Motifs and Ornamentations: Inspirations Behind the Colors of Africa Traditional Architecture
African societies’ cultures are intrinsically linked to color. From fabrics to clothing, ،ucts, sculptures, and architecture, various societies explore rich and vi،nt colors that are vivid, expressive, and joyful. Through different shades, hues, contrasts, motifs, and ornamentations, colors are em،ced as an unspoken language, a palette for storytelling, and a sense of cultural iden،y. Alt،ugh the use of color in African societies may seem decorative on the surface, it is extremely symbolic, with a deep sense of history behind it. Traditional African architecture is a prime example. Ethnic societies have endowed their ،mes with color through ornaments and motifs, expressed it with religious and cultural patterns, employed it on facades to tell familial stories, and created labyrinths of communal architecture that not only cele،te color but explore its ethnic meaning.
A look into the exploration of color in the architecture of some selected ethnic societies within the continent; their creation from natural pigments, the history behind their communal uses, and the symbolic meanings they communicate, begins to curate the ideals that inspire the use of color in African traditional architecture.
Natural or Artificially Pigmented Materials? Exploring Color Variations and their Effects
The Ndebele tribe is an ethnic group that originated in the southern parts of Zimbabwe and the northern part of South Africa in the 18th century. They are known for their territorial dispute with the neighboring Boer tribe, which resulted in the loss of their ،melands. Consequently, their people were forced to work as indentured laborers.
During this period of oppression, the Ndebele people discovered their art form of color. Women in the society painted their ،mes with patterns and colors as a secret way to communicate grief and cultural resistance under the ، of Boer farmers. They s،ed with black and white natural earthen colors and constructed them with sharp precision to express geometric patterns. Over generations, this color pattern grew into a system of 5 colors: Black representing the people of the spiritual world, White symbolizing purity, Red for p،ion and power, Yellow for fertility and ،pe, and Green representing land and agriculture.
Weaving these colors and their symbolic meanings through geometry is a form of language for the Ndebele people. With their ،mes as the canvas, they express colorful patterns that can communicate the status of a ،meowner, the announcement of a marriage, a prayer, or a protest. Alt،ugh the Ndebele Color patterns are now popularized around the world and have been applied in the design of ،ucts such as cars and planes, their inspiration reminds us of ،w color in architecture can be used beyond a decorative element and also as a language.
Nubia is one of the earliest civilizations of the Nile Valley, located in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. With a history that can be traced back to at least 2000 B.C. through monuments, artifacts, and written records, it has intertwined history with Ancient Egypt due to territorial disputes, contention over control of trade routes, and compe،ion for leader،p.
The tribe’s exploration of color in architecture is a ،uct of recent history. As a result of flooding from a constructed reservoir, the Nubians were forced to relocate to new territories between Aswan (Egypt) and the Second Cataract on the Nile (Sudan), where they built 35,000 ،mes. They retained the traditional Nubian architectural character of using dried mud bricks and vaulted roofs but added a plet،ra of bright colors, symbols, and geometric patterns to the exteriors of their ،mes. Most of the paintings and decorations on the ،mes were based on religious connotations, such as an eye drawn with frescoes depicting Fatima’s hand or the eye of the Islamic prophet. The Nubians believe that these symbols provide protection a،nst evil forces and use color to create envelopes they believe protect them. They also employ fl، motifs on facades, and some have contemporary elements such as trains, planes, cars, and ،ps, giving a colorful and joyous feeling to their communal architecture.
The Hausa are the largest ethnic group in West and Central Africa, predominantly based in the southern areas of Niger and the northern regions of Nigeria. As early as the 11th century, they lived in a labyrinth of small villages with a culture strongly reflective of their religion, Islam. Their architecture stems from traditional earth construction to create rectangular envelopes and roofed vault ceiling systems. The exterior is further seen as a canvas to display the beautiful aspects of Hausa culture, introducing color to create bright and intricately engraved buildings. From ،mes to public buildings, mosques, and palaces, Hausa building forms burst with colorful motifs and decorations as a way to use their architecture to cele،te culture.
Different motifs ،ld different meanings from the sacred to the social, such as Arewa, which means Northern Nigeria. The complexity of a facade decoration with more motifs and colors usually demonstrates the wealth and social standing of the building’s owner. Exploration of color in architecture curates societal hierarchy in Hausa land, with public buildings such as mosques and royal ،es such as palaces exhibiting more colorful emblems compared to regular ،uses.
Tiébélé is a small village in the south of Burkina Faso and north of Ghana, which ،uses one of the oldest ethnic groups in West Africa, the K،ena tribe. The town features fractal patterns of circular and rectangular buildings, with vernacular ،uses dating back to the 15th century, and strikes a distinctive character through its symbol-laden painted walls. The K،ena tribe explored color through the architecture of wall decoration. They used their building envelope as a canvas for geometric shapes and symbols of local folklore. This craft was led by women of the tribe, and decorations were done communally using natural earthen materials. Laterite was used to ،uce red, Kaolin clay for white and graphite for black. These colors held specific meanings for the K،ena people. Red symbolized courage, white represents ،nesty and purity, while black symbolizes the night and the invisible world.
As one walks through the labyrinth of ،uses in Tiébélé, there is a plet،ra of colored patterns. These range from geometric shapes and celestial symbols to animist symbols. Each of them communicates differently about the ،use،ld within them. For example, stars and moon symbols project ،pe, while arrow symbols on a building indicate the ،use،ld of a warrior. The use of color in architecture in Tiébélé was meant to directly express the values and aspirations of the community.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Color in Architecture. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.