Nearly Unknown in the West: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Cultural Landscapes

Mapungubwe Hill National Park, South Africa / Wikipedia, Marius Loots, CC BY-SA 3.0

According to Professor Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, “there has been no scholarly work that explores African landscapes that doesn’t somehow implicate the Europeans.” That statement may be less true given a recent conference on cultural landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa at Dumbarton Oaks. Organized by John Beardsley, the head of landscape and garden studies there, the two-day symposium was designed to contribute to a growing African understanding of their own landscapes, including pre-colonial landscapes and how perceptions of these landscapes were altered during the era of colonialism. Speakers also examined how landscapes are intimately linked with cultural and political identities today.

Beardsley said Africa has an amazing range of “biotic zones,” filled with elephants, lions, or, as conservationists like to call them, “charismatic mega-fauna.” Beyond the wildlife though, Sub-Saharan Africa is also the “oldest inhabited landscape, the cradle of human species.” With thousands of years of history, the cultural landscapes that make up the region are equally as rich and diverse, if unknown in the West.

Below are snippets from the provocative presentations that asked us to really think when we look at Sub-Saharan African landscapes:

Is the Field of Garden and Landscape Studies Racist?

Grey Gundaker, Dittman professor of anthropology and African Studies at the College of William & Mary, said a review of garden and landscape studies survey literature over the past 40 years yielded only three articles on Sub-Saharan Africa, and those were the briefest of mentions. She said this was a prime example of how to “talk around something.” Basically, “African landscapes have been omitted.” She thinks that’s because African landscapes are loaded with the negative history of slavery, the guilt associated with that. But perhaps too often they are still treated as this “baseline upon which the superiority of the West rests” and not seen as having much value in themselves.

In garden and landscape studies, “blackness is a special case of ‘other.'” African landscapes are not only marginalized but perhaps the most marginalized. For example, she noted how Western garden and landscape survey books, which cover all styles of designed landscapes, will include some mention of Japanese zen gardens, along with perhaps some mention of Egypt, “the paler umbrella of the Middle East,” but Africa is the “unspeakable word.” The message: “Africans haven’t designed anything of real value.” If African landscapes are mentioned, “the agents, the designers are European. Africans are welcome to resist what Europeans do to them but they don’t bring things out themselves.” Gundaker argued that there’s a “legacy of embedded racism” that plagues garden and landscape studies to this day.

Gundaker said the practice of landscape architecture appeared in 18th century Europe around the same time as the appearance of Hegel and Voltaire. “The emergence of landscape architecture and all these other scientific ideas happened at the same time.” Unfortunately, that time also marked the escalation of the slave trade, with more than 6 million Africans taken from their continent. She said the gory truth was that many of the most beautiful gardens in Europe were actually paid for with money from the slave trade. She said it’s “no accident then that garden and landscape studies excluded Africa.”

Arab Slave Traders along the Ruvuma River / Wikipedia, Public Domain, Unknown author – In: Horace Waller: The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to his death. London, 1874. 

With the fading of the slave trade, the European economic system had to diversify or die, so the next focus was on “resources that could be extracted from Africa.” To make those resources – and the natural landscapes they were found in – more easily extractable, they had to be disparaged or degraded, so, again, Gundaker argues, African cultural landscapes were also devalued.

As a result, in the major garden and landscape survey books created over the past 50 years, like The Landscape of Man, the “overt exclusionary discourses” didn’t even pass historians’ minds. The “genius of an artist’s discovery” was made primary, not their inspirations. As an example, she showed an image of Roberto Burle Marx’s famous Copacabana boardwalk. This was seen as the original vision of a Modernist master. Little known was those fractal patterns were lifted from African dresses Burle Marx had seen on his trips to Africa. In the same way, “scholars of Modernism never highlighted African forms.”

Copacabana Boardwalk by Roberto Burle Marx / The Traveling Isle

Indeed, to be deemed successful, a design must be viewed as having linear forms and “be Euclidian” in its precision. The cosmological landscapes of pre-literate, pre-industrial Sub-Saharan African societies were left out, even though they were incredibly complex abstract ideas expressed in landscape form. The default garden template in the West became “contemplative and meditative.” Africa’s great spiritual, and even practical, productive urban agriculture landscapes were omitted. While specialists have long focused on specific African landscapes, the survey books used to teach generations of Western landscape architects and designers simply bypassed all of this.

Can We Learn to Read the African Landscape?

Suzanne Preston Blier, Professor of Fine Arts, African, and African American Studies, Harvard University, who gave a fascinating talk on Yoruban landscapes at Dumbarton Oaks a few years ago, then tried to show the crowd how to actually read Sub-Saharan African landscapes, without being clouded by European colonial perceptions of these places. Blier said African landscapes require “new modes of reading. What you don’t see is often what’s most important.” She explored some “iconic models,” the idea of materials, and then African landscape shapes, like the cone, fence, square, and circle.

One iconic Sub-Saharan African model is the trap, which can really be anything that captures or holds something. Traps can be seen as indigenous African art. The model of a trap, Blier showed, plays out in a range of forms — from water vessels to fishing nets to homes where people live.

Another value is autochthony, or being indigenous. Blier said many African communities “honor those who were there first,” by creating principles and rights associated with ancestry. So much African art then includes images of game, because they provide sustenance, but also because they were there first, they are ancestors to be honored.

She showed images of how different African cultures honor ancestors. In the Ife area of Nigeria, religious ceremonies involve creating a hole in the ground, so as to communicate with ancestors directly. There, ancestors are also buried under floors, so earthen buildings aren’t just homes but also tombs. “It’s about connecting present to past.” In Igbo areas of Nigeria, elaborate costumes offer ways to act out important messages to ancestors. These ceremonies aren’t mindless traditions: “There is great creativity in how ancestors are presented.”

Igbo mask dancers performing during the Onwa Asaa festival, Ugwuoba village, Nigeria / Smithsonian Institution Collection Archives

Africans closely engage the earth. When Blier was living in a Nigeria village, she couldn’t understand why African women were using such small brooms, leaning all the way down to sweep the village clear of bugs and detritus. She asked them, “why didn’t you use a long broom so you don’t have to stoop?” She laughed, adding that she soon discovered the practice was about “engaging with the earth up close.” Earthen arts, like drawings, are widespread.

Time plays a different role in African landscapes. In many African languages she said, “the past and present are the same word.” What does that mean in practice for African landscape architecture? The future will be like the past, in an endless cycle.

She said in contrast with the West, hard and soft is reversed in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Hard” buildings, made of mud or wood, are designed to fade back into nature and be constantly remade, while “soft” vegetation is what stays and even thrives. In Ghana, for example, African urban planners planted trees first and then built markets around them. In another example of the perceived permanence of nature: Africa was the first to domesticate nature, to grow millet, rice, and cut lumber. In the West, it’s the buildings that are designed to stay somewhat longer, and the vegetation is controlled, set upon.

African forms are distinctive landscape elements, too. Blier says some scholars believe the pyramids in Egypt were actually a variation of the earlier African cone form. The cone shows itself in so many things there, in the shape of termite hills, the salt stored in a market, and shrines.

Termite Hill of the Savannah / Travel Blog

Fences are critical. There are living fences made of trees or bushes. Ancient African cities have city walls and trenches of all types of sizes. “Their purposes and forms vary.” Lastly, there are also “human fences” that form for ceremony. Groups interlock arms, creating smaller exclusive spaces.

Location is important, as it is just about anywhere on earth. In one community, “the most powerful people are in the lowest area” because it’s closer to water. In one kingdom, the king lived on top of a hill, because his view was all encompassing. “Observation was power.” In still other communities, Africans created some of the first hill-side terrace villages and farming systems.

In comments after the session, Hitesh Mehta, FASLA, a Kenyan professor and landscape architect, said back in the colonial era, “landscapes only existed if white people saw them. Blackness was basically deleted. It’s like nothing south of Egypt existed.” He added that in the eyes of European colonialists, works of global heritage like the Great Zimbabwe “couldn’t have been created by ancient black people. They were too intelligent.”

Cone tower of the Great Zimbabwe / Wikipedia, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 3.0

While perceptions have dramatically changed for the better, “the spiritual aspect of African landscapes is still hard to understand in the West.” Works of landscape architecture in Sub-Saharan Africa are largely set up for “spiritual reasons.”

8 thoughts on “Nearly Unknown in the West: Sub-Saharan Africa’s Cultural Landscapes

  1. beckybadger89 05/16/2013 / 9:52 am

    Great article- this is a topic I’ve always wanted to explore.

    I earned my bachelor’s in land arch a year ago from a school that also had an excellent African Studies department. While taking an African History class I talked to my professor about writing a paper on architecture and landscape in sub-Saharan Africa. He told me that unfortunately, I was going to have a very hard time finding documentation on the subject. He was right.

    I later took a survey class on “art and architectural history in Africa” which included thirty-ish lectures on art and only two lectures on architecture, which covered three or four structures throughout the entire continent.

    Needless to say, I am excited that this area of study is coming to light!

  2. hoseaomole 05/20/2013 / 11:28 am

    Reblogged this on Hosea Omole's Blog and commented:
    Africa indeed has some of the most insightful cultural landscapes.More needs to be done to conserve them though.

  3. Hitesh Mehta FASLA 05/20/2013 / 5:13 pm

    FINALLY, credit is given where it is due! Your article captures well.. the deliberations over the two days! The time has indeed come to recognize African landscape as THE first landscapes and every book written on the history of Landscape Architecture needs to be re-edited and Chapters added that address the rich, symbolic and spiritual landscape of Sub-Sahara!

  4. Dan Schlupp 05/23/2013 / 5:40 am

    Thank you so much for bringing this topic to light. I’ve been a Sustainable Ag. Peace Corps volunteer here in Senegal for just over a year and a half now. As I wrap up my final five months of service, I’ve been exposed to the increasingly blurred edges of agricultural and urban development in relation to cultural, gender and educational roles. Understanding how a community embraces their own landscape has been both wonderfully revealing and an amazing contrast to my own Western perspective. I’m encouraged by writings like this, especially as I prepare my portfolio for graduate school submission to reflect my time here. Where can Landscape Arch/Planning play a role in responsible, restorative development work?

  5. Grey Gundaker 05/30/2013 / 5:16 pm

    Thank you, Jared! What a great summary of the talks at Dumbarton Oaks. And thanks to thse who have already commented. I hope this blog reaches many more of you with interests and experiences in African landscapes. Please write about what you know and teach about it!

  6. Erich Proglhof 06/03/2013 / 7:04 am

    Very good, at last a good view turned into that secluded continent. So many different cultures cannot be just ignored. At one topic in text I am afraid it is not exactly true. Where did Prof. Gundaker get the information about the Copacabana boardwalk? After the huge landfill project in Copacabana, Roberto designed many other sideboards with references to indigenous drawings found in pottery and textiles. But that specific pattern was already there before Burle Marx planned the beach side! It is a clear reference to the Portuguese flooring found since the XVI Century in Lisbon and Porto. Of course it could have been inspired from Africa at the colonial time.

  7. SweetHollowAlmanac 07/17/2013 / 2:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Greenwood Landscape Design and commented:
    As an anthropology student many years ago, I always found the lack of information on African *cultural* landscapes south of Egypt hugely disappointing. This article points to a few ways to begin exploring the subject in more detail. Personally, I think as Americans become more deeply interested in integrating agriculture into urban settings and in understanding the spirit of place, aspects of African landscapes are going to begin inspiring some new design trends.

  8. Anita Urasa 11/21/2017 / 4:56 pm

    Finally a well written article, giving long overdue recognition to Africa, its historic and cultural landscape. Also that, indeed, landscape existed prior to the arrival of a different culture, although I fail to understand why ancient Egypt is seen as non-Black. Encouraging that the contibutions its peoples, cultures have provided to modern landscape architecture are ultimately being recognized and looking forward to more African and African-inspired landscape design.

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