04/12/2017 14:18 SAST | Updated 04/12/2017 14:19 SAST

Remembering The Blind Astronomer

South African artist Berco Wilsenach made the stars accessible to the blind.


The 2011 census reveals the South African disability prevalence rate to be 7.5 percent. The World Bank estimates 1 billion people –- roughly 15 percent of the world's population -- experience some form of disability. It's why South African innovators are working to make the lives of such a large sector of the population a little bit better.

Cue Berco Wilsenach, a little-known South African artist whose immensely ambitious 2013 Blind Astronomer exhibition took some four years to create, but, for a number of reasons, never really got the attention the work deserved.

Wilsenach's work was displayed in the then-incomplete Museum of African Design (MOAD) in complete darkness. The main installation consisted of a series of "star maps" displayed one after another on large glass panels. They took the form of embossed glass panels -- like braille -- with each star painstakingly raised from the surface to recreate actual astronomical maps.

The panels were supported and lit from the inside, and allowed a viewer, or a feeler, to walk in-between the various galaxies and constellations.

"Unlike a land map, which people can comprehend because they have moved through physical space and understand the visual codes delimiting space and distance, star maps plot a realm that is beyond ordinary human experience," said Wilsenach.

Wilsenach also created an actual braille atlas, printed on black paper, that documented the universe.

There are no plans being expressed at the moment to re-exhibit the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, but as an exercise in sharing the museum experience, and that of our universe, it was unprecedented, and important to remember beyond important celebrations like International Day Of People With Disability.