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There is nothing as mysterious and magical as a night sky. And for generations, humans have gazed up into the heavens in wonderment. Now, an exhibition at the National Museum of African Art here in Washington explores how the stars and planets that we see in the skies today have been influencing African art and ritual for generations. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: One of the first things you see in this exhibition...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The mummy cover, which - the crossed arms and the wings...

KEYES: It's a meticulously painted Egyptian Mummy board from about 1000 years BCE for a female singer in the temple of creator sun god Amun-Re. Further in, there are masks.

CHRISTINE KREAMER: Bwa masks from Burkina Faso. On the back wall, sirige masks from the Dogon peoples of Mali.

KEYES: Deputy museum director Christine Kreamer is curator of the "African Cosmos" exhibition and says the masks, some of them 20 feet tall, elaborately carved from the branch of a single tree create a symbolic bridge between two realms when they're used in rituals.

KREAMER: We have the connection - sky and Earth made by some of these masquerades that literally soar to the heavens when they are performed.

KEYES: That connection resonates throughout this exhibition, the experience of looking up at the sky and wondering what it all means.

KREAMER: Keen observation of the heavens from the very earliest moments of humankind have informed the way people are thinking about their place in the world and thinking about those age-old questions of who we are, what is our purpose here, what are our next steps.

KEYES: Kreamer told visitors at the opening that those questions are addressed by the art of this the exhibition. Dr. Mae Jemison, the nation's first female African-American astronaut, told her audience that art and science help us tie the world together.

DR. MAE JEMISON: Thousand generations before me, one of my ancestors looked up at the stars, reached out her hand, couldn't touch them, but then decided to track the movements of the heavens, that person who figured out the stars were moving in relationship to one another.

KEYES: Jemison says this exhibition shows not only that art and science spring from the same fonts of human creativity but also that space exploration is as old as humanity.

JEMISON: Imagine the incredible insight observation that had to happen. That's what space exploration started. That's when it started.

KEYES: But it's staggering to see how far that exploration has gone. A worldwide team of scientists is working on a project called COSMOS, the Cosmic Evolution Survey. They're mapping a tiny sliver of the universe in which they found more than a million galaxies. A computerized reconstruction of their work is on display here.

South African artist Karel Nel is the project's artist-in-residence and created a soundtrack for the film from thecrickets he hears outside his Johannesburg studio.

KAREL NEL: They do, in a sense, evoke night as one lies out looking at the stars but that it is also kind of metaphorical sound for deep space.

KEYES: The voices of the universe are also on display here in a section called "Star Sounds."

(SOUNDBITE OF STAR VIBRATIONS)

KEYES: That's a star called Chi Hydrae, or at least that's what it might sound like if you could hear it since sound doesn't travel through the vacuum of space. The museum's curator for education, Deborah Stokes, explains that astrophysicists at the European Southern Observatory used the oscillations or variations in the light pulses coming from the stars to create sound waves.

DEBORAH STOKES: And they take the oscillations and the data, and they speed up those oscillations so that we can hear them, actually, within our range of hearing.

KEYES: A major theme in this exhibition is to show that Africans have been studying the cosmos in a sophisticated way for centuries. Curator Kreamer points out that 1,000 years before Stonehenge, one of the world's oldest celestial calendars existed at a place called Nabta Playa on the edge of the Sahara. It's important that visitors understand that kind of sophistication is just as present today, says Benin artist Romuald Hazoume.

ROMUALD HAZOUME: It's very, very important to be here and to show people we are not poor in Africa.

KEYES: Hazoume contributed a massive sculpture using recycled gasoline cans to create a rainbow serpent swallowing its tail. South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe says the work on display here not only illustrates how humans in the past integrated their knowledge of art and science, but the exhibition can help solve a problem shared by Africa and America.

THEBE MEDUPE: We are still struggling to get black South Africans into science and technology. And so an exhibition like this one really goes a long way in exciting young people about science.

KEYES: There are currently no plans to take the "African Cosmos: Stellar Arts" exhibition to South Africa. It closes in Washington in December. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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