Artists share sky with SKA scientists

Professor Steven Tingay, director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, with Jeni Couzyn, of the Bethesda Arts Centre in South Africa and Charmaine Green, of the Yamaji Art Centre in Geralton. Picture: Nic Ellis

They live on different continents but share the same sky.

Indigenous artists from WA and South Africa have met at the intersection of art and science being explored by the world's biggest radio telescope, the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array.

Shared Sky, an art and astronomy exhibition, opened at the Curtin University gallery this week. It unites Yamatji artists from the Murchison with San artists from the Karoo region of South Africa's Eastern Cape Province.

Their traditional lands were selected for the SKA - a project involving 11 nations - because they are isolated, sparsely populated and generate minimal man-made technological chatter to interfere with any faint signals from space.

The art project began more than 10 years ago in the early stages of the international bid to host the SKA at remote Boolardy Station, about 300km north-east of Geraldton.

More than 40 artists have created paintings, sculptures, collages, textiles and carved emu and ostrich eggs depicting ancestral night sky stories and the scientific revelations of astronomy and astrophysics.

"We have tried to look at different ways of presenting the universe," Yamatji artist Charmaine Green said.

Green, the director of the Yamaji Art centre in Geraldton, said the collaboration demonstrated how artists and scientists had learnt from each other.

International SKA scientists had gone to Boolardy Station and learnt how to see the Aboriginal emu in the sky by looking more deeply into the dark patches between the radiance of the stars, she said.

"Even though we are looking at the same thing, we are seeing different things and that reflects on our culture."

Hundreds of scientists and engineers from around the world were in Perth this week to discuss the next stage of the SKA project, labelled one of the great scientific endeavours of the century.

When completed by 2023, the SKA will be about 50 times more sensitive than any radio telescope. It will be able to study galaxies billions of light years away and analyse the structure and evolution of the universe.

Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy director Professor Steven Tingay, one of the SKA proponents, said scientists had gained a deeper understanding of a different perspective of the sky from working with the indigenous artists.

"There are some stunning similarities and some stunning differences in the way we perceive the sky and the stories and what they mean to us," Professor Tingay said.

The first collated images from a SKA prototype, the Murchison Widefield Array, resembled dots painted on a dark canvas, he said.

"Our telescope makes really wide field images of the sky and in those images we see thousands and thousands of galaxies in their radio emissions. When we make an image of that it does look a lot like the dot-art of the indigenous artists."

The project gave different groups of people a common ground to start talking to each another, Professor Tingay said.

"These are two groups that normally wouldn't intersect but the night sky gives us a common shared point of reference that gives us an excuse to get together and talk. It started with astronomy but we've built a relationship and trust that allows us to go a lot deeper in our discussions now."

Australian SKA director Professor Brian Boyle said this art project reflected the collaborative nature of the SKA project itself.

"These are two very different locations, half a world apart, connected by a shared night sky, who will soon share the world's largest telescope too," Professor Boyle said.

"Now is a great time to take stock and look back on the history and cultural understanding of the night sky, as well as look forward to developing more understanding about that sky and the history of the universe than ever before."

Shared Sky runs at Curtin's John Curtin Gallery until November 2 before touring around the world over the next two years.