the #AfricaLookUp campaign which is part of the outreach initiatives for the IAU General Assembly. The goal of the #AfricaLookUp Campaign is to inspire a mindset of active engagement and appreciation, urging individuals to go beyond casual observation and truly embrace the profound beauty and significance of the African night skies. The campaign seeks to motivate people throughout the continent to pause, gaze at the night skies, and appreciate the magnificence of our shared African skies while drawing inspiration from the marvels of the universe.

For the first Open Night, the focus was on Storytelling. The aim of the evening was to create a theatrical performance of a storytelling session that weaved together African folklore, mythology, and astronomical themes. The performances explored indigenous African knowledge systems and cultural beliefs. Our guests for the evening included our very own Education and Outreach Officer Buzani Khumalo as well as retired Astronomy and Indigenous Astronomy presenter from Iziko Planetarium, Temba Matomela. The stories were enhanced with a captivating performance of singing and dancing by iThemba Youth Choir.  iThemba Youth Choir is a group of young individuals passionate about music who brought the story shared by Buzani to life.

The evening was well attended and it was a pleasure to see the excitement on the faces of the audience. Our storytellers and the choir put on a wonderful and inspiring show. It was very interesting to see that different cultures relate to celestial objects and the night sky in similar ways. We had the opportunity to learn how the Zulu and Xhosa cultures relate to Venus, we also learned how celestial objects were used in the past as a means of communication amongst other things. We hope to see more people join us at the Observatory for these events where we try to bring life to Astronomy through the Arts.

Unfortunately due to bad weather, we could not treat our guests to some stargazing; however, the evening concluded with a history tour of the Observatory. 

We would like to extend a special thank you to the volunteers who were present during the open night, our guest speakers, and most importantly the organisers of the evening. For highlights of the evening, be sure to follow the AfAS social media accounts. We hope to see YOU at the next Open Night that will take place on 18 May 2024.