Africa’s ‘Lasting Foundations’

Exhibit Examines Continent’s Architecture and Art

Posted October 3, 2007 at 3:59pm

On Saturday, the National Building Museum will open an exhibit on African architecture that includes more than 50 artifacts such as elaborate carvings, textiles and photographs that illustrate the cultural nuances of some of the continent’s communities.

The exhibit, “Lasting Foundations: The Art of Architecture in Africa,” is organized by geographic regions within the continent to highlight each location’s unique structural

characteristics. Although its main focus is architecture, the exhibit also draws on artifacts such as tribal robes and women’s cooking aprons to show how important themes in homes, mosques, churches and other structures also carry over into everyday items.

The exhibit opens with a map of the African continent surrounded by pictures of architecture from the region. Martin Moeller, the coordinating curator for the exhibit, said the map is an appropriate introduction to the exhibit because it helps viewers understand the geographic locations of the countries on display.

“Some people may know the names of these places but not know exactly where they are,” Moeller said.

In the Swahili Coast section, for example, it is important to understand the region’s proximity to India because much of the architecture has an Indian influence, Moeller said.

Also on display in the Swahili Coast portion is a window frame made of corals and shells. The frame’s materials were not surprising considering the area’s proximity to the ocean, Moeller said.

The use of indigenous material is a common theme throughout the exhibit and is seen in virtually all of the architectural pieces displayed.

Other artifacts, such as the Christian crosses in the Ethiopian section, show the influence of outside cultures. Although the Christian influence is strong in certain parts of Ethiopia, each community maintained its own unique take on the significance of the cross and designed their religious artifact accordingly, Moeller said.

While some of the architecture pieces and photographs do have years listed, many throughout the exhibit do not. For Moeller, this shows the timeless constraints of architecture in Africa. The lack of dates also is an effort to be accurate, he said.

“Pinpointing a date is very difficult in many of these cases,” Moeller said.

One section that does emphasize time periods is a section of photographic scenes of African architecture. The wall of photographs, which is composed of three separate collections by three modern African photographers, contains pictures of scenes such as city skylines and gated communities to stress the modernity in the architecture of the continent.

The exhibit concludes with a film of an annual ritual in Mali to replaster a historic Djenne mosque. The ritual is performed by all of the members of the community, young and old, to help restore any damage sustained by the building throughout the year.

The notion of a ritual, community event surrounding architecture is common in Africa, said Moeller, although it often is overlooked in other societies.

“Here it is so integral to the culture of the people,” he said.

“Lasting Foundations” was developed by the Museum for African Art in New York City. According to Moeller, the exhibition has been on display in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York before opening in D.C. at the National Building Museum.

Located in the second-floor galleries at the National Building Museum, “Lasting Foundations” will be open to the public Saturday through Jan. 13, 2008. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 401 F St. NW.