Playing the Cosmic Strings

Client: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra & Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

Format: Vinyl Billboard, Digital Screens

Dimensions: 67' x 24'

Opening Reception: Tuesday, October 5, 2021 (12:30-1:30pm)

Exhibition: October 5, 2021 - October 5, 2026

Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA

Prints & Merchandise: Available Here

Playing the Cosmic Strings by Mikael Owunna is a commission sponsored by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. It is the title of a mural showcased on the side of Heinz Hall to celebrate the building’s 50th anniversary as the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Playing the Cosmic Strings is a large-scale (67’ x 24’) mural that began as a photograph created by Mikael Owunna’s signature effect known as ultraviolet-induced fluorescence. In this process, Owunna paints models with fluorescent body paint and then takes photos in the dark with a custom-made flash that he built himself that transmits only ultraviolet light. 

Inspired by Uwa Okoso (West African Igbo String-Wave cosmology), the image Playing the Cosmic Strings explores the origins of the universe and music. In this model, the universe emerges out of a Primordial Androgynous Blackness. A portion of this Blackness - Atu Chukwu (the divine mind-force or dark energy) - manifests in the guise of Ududo-Okwa-Nka (a sacred spider), who spins Ete Ofu (the first cosmic cotton/dark matter) into Akwa Ete (a grand spiral-string egg). This egg subsequently breaks to form Ete Oghele (a web of infinite string patterns or particles). The Cosmic Spider is a rich, multidimensional symbol. From one viewpoint, it is an ancient Igbo mnemonic metaphor for the Milky Way Galaxy, which possesses the shape of a gigantic spider when viewed from an aerial position, and its strings are a metaphor for the vibrating loops of energy that form the physical structure of the world. This cosmology is presented in miniature form in the recreational game (meaning both a pleasurable diversion and a “re-creation,” repetition of creation) of Ikpa Owu Aka (string hand game), in which children make angular loops of string around their fingers. In this way, they learn how to mimic and invoke the vibrating strings that form the basic energy patterns of everything from the most distant stars to the smallest atoms. Arising from this cosmology and its integration into everyday life, music in the Igbo sensibility is understood as all of the sonic harmonies emanating from the subtle, spirit vibrations of the infinite strings everywhere in creation, including those consciously produced by human beings.

Playing the Cosmic Strings features Marques Redd, multi-media artist and frequent collaborator with Owunna, as simultaneously the Cosmic Spider and a child playing a string game. Looming large on Heinz Hall over passersby below, he reaches out and beckons all viewers to reach back. To join the game, everyone must strive to penetrate into the higher realms of creation, which can only be reached through pure energy and pure spirit sound. Just as the Creator does, we must learn to play the cosmic strings.


October 26, 2021

Artist Talk: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

International Women's Forum: Mikael Owunna & Shantanique Moore in Conversation

January 25, 2022 - June 30, 2022

Virtual Program: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Schooltime: Origin Stories

Schooltime: Origin Stories  is an online education unit produced by the PSO, Mikael Owunna, and Marques Redd, available to over 100 high schools across the country. The virtual unit includes a PSO concert video featuring musical performances by the Symphony inspired by creation stories from  the Igbo, Jewish, Greek, Mayan, Afro-Cuban, and Korean peoples, behind-the-scenes footage with artist Mikael Owunna, and cross-curricular resources to learn more about each featured origin story.

January 27, 2022, 7:00pm

Concert: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Origin Stories

Co-hosted by Marques Redd and Mikael Owunna, Origin Stories presented origin stories from the Igbo, Jewish, Greek, Mayan, Afro-Cuban, and Korean peoples, and was attended by 1,456 people.  The program featured musical performances by the Symphony inspired by the public art mural, Playing the Cosmic Strings, and creation stories from these cultures: Afro-Cuban (Silvestre Revueltas' “Sensemayá”), Mayan (Carlos Rivera's “Popul Vuh”), Korean (Jeong-yang Park's “Four Scenic Views of Suri Mountain”), Igbo (Jessie Montgomery's “Strum”), and others.

October 22, 2022, 8:00pm

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Lift Every Voice

The Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Lift Every Voice” concert celebrates the accomplishments of African Americans throughout Pittsburgh and the nation. As part of this concert, I collaborated with the symphony to create a multimedia performance themed around West African Igbo Cosmology and my artwork “Playing the Cosmic Strings” which was musically animated by the Symphony performing Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum for String Orchestra.”

November 1, 2022, 3:00pm

Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

“Finding Your Artistic Voice”

In partnership with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild's "After-school Arts Program" for Pittsburgh Public School high school students, I presented my artistic journey to the students and offered them feedback on the student exhibition they produced on the Symphony and its employees.