Looking Up at a Shared Sky

Ilgali Inyayimanha (Shared Sky)

When I lie under the night sky, I feel a combination of awe and menace that allows for a moment of self-transcendence. It is a gift to feel microscopic; it is equally a gift to realize your entwinement in a network of billions of stars. The vibrant, stirring works of the Shared Sky exhibit, on view now at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) website, evoke the complex range of emotions one feels when their metaphysical sense of belonging intermingles with the simultaneous fear of their insignificance.

Shared Sky is a collaborative exhibition between Aboriginal Australian and South African artists. It celebrates the ancient practice of looking to the stars to anchor ourselves in the immensity of the cosmos. The exhibition, containing 33 paintings, celebrates the cross-cultural tradition of navigating the night sky and reminds us that we all look toward the same light in daily darkness. 

The title piece of the exhibition is Ilgali Inyayimanha (Shared Sky), which was created by a group of 11 artists: Barbara Merrit, Charmaine Green, Kevin Merritt, Sherryl Green, Tracey Green, Wendy Jackamarra, Susan Merry, Johnaya Jones, Genna Meritt, Craig ‘Chook’ Pickett, and Nerolie Blurton. 

The acrylic-adorned piece of linen represents the romanticized—yet truthful—union of humanity underneath the night sky. Artists of two independent cultures living on different continents, each with different astrological traditions to honor, were able to come together and actualize a collective vision of the cosmos. They did so without conceding their individual histories but by finding commonalities. The white line that bisects the fabric embodies the geographic division between the South African and Aboriginal Australian people. However, the color schemes on each side of the partition echo one another with acknowledgment and understanding to underscore the two cultures’ communal cosmic belonging. 

A viewer can also look at the painting as a portrayal of the human brain, transforming the webs of constellations into neural networks. While it is easy to feel minute when looking up at the universe, the biological interpretation of the painting suggests that one can source overwhelming power from the fact that the universe—its stars and the sense of belonging it inspires—lies inside each of us. Ilgali Inyayimanha captures the paradoxical grandeur and smallness we feel when looking at the night sky, and it does so with the compassionate spirit of collaboration. 

The Milky Way by Wendy Jackamarra similarly plays with scale by juxtaposing hundreds of dotted stars with the solid and colorful concentric rings that make up the galactic center. In this painting, the Milky Way resembles an earthly entity, perhaps a plant with curling tendrils and jewel-toned leaves or stone-laden tributaries. Where Ilgali Inyayimanha connects the cosmos to the individual mind, The Milky Way draws a profound connection between the universe and the smaller elements of nature. Jackamarra urges her viewers to extrapolate the practice of honoring the sky’s grandeur across cultures to honoring nature across continents. 

By painting the planets and stars in small groupings that all lead to an easily identifiable center, Jackamarra also fosters a palpable sense of collectivity. She uses her brush to tell us that while we may fear being forgotten in this enormous, swirling system, we can relish that we are joined into a singular body of extraordinary power.

Kevin Merritt continues his fellow artists’ crusade to evoke cosmic awe in Corvus the Crow. He works with a lively palate to create colorful rings and stripes reminiscent of Funfetti. Merritt’s childhood friend, Professor Steve Tingay, whose favorite constellation has been Corvus the Crow since he was young, inspired this piece.

The painting establishes compelling dual narratives. It tells the story of how a person can look to the sky to orient and ground themselves; Tingay has watched the same cluster of stars nightly since boyhood. However, it also tells the story of how a person can lose themselves in the sky; Tingay has seen these stars thousands of times and is still seduced by their grandiosity.     

The wonderment and fear aroused by the cosmos, artfully captured in these three works, reverberate through the greater collection in the Shared Sky exhibit. Each painting kindles a spirit of collectivity and vastness alongside a deeply personal feeling of individuality. The paintings mimic and pay tribute to one another through the shared acrylic dot painting technique, yet each possesses a unique sense of color and perspective as they examine our communal sky.

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