Adinkra in Brooklyn

by Mary Martialay on November 16, 2011

"black is the nite (Round the World)" a stop motion animation by Pamela Sunstrum on exhibit at MoCADA

Just a few weeks ago I was writing about fractals as part of a post about a piano concert featuring Debussy’s La Mer. Wouldn’t you know it, they’ve cropped up again.

An exhibit opening this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn – with ties to Rensselaer – will feature several fractal-based works. The exhibit is titled “Feed Your Head: The African Origins of the Scientific Aesthetic,” and, according to the description on the MoCADA website, the works featured  “join together two visual artists with a physicist and ethnomathematician to explore the aesthetic convergence of science and art.”

The ethnomathematician is none other than Rensselaer Professor Ron Eglash. Eglash, a professor in our Department of Science and Technology Studies, has made fractals a keystone in his efforts to show minority students the cultural relevance of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Here’s how Eglash summarizes his work:

Fractals are patterns that repeat themselves across several scales. They were first thought to be purely mathematical abstractions, but in the 1970s mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot realized that many natural structures have this “scaling” characteristic: trees are branches of branches, rugged mountains have peaks within peaks, clouds are puffs of puffs, and so on. Fractals became an exciting new frontier for mathematical models of nature.

In the late 1980s I noticed that aerial photos of African villages also tend to be fractals: circular houses in circles of circles; rectangular houses in rectangular clusters. A Fulbright research fellowship allowed me to spend a year travelling in Africa interviewing the artisans who created these structures. I found that these patterns were intentional and that the repeating process of shrinking scales— what mathematicians call “recursion”—often symbolized recursive cosmologies, the infinite regression of kinship, the self-generating power of life, or other concepts that mapped fractals to spiritual and social ideas. Fractals showed up not only in African architecture, but also in African textiles, sculpture, hairstyles, metalwork, and many other designs.

Thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, we have developed educational software that allows K-12 teachers to use these African fractals in the classroom ( Architects working in Africa have also started to look at fractal structure for contemporary buildings, and there is even an entire university campus planned for Angola which will have a fractal layout.

As for the project, Eglash said:

We began our discussion with a focus on the work of Sylvester Gates, who has been visualizing his supersymmetry theory with some diagrams he calls “adinkra,” after the Ghanaian print tradition. I described some of the work I had been doing on adinkra in Ghana, and Kalia Brooks, the curator, suggested we make adinkra the central theme.

A few months later Taena Richards contacted me and asked about an adinkra symbol she had seen called “linked hearts.”


Eglash says this pattern is slightly different from a traditional Ghanaian adinkra pattern (in which the hearts would be more circular, reflecting the actual shape of an animal heart). Nevertheless, he used her version as the basis for a fractal which he returned to her:

The finished piece is a collaboration between Eglash, theoretical physicist Sylvester  Gates, and artists Pamela Sunstrum and Richardson (full disclosure – “black is the nite (Round the World) ” – the image of which opens this post – is not one of the pieces on which he collaborated, although it will be featured in the exhibit).

As part of the exhibit, on December 6, MoCADA will offer a workshop for educators on using African arts to teach STEM, run by Rensselaer Professor Audrey Bennett.

The exhibit will be on view November 17, 2011 to February 25, 2012.