Re-opening after COVID-19 restrictions, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is showing a new exhibition exploring the night sky, Under the Stars.

Under the Stars takes a cross-cultural and transhistorical approach by bringing together different understandings and interpretations of the night sky and how we relate to it.

“It is supposed to highlight the different understandings and interpretations we have of various elements within the night sky but also some shared points of connection,” said Cara Pinchbeck, Co-Curator of the exhibition and Senior Curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Gallery.

Under the Stars marks 250 years since James Cook landed at Kamay (Botany Bay). In his first voyage, Cook had two main missions: one, to find Australia and two, to record the transit of Venus. He did the latter in 1769.

Under the Stars references Cook’s mission as a way to highlight the changing understandings of the night sky across cultures and generations.

“There was an expectation from state that state cultural institutions would do something to mark Cook arriving at Kamay 250 years ago,” said Pinchbeck.

“We had a lot of discussions about that and thought that if we did anything that was about Cook, even if it was reassessing who Cook is, that Cook was still at the heart of those discussions.

“That’s important and that will happen, but we might shift things slightly and take his documentation of that transit of Venus as the starting point to look at how we really understand the night sky.”

“[It is] a way of highlighting and bringing forward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge of the night sky to highlight the generations of knowledge that has been built over tens of thousands of years in Australia.”

“That really deep knowledge of Country and of the stars that pre-dates Cook by so, so, so much time. To look at that terrain that is out there that we wonder about and want to understand.”

The exhibition places works from all over the world together to create a wider, more connected narrative.

“There are works from all across the gallery’s collection, so there are works from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection, there’s works from the Asian collection and the non-Indigenous collection, both Australian and international,” said Pinchbeck.

“In developing the exhibition we did really want to show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists alongside other artists from around the world as I think all too often works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are viewed in isolation and aren’t seen as part of a wider narrative across the world—so it is an opportunity to do that and to see those connections starting to emerge.”

Sylvia Ken
Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters) 2019
synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 240 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Roberts Family Acquisition 2019
© Sylvia Ken
Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter.

Under the Stars brings forward the stories of First Nations artists and their relations to the sky.

“A diverse range of works by First Nations artists are on display, including Gulumbu Yunupiŋu’s delicate paintings of Garak (the universe) and Sylvia Ken’s monumental depiction of Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters), which directly relate to constellations, while works by Daniel Boyd consider how navigation by starlight may have shaped the course of history,” said Pinchbeck.

“For me it is always important to go back to the artists and what they are doing and I think Gail Mabo speaks so beautifully about her inheritance as a Torres Strait Islander woman … she spoke quite a lot when she was making the work, how she was making it for everyone.”

By Rachael Knowles