African Architecture in Transit: Tents and Textiles

April 23, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room
California Academy of Sciences
55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118

A slide lecture

by Labelle Prussin, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Jerry Jacobs

Dr. Labelle Prussin’s lifelong relationship with the people, architecture, and study of Africa began with a challenge in the early 1960’s, when her employer refused to assign her to a project in Africa. The UC Berkeley graduate overcame this obstacle by finding a job with the Volta Relocation Project which developed 50 new African towns. Since then, Prussin’s research has helped to redefine Western thought on the nature of African Nomadic dwellings. Her seminal work, African Nomadic Architecture, challenges the traditional view of what constitutes architectural “permanence,” showing that nomadic dwellings are significant as architecture as designed and built by their true architects who are primarily women builders and “homemakers”.

While not monumental or fixed by place, nomadic dwellings are permanent in the sense that their design, technology, and materials are passed down from one generation to the next. Not only do the knowledge  and creative processes remain embedded in the collective memory, but also the physical components themselves, each full of meaning to its creators. This transfer constitutes a heritage handed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation.

Nomadic lifestyles presume the need for a building that is easily assembled and dismantled and is lightweight enough for transport. There are two basic architectural types: tensile structures consisting of rectangular textile or skin vellum stretched from pole to pole in which the covering provides much of the structural integrity, and armature structures consisting of a circular domical bent wood framework with a non-structural covering. These forms and structures themselves are designed as an integral part of the transportation system; armatures, poles, vellums, bed rails and  partition screens are transformed into litters, palanquins and camel – loading armatures.

The architectures themselves derived from the skills of artisans in many disciplines and are an amalgam of the designs and motifs extant in the cultural repertoire of daily life. While each structure constitutes a measure of economic viability and defines a family unit, it is equally a symbol for a married, productive female member of the community.

Tent interiors are divided into a grid, which follows a gender-discrete division dictated by the type of structure. Tensile tents are aligned by the rectangular shape and poles while round armature tents divide radially from the center or hearth. Spatial orientation reflects and reinforces behavioral and social patterns, universally segmented into quadrants of public/private, male/female. Interior divisions are often described and protected by Ostrich Eggs, a powerful fertility/femininity symbol that can be seen in many examples of African symbolic vocabulary.

The female private space serves as a marriage niche, the setting for the dowry  baskets and textiles inherent in the marriage ritual itself. A new tent is created as part of the marriage ritual and goes with the woman to her husband’s camp. With the marriage or birth of each grandchild, the bride’s mother contributes physical elements of her own tent extending the lineage of family and culture.

Nomadic textiles are an  important element in the  symbolic language of architectural and ephemeral design throughout Africa. The patterns intricately woven into textiles that form the walls and cover the floors of tents extend the continuity of design, protection, and ritual. Design motifs derivative of the “Magic Squares worn by Jewish Moroccan women dominate textile symbols and have been modified, copied, and revered as protection from the evils of the mundane as well as the spiritual worlds. The original five-by–five magic square, linked to Sufism and Kabala mysticism, is often incorporated into a design in which the geometry itself, sans the numbers and text, serves as a language of its own.

Adopted from intercultural contact along the Saharan trade routes, nomadic textiles, which served utilitarian, ritual and monetary functions, have created a well-defined and necessary symbolic African architectural and visual language. Once aware of this vocabulary one  cannot ignore the impact the nomadic women of the Sahara have had on the life and culture of the African continent.