PSO and Owunna Also to Premiere “Origin Stories” – a Music Education Unit for Grades 9-12 with Orchestra Concerts in January 2022

Five Program Episodes Will Offer Classical and Pops Repertoire, Free to the Public

For Immediate Release
October 5, 2021

Download Assets →
Library is password protected. Please email for credentials.

PITTSBURGH, PA—The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and artist Mikael Owunna, joined by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, community leaders and members of the orchestra’s musicians and staff, today celebrated the installation of Owunna’s work Playing the Cosmic Strings: the first ever mural installed on the exterior of Heinz Hall, now in its 50th year as the home of the Orchestra. The 67-by-24-foot mural resides on the eastern wall of Heinz Hall, in the heart of Pittsburgh’s downtown Cultural District.

Playing the Cosmic Strings was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in partnership with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership as an expression of the abundant energy and joy in Heinz Hall. We are thrilled to have this inspirational and important work by Mikael Owunna, whose multi-media explorations of creation myths, Black bodies and humanity are inventive and utterly captivating,” said Melia Tourangeau, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “Playing the Cosmic Strings beautifully evokes the special relationship that music can create between the community and the orchestra. It is also a message of welcoming to Heinz Hall to the wider community.”

Mikael Owunna [Meh-kel O-wuh-na] is a queer Nigerian American multi-media artist and engineer based in Pittsburgh who explores the intersections of visual media with engineering, optics, Blackness and African cosmologies, whose many acclaimed works have been exhibited worldwide and collected by major institutions. According to Owunna, Playing the Cosmic Strings is inspired by West African Igbo String-Wave cosmology, in which music is understood as all of the sonic harmonies emanating from the vibrations of the infinite strings everywhere in creation.

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 ultraviolent light. Playing the Cosmic Strings features Marques Redd, a multi-media artist and frequent artistic collaborator with Owunna, as simultaneously the Cosmic Spider that weaves the structure of the world and a child playing a string game (Ikpa Owu Aka). Looming large on Heinz Hall over passersby below, he reaches out and beckons all 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 sound.”

“As someone who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, I must say that seeing my work here in the heart of the Pittsburgh Cultural District where it has joined the Symphony’s long and storied history is one of the biggest highlights of my career to-date,” said Mikael Owunna. “I am humbled by the Symphony’s faith in my vision and artistic practice, and I am grateful for being provided an opportunity to produce a new work that is grounded in the vibrant world of African cosmologies and their understanding of the scientific and spiritual purpose of music.”

About the Commission and Installation Process

According to the Pittsburgh Symphony, due to construction at an adjoining building, a banner that was hung on the wall facing Seventh Street had to be removed. A discussion then ensued with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to collaborate on the opportunity to use that space to create an art installation inspired by the orchestra, music and other performing arts that take place at Heinz Hall, in the middle of the Cultural District.

“Public art plays such a vital role in delivering unique experiences in cities around the world, creating opportunities for people to connect with something unique and inspiring,” said Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “Mikael has created beautiful artwork that embodies the energy and beauty of the Symphony, as well as providing a stunning addition to Downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. Many thanks and congratulations to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Mikael Owunna for sharing this extraordinary work with our city.”

From start to finish, the commissioning to installation process took about five months to complete. The Pittsburgh Symphony and the PDP formed a working group of Pittsburgh Symphony and PDP leadership, musicians, and community leaders. Pittsburgh arts leader Renee Piechowki (who founded the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh in 2005 and served as director until 2017) guided the group through an invitational application process seeking diverse artists who could best represent the relationship between the broader community and the Orchestra’s vision of “great music in everyday life.” After a review of several artists, the committee chose Mikael Owunna to create a piece of art to draw people in to be a part of the vitality of the Hall, and to evoke the special relationship that exists between music, the Orchestra and the community.

Upon receiving the commission, Owunna presented his work to Pittsburgh Symphony musicians, staff, and board and solicited feedback through an online survey. With this feedback, he then contracted Marques Redd to serve as the model for the commission. Over two weeks, Owunna constructed and painted a fluorescent set with glowing strings in his studio. On the day of Redd’s photoshoot, he meticulously hand-painted Redd’s body with fluorescent paints that only glow under ultraviolet light. Using an ultraviolet flash that he constructed with his engineering background, Owunna photographed Redd in total darkness as Redd interacted with the glowing set and strings. With each click of Owunna’s shutter, a beam of ultraviolet light was emitted that for a fraction of a second illuminated the tableau of Igbo myth captured in “Playing the Cosmic Strings.”

This mural was installed in October 2021 as part of the 50th anniversary season of Heinz Hall as the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Playing the Cosmic Strings is expected to remain on the Heinz Hall wall for three to five years. A web site landing page for the collaboration includes an expansive artistic statement by Mikael Owunna.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Mikael Owunna to Continue Collaboration with Music Education Unit: “Origin Stories”

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Mikael Owunna also announced today that they are continuing their collaboration through a music education unit designed for students in grades 9-12. “Origin Stories” explores creation myths through music, visual art, dance and writing. The unit features Playing the Cosmic Strings to broaden awareness of how peoples conceive of the origins of our universe and invites reflection on one’s own understanding of creation. The unit, currently planned for January 2022, includes two performances of an orchestra concert at Heinz Hall and educational content online. All components of the unit will be available for PreK-12 educations to use with their students at no cost.

About the Partners

Mikael Owunna is a queer Nigerian American multi-media artist and engineer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Exploring the intersections of visual media with engineering, optics, Blackness, and African cosmologies, his work seeks to elucidate an emancipatory vision of possibility that pushes Black people beyond all boundaries, restrictions, and frontiers.

Owunna’s work has been exhibited across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America and been collected by institutions such as the Nasher Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Equal Justice Initiative, Duke University Pratt School of Engineering, and National Taiwan Museum. His work has also been featured in media ranging from the New York Times to CNN, NPR, VICE, and The Guardian. He has lectured at venues including Harvard Law School, World Press Photo (Netherlands), Tate Modern (UK), and TEDx. Owunna’s first published monograph Limitless Africans was released in 2019 by FotoEvidence, and he was awarded as a finalist for the FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo.

Owunna’s multi-media works can be explored at His recent projects include Obi Mbu (The Primordial House): An Igbo Creation Myth (2021) (co-directed with Marques Redd), Infinite Essence, Cosmologies, and Limitless Africans. Owunna is represented by ClampArt, New York City.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, known for its artistic excellence for more than 125 years, is credited with a rich history of the world’s finest conductors and musicians, and is deeply committed to Pittsburgh and its region. Since 2008, the Pittsburgh Symphony has been led by its worldwide acclaimed Music Director Manfred Honeck. Past music directors have included many of the greats, including Fritz Reiner, William Steinberg, André Previn, Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has always been at the forefront of championing new works, including recent commissions by Mason Bates, Jonathan Leshnoff, James MacMillan and Julia Wolfe. During its 2021-2022 season, Manfred Honeck will lead five world premieres and five commissions. The Pittsburgh Symphony has a long and illustrious history in the areas of recordings and live radio broadcasts dating back to the 1930s. It has toured frequently both domestically and overseas since 1900—including more than 40 international tours. The Pittsburgh Symphony continues to be critically acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Formed by Downtown businesses, professionals, civic organizations, foundations, and residents, the PITTSBURGH DOWNTOWN PARTNERSHIP (PDP) is a non-profit community development organization that develops and implements innovative programs and initiatives to enhance the Downtown neighborhood, cultivate a vibrant residential population, and stimulate a diverse retail community. The PDP promotes and markets this great urban center to millions of people as the region’s premier destination to do business, to call home, or to visit for the best in shopping, dining, and entertainment. The PDP stands as staunch advocates for all those who make Downtown part of their lives—from businesses to workers to residents and visitors.

Media Contacts
Julie Goetz | Director of Communications | 412.392.4866 or 412.905.9058 (mobile)