ART AND ARCHITECTURE FROM BURKINA FASO
This is a tale of the art form characteristic to the Tiébélé village, in Burkina Faso, (a landlocked country) of West Africa. Tiébélé is about a 1.2 hectares small and circular village situated near the border of Ghana. It is the land of the oldest ethnic groups, known for their cob homes which are highly decorated on the exterior with geometric patterns.
Tiébélé village is well known for its amazing traditional Gourounsi (Gurunsi) architecture and elaborately decorated mud homes. The place is secluded and closed off to outsiders. Still, the village has gained recognition for its extremely beautiful mud homes showcasing the fascinating style of art and architecture.
ABOUT THE Tiébélé VILLAGE
The village is kind of an art museum where you can find intricate patterns on the clay wall of beautifully crafted cob homes. It is inhabited by the ethnic groups of the Kassena and the Gurunsi people which follow their cultural legacy to elaborately decorate the walls of their buildings. It is an ancient practice that dates back to the sixteenth century AD.
Burkina Faso is a poor country, even by West African standards, and possibly the poorest in the world. But they are culturally and ethnically rich. The World Monument Fund has also recognized the art and culture of Tiebele, and funds have been raised to promote and conserve the culture here.
HOME TO AN ETHNIC GROUP – “KASSENA”
The major ethnic group that inhabits the village and nearby region is the Kaseena people. The Kassena people are part of the greater Gurunsi group and were separated from the Gurunsi ethnic group at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the Gurunsi people live in Burkina, and the Kassena were literally isolated and gradually developed as an independent cultural identity. They speak the Kasem language and their chief lives in the town of Tiébélé.
The culture of this ethnic group is displayed on every single wall of the village. They follow their age-old practice of wall paintings to beautify their dwellings and hold a strong cultural significance in Africa.
DWELLINGS OF KASSENA PEOPLE
There are no words to describe the beauty of a Kassena home. They are an astounding piece of art. The houses are built completely with earth, wood, straw, and other locally available materials. The soil is mixed with straw and cow dung so perfectly to attain perfect plasticity, to shape vertical surfaces. These days, however, mud bricks are also used for molding walls with foundations resting on a large stone.
Tiébélé’s houses are climate-friendly. They offer a good resistance towards the harsh arid climate of Africa.
- Walls – They are over a foot thick to provide stability to the Earth’s structure.
- Windows – Just one or two small openings are provided in the house to let enough light in to see.
- Front doors – They are very low and you have to kneel down when entering a room. It keeps the sun out and makes enemies difficult to strike.
- kitchen– It is divided into different rooms. One is dedicated to pounding cereals on a clay tablet, leading to another one that is exclusively designed to store cereals in a collection of piled pots.
- Roofs – They are protected with wood ladders that are easily retracted.
THE INCREDIBLE WALL PAINTINGS
Once the house is complete, it is now the exterior walls or facade which has to be painted. This is the community women’s job to make wall paintings and murals using colored mud and white chalk. The designs and patterns on the walls are inspired by the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings based on sacred geometry, mystical symbols, and religious beliefs of the Kassena people. The Kassena women are still practicing their centuries-old community art.
The finished wall is then carefully burnished with stones, each color burnished separately so that the colors don’t blur together. Finally, the entire surface is coated with a natural varnish made by boiling pods of néré, the African locust bean tree.
The paintings provide protection to the exterior walls other than just decoration. Adding cow dung, compacting layers of mud, burnishing the final layer, and varnishing with néré all make the designs withstand wet weather, enabling the structures to last longer.
THE STORY BEHIND MOTIFS
The village overall displays a brilliant harmony of form, pattern, and color in its dwelling. The striking designs and stylistic artistry of the Gurunsi people is fully integrated into the practical daily life of the individual and the community. The facades are decorated with black, white and brown color geometric signs and symbols, narrating the history of the Kassena community part of the Gourounsi people. The black color is obtained from graphite, the white from kaolin and the brown is a mixture of earthy tones. Dominant motifs includes-
- Geometric patterns in a palette of natural colors dominated by white, black, and red.
- The gourd (zimboré) as a sign of recipient for water: symbol of life.
- Totem of the community and animal whose meat is forbidden.
- The fishing net, as fishing did save the Kassena when food was scarce.
- Symbols of the tortoise, stars and moon as sign of good and hope.
- Kassena folk narratives of wisdom, fertility, afterlife and eternity.
- Semi-circle: calabash, one of the most important and used object in everyday life of Kassena people.
- Arrows: As a symbol of defense and warriors.
- Three-cross stitch: chicken for ritual sacrifices.
- Crocodile and snake: sacred animals to ward of bad luck and disease.
THE gourounsi (gurunsi) architecture
One of its kind- The Gurunsi architecture, is evolved under the patron of Kassena people. It is beautiful, cost effective and sustainable architecture which uses locally available raw materials combined with the aesthetic quotient of Kassena ethnic group. The limited resources and economic wealth of the country may have been an important factor in development of such type of architecture.
The cob homes of Gurunsi architecture, offer flexibility to create artistic homes in an Eco-friendly and sustainable manner. They are enriched with the climate-friendly features and delivers a narration of cultural history of Kassena people, such as this one in Tiébélé.
The present generation at Burkina Faso, however, seems to be attracted towards modernity and commercialization. Reasons like prolonged drought conditions, the economic burden of providing materials and sustenance for the local community, makes the village men to shift towards cities for work. The consequence is that the traditional architecture and decoration are fast disappearing.
There are places where the original Gurunsi architecture has been replaced with boxy structures of cinder block and cement and flat metal roofs, while the old designs that were still visible were faint and fading.
The women’s at their level often sell art pieces and souvenirs, from which they hope to earn extra money that decorating their houses does not provide. But, this should be understood the Tiébélé and all Burkina Faso, is known for its traditional painted mud homes, not for art decoratives and souvenirs. The original art and the legacy must survive.
If the traditional painted village disappear, the art will itself die. Measures must be taken to keep this graceful art alive before its too late. Initiative should be taken to get this art the UNESCO World Heritage status, which might bring publicity and provide resources to make preservation economically feasible. Older generation must pass on this beautiful art to the younger ones and help them keep rooted to their ethnicity.
Tiébélé, renders not just wall paintings but it is a different way of life- THAT MUST BE LIVED.
IMAGE SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS