French astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé finds inspiration in the skies as Marfa’s first Villa Albertine resident

Photo courtesy of the Consulate General of France in Houston. Maintenant Marfa’s Jeff Matheis and Sabrina Lejeanvre-Matheis, left, hosted Gaëtan Bruel, director of Villa Albertine and cultural counselor of the French Embassy, and French astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé to celebrate the launch of Villa Albertine on Friday.

MARFA — A new kind of residency has made its way to Marfa from France, by way of Houston. Villa Albertine, created by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, challenges the typical residency program by welcoming artists, historians, architects, video game producers, and, as for their first resident in Marfa, an astrophysicist.

The Villa Albertine residency is expansive in scope, stretching across 15 disciplines and 60 residences in the United States, and welcoming 80 residents for its first round, which launched this fall.

The program hosted its official Marfa launch event on Friday in Antelope Hills. Jeff Matheis and Sabrina Lejeanvre-Matheis, who have hosted various artistic events at their property Maintenant Marfa, introduced the director of Villa Albertine and cultural counselor of the French Embassy, Gaëtan Bruel. 

Bruel told the gathering of curious attendees that he had dreamed of opening an academy or villa in the United States. New York was known for its art, Los Angeles for cinema, Chicago its architecture, Atlanta for hip hop and New Orleans for jazz, he rattled off. “The question was, could a villa or academy solely based in New York match the diversity of this country?”

Villa Abertine was born in response to that question, “to go beyond this idea of being based in New York and make sure in every location we’d have a custom-made approach,” Bruel said. Residents coming from all kinds of industries and fields would customize their experience, choosing a city that matched with their goals and structuring their visit there to accommodate their work.

French astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé was part of the first round of residents, devising a schedule to spend three weeks in Marfa and one week in Houston near NASA and the French Consulate.

Kébé, who has a doctorate in astronomy from La Sorbonne, has since studied space pollution, worked on water conservation in agriculture, taught astronomy and organized space-related activities.

“I was asked to pitch on what I will work on during my residency. Since I wrote two books about the moon, I decided to do something related to the moon during my stay in the U.S.”

Through the month-long residency, Kébé has been working on a podcast in French about the 842 pounds of moon rocks that were brought back to Earth during the Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972. “I wanted to explore the history behind these moon rocks,” she said, and meet with people who knew more about them. Ultimately, she wants to uncover what’s happened with the rocks and with some of the 400,000 people who worked on the missions that brought them here.

“NASA has all of this data to train its astronauts in geology, and I think not too many people know about lunar geology, but we want to take some specific rocks on the moon, and on my side I want to explain why we want to have this type of rock and what we can learn from that,” she said.

From studying moon rock samples, Kébé said humans can learn how the moon rocks formed and also, maybe, how the Earth was formed.

Since arriving in Marfa nearly three weeks ago, she’s visited various spots in the region, traveling to Big Bend, the McDonald Observatory and the Marfa Public Library to learn about astronomy, geology and to marvel at the pristine dark skies the area boasts.

“I don’t only work on the Apollo missions, I also work on the dark sky,” Kébé said. During a visit to the McDonald Observatory, she was most interested in the outreach to everyday people and the access to science-related information that even non-scientists are given.

As an educator and organizer of space-related activities, she said, “Something I really like in the U.S. astronomy sector is the fact that it’s devoted to outreach.” Here, she looked at how McDonald Observatory has connected tourists and locals to their work. “Maybe it could help me enhance the work I’m doing in France. What I really appreciate is that you have access to many opportunities to learn about science here. I would say it’s not really the case in France. It’s much more difficult to get educational materials for free,” she said.

A lot of the outreach being done in West Texas currently relates to the dark sky designation that the area has recently earned. After getting connected with the International Dark-Sky Association, Kébé has plans to help translate some of their educational materials into French.

It was the pristine and beautiful dark skies that enchanted Kébé most during her time in Marfa. “I went out by night most of the days I spent here, because even me, as an astronomer, I don’t have so many occasions to see a starry sky. I study the sky, but I don’t have access to the starry sky. Most of the time I’m on my laptop working, and here I could take the time to see the sky and what I’m completely working on.”

Villa Albertine has a permanent presence in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., but even when their first Marfa resident leaves town on Friday to head back to Houston and then France, it’s not the end of the connection. Another individual from the first round of residencies, artist Dove Allouche, will be on his way to Marfa.