Archives for category: Yoruba

In 2009 David Adjaye and Philip Freelon’s plans for an inverted and stacked trapezoidal building encased in bronze screens won the design competition for the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). When the building opens in late 2015, it will have been 100 years since African American Civil War veterans first proposed a DC memorial honoring various African American achievements. This centennial timeline illustrates how long the struggle has dragged on to construct a monument to African American history, it also reminds us just how recently millions of Africans were enslaved in America by the fact that men who actually fought to end slavery were connected to this ongoing project. The building itself mines the more distant connection of the African origin of American slaves for its defining tripartite trapezoids, which evoke Yoruba carved wood columns–specifically the crowns at the top of the columns (not a king’s “crown” as many articles mistakenly assume)–found on traditional buildings in southwest Nigeria. The reference to Yoruba pillars subtly suggests the prominence of African American scientists, artists, and politicians in the creation of America, and also–to use the museum’s term–“the darker corners” of the reality that America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Revisions to the original winning design, including a third tier, have further brought out the form of a sculpted Yoruba column, whereas before the plans looked equally like a shimmering fire above a base of a flat funeral pyre…not exactly the imagery a museum to African American culture wants to evoke. The redesign removes the red-stone base, integrating the crown with the ground level. While these have been improvements to the original vision, budget concerns have scrapped plans for an entrance that would have crossed a series of intricately landscaped waterways, reverently breaking the stride of visitors as they approached and serving as a reminder of the middle passage crossing. Another victim of the budget has been the bronze facade, which will now be fashioned from some kind of coated composite. There are concerns whether the new material will shine and if it will eventually flake off. Perhaps, in an America where pernicious racism chips away at any optimism for a united union, nothing could be a more fitting symbol for the dream of a nation that recognizes and honors the contributions and heritage of African Americans…except for maybe a funeral pyre…or, maybe yet, the shift in the form of the building’s tragic flaw from funeral pyre to a million paint specks speaks to the shifts in the way American racism operates.

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Yoruba columns in the house of Susanne Wenger (Mark Duerksen, 2014)

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Columns carved by Olowe of Ise (source)

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Original design (source)

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Redesign (source)

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I flew out of Murtala Muhammed Airport at 11pm and, after a short stop in Heathrow, I landed at Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland and was soon gliding through lush, stone-wall-lined country roads on an Éireann Bus headed to Galway City. As I sleepily stared out the window, I–at first casually and then more methodically–noticed the similarities between the architecture of Irish homes and those I had just left in Nigeria. The simplicity of the shapes–boxy, mostly single floor homes that maximized living space within the small plots–was the first noticeable parallel between the houses, and so was the material–concrete cinder blocks stuccoed and painted a variety of colors. Another common feature was walls around the plots. In Ireland yards were surrounded by the traditional, pastoral stacked-stone walls (some with and some without mortar) between 3 and 5 feet tall, and in Nigeria housed were barricaded behind tall concrete, booby-trap topped walls that provided their residents with security (but that I suspect also have connections to longer traditions of Yoruba architecture in which compounds were surrounded by walls not so much to keep people out, but to create a sense of belonging amongst those within the walls–more on this in another post soon). Then there was the paved yards around the homes–a not so attractive feature shared by Nigerian homes (to tamp dust? To provide more parking space for numerous visitors?) and Irish homes (to give homes and vehicles a more stable foundation on the water logged soil?). Having been in Ireland for a few weeks now, I’ve noticed other similarities shared between the former British colony Nigeria and arguably the first British colony, Ireland. There’s a second hand feel accompanied by a resourcefulness that’s noticeable in Ireland similar to that in Nigeria, which was especially apparent compared to the conspicuous wealth and opulence found in the former colonial metropole, London. Unconnected to colonial history, there’s an interesting similarity between Bronze/Iron age Celtic art and ancient Yoruba art (this region of Africa developed bronze and iron smelting independently of Europe/Asia). Any art historian could probably pick out just how different they are, but broadly speaking, I think there’s quite a few similarities in patterns and forms (especially the eyes: Irish Sheela na gig and Yoruba Orisha.

That’s a lot more than I was planning to write on the simple observation that a few things in Ireland remind me of Nigeria. Now I’ll work backwards and post more thoughts on Nigeria and Lagos over the next few days/weeks.

 

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Somewhat Upscale House in Lagos (Mark Duerksen 2014)

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Typical city home in Galway (Mark Duerksen 2014)