THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

25 July 2019

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo, British Library astronomy manuscripts in new visual forms

The Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi’s recent solo exhibition Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo at the Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland, California, USA, was inspired by a study of several of the British Library’s scientific manuscripts which she reviewed during an extended visit in 2018. In this guest blog she speaks about this process and her work.

Two ancient manuscripts in the British Library drew my special attention and formed the foundation for my exhibition: the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo’s De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris (Add MS 22786) and the 11th century Persian astronomer Biruni’s Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm (Or. 8349). My multimedia works in the exhibition explore an ancient and enduring fascination with the moon in science, culture and language, while simultaneously celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission.

Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v
Pages from Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm by al-Bīrūnī. British Library, Or. 8349, (from left to right) ff. 93r, 72v and 31v Noc

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris by Galileo. British Library, Add MS 22786, (left and right) details from p. 63-64, (centre) p. 46   Noc

My completed works are large scale digital illustrations combining the abstract lunar diagrams with images of the Moon taken on my cell phone from a hill in California, as well as archival images from the Apollo 11 Lunar Mission in 1969. They are printed on fabric, and titled Moongraph, 01, 02, and 03. Other similarly inspired diagrams and images of the surface of the Moon have been combined with verses of Persian poetry and printed on circular pieces of metal in various sizes. They are presented in an installation on a grey geometric background that references the Moon and its phases. I believe that illustrating abstract ideas, as was done in these early diagrams, indicates how they were used as an important tool to visualize early science and pass down these ideas to later generations.

My exposure to these manuscripts from the early pioneers of astronomy has allowed my artistic interpretation of the science of astronomy. However, it was Persian poetry and its playful use of metaphor that first sparked my imagination and interest in the moon. As a child I was an avid reader of science fiction, especially Jules Verne novels translated into Persian.

The exhibition in many ways revisits my childhood obsession with the moon: from my compositions and illustrations, to the use of medieval Persian poetry that presents the moon metaphorically and symbolically. Verses by poets Attar Nishapuri, Nezami Ganjavi, and poet-scientist Omar Khayyam are included.

Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019
Pages from De Mundi Sphæra Tractatus Autographus cum Figuris and Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm showcase the phases of the Moon. The abstract version of the diagrams is by Pantea Karimi, 2019

Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet
Moongraph 01, 02, and 03, 2019, digital archival prints on fabric, 6 x 3.42 feet

Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA
Installation view at Mercury 20 Gallery, Oakland, CA, USA

TThe Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail
The Infinite Moon, 2019, digital archival prints on metal, detail

From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.
From the Earth to the Moon, 2019, dome mirror, metal disks, cylindrical pipe, screws, the moon transparency and light. After the 1865 novel by Jules Verne.

Pantea Karimi’s work as a multi-disciplinary artist centers around visual representations and textual contents in medieval Persian and Arab and early modern European scientific manuscripts in five categories: mathematics, medicinal botany, anatomy, optics/astronomy and cartography. This recent research project has further broadened her interest in the long-term exchange of knowledge across these cultures. She specifically examines how illustrations in ancient scientific manuscripts played a role in communicating knowledge, and how the broader aesthetic considerations of science were closely linked to art. Her work collectively highlights the significance of visual elements in early science and invites the viewer to observe science and its history through the process of image-making. Karimi works with interactive installations, virtual reality, silkscreen and digital prints on various substrates. She moved from Iran to the UK to study and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2005.

Countdown: Biruni-Galileo-Apollo will be exhibited in the Fall of 2019 at the Euphrat Museum of Art in De Anza College in Cupertino, California, USA.

Pantea Karimi Ccownwork

Pantea Karimi wishes to thank the British Library and staff for the opportunity to view and study the scientific manuscripts in their care.

For more information visit: www.panteakarimi.com
@panteakarimiart
@Karimipantea