The dirt floor was as hard as concrete. The open doorway cast a sun wedge into what was otherwise a cool dark hut. The thatch roof rustled with every breath of breeze. An 8-year-old American girl living in South Africa could stand in the middle and yell her lungs out and the solid mud walls would absorb the racket and swallow any echoes. I know, because I was that girl — standing inside a Zulu kraal, inhaling memories of Africa with every breath.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was mentally documenting African Vernacular Architecture. Too bad it was forty years before my friend Jon’s Indiegogo campaign at http://igg.me/at/mudhut
He’s an architect living in Beaufort, South Carolina whose take on what constitutes “proper” building methods was permanently skewed by a Peace Corps stint in Zambia back in the 90s. When he wasn’t building latrines, he sketched every African-style insaka, hunting lodge or mosque he saw and studied how it worked. (it’s all on this website check it out)
He studied the baked mud, pre-weathered bricks that could be replenished literally in the back yard. Thatch roofs that allowed cooling breezes to pass through sleeping quarters. Women plastered walls in brilliant, geometric designs without chemicals, toxins or trips to a city for materials. But despite how sustainable, not to mention beautiful, these traditional (or “vernacular” in the vernacular of architect-speak) techniques seemed to Jon at the time, Western construction materials were considered more modern and desirable.
If I went back to Natal, South Africa today it’d be a lot harder to find a kraal, or any example of African vernacular architecture. Which is where Jon’s campaign comes in. He’s raising funds to continue the work he started in Zambia. He’s traveling to Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland – this time with a digital camera and an app to teach other architects, tourists, Peace Corps volunteers and villagers how to upload images of African Vernacular Architecture. He figures if he can at least document what’s left and build an easily accessible data base he can revitalize interest in the beauty, history and functionality of indigenous architecture before it’s too late.
I’m contributing as much as I can to his mud hut Indiegogo campaign because if there’s one thing I rant about incessantly, it is how homogenized and bland architecture in this county has become. Just consider Beaufort, South Carolina. Sure, we still preserve and celebrate our antebellum mansions, but what about our African-American architectural heritage? The last remaining Gullah praise houses, built by slaves, are disappearing and developers are itching to tear down historic, dilapidated freedman’s houses and replace them with oversized condos cloned from Florida and Arizona suburbs.
Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a kraal, Africa’s vernacular architecture is part American history – of our collective human story. Jon’s campaign is a chance to say it is a story worth telling.
The ultra-modern design of the new art museum at SCAD was reason enough to make a trip to Savannah over the weekend. I had no idea that there was an exhibit by the renowned South African sculptor Jane Alexander; it was just a happy accident. I haven’t been as unmoved by a museum exhibit since stumbling onto a Thornton Dial retrospective in Indiana last year. I say unmoved, because in both cases I simply stood there, transfixed. With Dial, I instantly recognized a witness to the South’s despair and disparities. When I saw Alexander’s creepy, life-sized “humanimals” my feet felt cemented, weighed down by a deep connection and unease I still don’t really understand.
I suppose in the case of her “Surveys from the Cape of Good Hope” the connection is the childhood I spent in South Africa. Like Alexander, I grew up a treasured white girl in a country that still embraced Apartheid. Unlike her, I have never found a way to express the myriad of ways that system both shaped and shamed me.
Although Alexander is famously reticent about the “meaning” of her work, I sense this exhibit is her way. There are no pamphlets full of art-speak. The walls have no explanatory paragraphs. Even the titles of the pieces are enigmatic; I didn’t know what “Bom Boys” meant until I scoured the internet. Gary loves this kind of freedom to interpret art (he can’t stand even naming his photographs for exhibitions) but I need context. So for me the eager student docents positioned like ambassadors at every turn were actually useful. The young man who kindly noticed my inability to just move along had clearly gone through something similar himself. His role, his relief perhaps, was to share everything he had learned about the stories behind each piece.
Before I realized it, my feet were working again. Maybe his enthusiasm was just a factor of the museum’s newness. Maybe he was earning extra credit or fulfilling a work study obligation. But I’d like to think it was transcendent, connective power of art.