The landscape of early Africa was made up of small societies, with one commonality that their livelihood was dependent on their farms, or herds of cattle, and with almost no specialization of labor.
The societal constraints dictated the distribution of wealth, and the conformity of each member to a set of norms. For example no great social privileges were attached to wealth and its accumulation was frowned on. Religion was often emphasized in the communities, there was little distinction made between the living and the dead.
The plan (pattern) of layout of the buildings was influenced by many different forces.
(l) The nature of the crops: those that required a long growing season and maturity; those that were short term cash crops; or slow maturing crops, tied the owners to one plot for a longer time.
(2) the seasonal nature of the activity , for example pastoral people followed specific routes , and was adapted to the climatic conditions. The needed buildings that were easily moved. They sometimes erected permanent dwellings in a location and then made temporary ones made as they moved to new sites.
(3) kinships were also important in determining the layout of the village. Members of one clan would live in a defined territory, with family units close by. These kinships were defined by the physical nearness of the buildings.
Since the term ‘village’ indicated family groupings rather than buildings, some villages were not evident from the ground, but expressed physically the social structure of the group of people living in them.
Because the composition of the village depended on the birth, death, and divorce rate, the impermanent nature of the buildings meant that there was a quick response to changes in the family structure. The orientation of the village was dependent on the location of the chief’s house, thus, the death of a chief brought about a new orientation of the village as new houses were built to face the chief’s residence. The physical layout was also based on religious reasons. The decision on whether or not to build villages on hills rested in part on the presence of the omnipresent spirit; houses were not built near grave sites, battle fields, or places connected with an ancestral taboo.
Imaginary lines separated relations. For example, in some villages son-in-laws and mother-in-laws lived in separate sections of the village, in other villages the division was made along generational lines. Proximate generations built separately, and alternate generations built together.
In summary, the layout of the village was usually symbolic. Villages were either laid out in a square that had specific significance, or were symmetrical with the houses around the circumference and open spaces in the middle for cattle.
(figure available in print form)
Elements of Construction: The Building Process
The process of building was a cooperative venture, and a major special occasion. In this process males and females had clearly defined roles. Women were not allowed to mark out the ground plans. It was believed that they would make it too small. Their responsibility was to do the thatching for the roof.
Construction skills were passed down from one generation to the other. One of the chief elements (materials) used for construction was the material found in the environment. The mud used had the consistency of clay, consisting of varying proportions of sand and clay. Because clay is pliable any basic shape can be expressed, and various shapes of roofs can be designed.
The preparation of clay for construction took many forms. In the Sudan, sun-dried mud bricks were made. In the building process the bricks were cemented in place with more mud, and the walls smoothed over with a mud mixture. Pear-shaped bricks were made using a mixture of mud and straw by the tribes of Hausaland. These bricks were laid horizontally then cemented into place with more mud. The wet regions bricks were not used. After the mud was moistened by the rain, it was pounded and left to mature, then used for building in the dry season. In the other parts mud was used with a combination of stakes (wattle and daub). The stakes formed the frame of the house. The walls were then filled in with mud.
Because of the nature of mud, the outer surface of the buildings must be treated to make it durable to withstand the weather. Plastering was done often, and potash, the locus bean pod, or for the wealthy, mimosa imported from Egypt, was added to the base mud mixture. The walls were maintained by scrubbing them smooth with various liquid mixtures. The internal walls of sleeping rooms were often plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung. This was done to eliminate or prevent the infestation of jiggers.
The mud floors were specially prepared. They were hard as cement and very smooth. The roofs were made of a combination of mud and timber beans. The roofs were either flat (terraced), domed or vaulted. These types were created through different techniques. Vegetable materials were used as the major element of construction by the pastoralist. They needed a house that could be dismantled and transported easily. The plan of these houses was a basic framework of hoops caused with either mats, thatch, skin, or a combination of all. These fall into the category of a tent, and many configurations of tent construction were identified. Other houses built above the ground had thatched roofs. Reeds, grass, and banana and bamboo beams were used to do the thatching. The basic framework of these houses were angular, dome having the shape of a beehive. Houses with thatched roofs above the walls had great variation in shape, materials, and construction technique. Stone was also used for construction and was found in four areas: East Africa, Abyssinia, Upper Niger, and the Upland areas. In some buildings a combination of stone and mud was used; in some, the stone walls were completely covered in mud.
(figure available in print form)
In general the African architecture incorporates the mythical and cultural aspects, such as animist and Islamic, as well as the individual’s own concepts of form and space. This is reflected is the culture of both sedentary and nomadic people. The settlements, often isolated, did consist of a male head of the household and his wives, their offspring, and the sons with their families. Within the settlement could be found a number of compounds, one for each male and for each of his wives and her children. These compounds were connected by walls creating a secure and compact plan.
Within the compound were a building for sleeping, covered storage areas, and a detached or semi-detached dry and wet season kitchen. The compound was the focus of social organization. This responded to the needs of the group. It could be altered to accommodate the fluctuation in family size, extending for a growing family or reducing when someone dies.
In the settlement was a place for keeping animals, and for housing tall mud granaries for storing surplus production. Often in the compound were found ancestral shrines. These were erected at the entrance of the compound.
Sacred, Ceremonial, and Community Buildings
Because of the year-round warmth and sunshine, and the predictability of the wet weather, many religious and community activities took place outside. Therefore pieces of land were set aside for these activities. These areas were kept sacred and were embellished with ritual objects. However, in some cases the shrines were alters inside ordinary houses.
In some cultures, Ibo for example, constructed buildings that were considered shrines, but once built they were ignored. The Asante temples were built in the courtyard pattern with four buildings joined in a square. Three of the buildings were used by participants in the worship, while the other housed the shrine and was used only by the high priest.
The Christian churches were of two designs and building techniques. Most of the churches had between three and five aisles, and were either Basilican in plan with a western aerated porch and an eastern sanctuary, or they had a cross-in-square plan with a well marked transverse axis. These early churches were made of either stone or wood. In the rural areas the churches were more modest. They were rectangular in plan and made of stone with flat roofs.
With the influence of Islam there was also the dedicated space for the purpose of worship. There were the open air spaces, and the mosques. One of the few mosques remaining is found in East Africa. It is built on a square plan divided into square bays, each roofed with a dome resting on pillars edged with coral. In contrast, the mosque in West Africa consists of a full tower on a square base. The mosque building is rectangular and divided into square bays. The roof is supported in the center on square pillars, with very low roofs.
Ornament: House Decorating
The architecture form can be considered a product of environment and social circumstances, but ornaments and decorations are bounded up in the social values. It is established to assert personal and community identity, and can signal different messages to those who are able to read them. If architecture expresses the public face of a society, then ornaments provide the opportunity for impressing the outsider, promoting morals, pride, and the solidarity of a people.
The use of decoration was not a function of the climate conditions, population changes, or the size and composition of the family unit as did architecture. It was more flexible and adaptable, and was more influenced by contacts with other cultures. Decoration implies the conscious effort of the creator to order his or her materials into a kind of design that will be pleasing to the eye, and at the same time have some magisterial or religious significance. It is this significance that this section of the paper seeks to develop.
Decoration was not the product of one person’s imagination. The designs had become standardized through generations of use. Some architectural features were more decorated than others. These include the compound and homestead entrances; granaries and grinding sheds; the wives rooms; sacred, ceremonial, and community buildings; doorways; inner walls; and roof pinnacles.
Decoration is considered of psychological significance and occurs at points of potential social stress: the chief’s house, temples, shrines, and clubhouses were more highly decorated. Decoration was also used to indicate changes in the life span of individuals; for example rites of passage for birth, initiation, marriage, and death.
Unlike the building methods carried out by men, the women engaged in wall painting where individual style was shown. Therefore wall art was the domain of the women. Wall decorating was usually done during the dry season after the crops have been stored, and it is the time for restoring the walls. The decoration was not only pleasing to the eye but also had utilitarian functions. Both external and internal walls benefited from a protective layer of paint, and the sculptured mud decoration of the Hausa doorways served to reinforce the edges of the walls. The techniques used varied across tribes and regions. Mural paintings were found in the Upper Guinea coast. Relief mud decorations were used by the Fulani of the Guinea, the Asante, and Ibo. Incised mud decorations were confined to the Upper Volta but the practice of pressing natural objects into the wet clay was quite widespread.
The origin of mural decoration is not clear. This is a tradition handed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation. Sometimes there is knowledge of what lies behind it, but only the significance of certain patterns and motifs. The explanation for this lack of specificity would be in the fact that later decorations resulted from a cultural and religious mix over time, through which some of the original meanings were lost.
The following are common decorative motifs found throughout Africa. They fall into the following categories:
l. Cellular design made up of two alternating, serially repeated units, one
positive, the other negative. The design is based on geometric shapes and completely covers the surface.
2. Intricate linear designs based on curved lines, often with interlacing. This is usually applied to the ground.
The decoration also had symbolic meaning. The meaning of several of these decorations have been passed down, but in many cases the significance has been forgotten. Evidence of meanings are demonstrated in the decoration of sanctuary facades cornered with small niches containing skulls and bones of animals, or in entrances surrounded by conical ornaments. In Ibo houses dedicated to the gods can be found clay statues and mural paintings depicting both religious and profane subjects. The Dagons had similar sanctuaries with facades ornamented with paintings in white that symbolically represent the elements of life; the sun, moon, stars, men, animals, and man-made objects. The chief’s house was heavily ornamented. The doors and door posts were decorated with beautiful carvings.
The doors and wooden locks were important because they protected the entrance, the most important part of the house where communication was made with the within and the outside, and they are exposed to the eye of the people. In the Sudan the Palmers had facades, and the interior walls and ceilings were decorated with geometric sculpted motifs.
The art of wall painting occurred among many ethnic groups in Africa. This was primarily the work of the women done during the dry season when they refinished the walls. The walls were decorated using white, black, yellow, and red ochre, and various earth colors including a green and grey-blue. These paintings were usually done with the fingers or with brushes made of vegetable material. The traditional patterns are purely geometric, but recently motifs based on plant forms, and flowers, have been used.
For the women, the art of wall painting is a natural gesture and is incorporated into the lifestyle. It is also a magical form of creativity, the magic not in the meaning, but from the art of applying the paint to the walls. When young women marry and leave their homes, they take with them this art to their new family and thus it is incorporated into the designs of another family.
(figure available in print form)
Motifs, which are an extension of walls decorations, are more individualized. They depict either an object, an event, or a belief familiar to the woman’s world. Motifs can be figurative, non-figurative, or a combination of the two. Non-figurative patterns are used to enhance skin texture on the representation of snakes, crocodiles, and lizards.
Some of these figurative representations have particular meaning to the clan. Pythons are considered sacred among the Kassena women. It is used as a symbol of protection. The criss-cross bohinbore used around the door is said to protect the inhabitants. The crocodile and lizard were sometimes used in a more complex three-dimensional form. The Boasi’s representation of the dove is to send a message to the god when the woman is worried. No special meaning is attached to the criss-crosses and figurative designs used by the Kusasi woman. These designs are used only for their beauty. In the Ibo culture the motif designs are developed through the complex process of the mind and have nothing to do with mysticism. The women derived the names of the motif patterns from things in their domestic world. These motifs enabled them to respond to their world, communicate information, and adorn their home.