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Study of African Bateba figures leads to RIBA Dissertation Medal win

Words:
Pamela Buxton

Richard Aina’s study of Lobi furniture ended with proposal for a building for spiritual heritage which he hopes to contribute to West African architectural discourse

The Vessel. As well as housing diviners and shrines for restituted Bateba figures, the structure would support craft-based creative exchange.
The Vessel. As well as housing diviners and shrines for restituted Bateba figures, the structure would support craft-based creative exchange.

Richard Aina: A Culture of Craft: West Africa UNObjectified
Architectural Association
Tutors: Mark Campbell; Manolis Stavrakakis

 

Richard Aina’s long-held interest in furniture making, and in particular the Lobi reclining chair from West Africa, was the spring point for his dissertation, A Culture of Craft: West Africa UNObjectified.

Researching the chair led him to discover the Bateba spiritual figures produced by Lobi peoples, who live in the area where Burkina Faso, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire intersect. His dissertation explores the important role of Bateba in Lobi culture, their popularity with colonial administrators, museums and art collectors, and more recently their commodification for the tourist market. He considers how the figures came to be presented as art rather than spiritual objects, and the prospects for their restitution.

‘It is clear that Lobi craft and production is exceedingly complex. What one recognises is that sacred objects sustain tradition and maintain cultural identity,’ he writes in the dissertation.

This research drove the architectural proposition for the ‘Vessel’ – a building connected to the spiritual heritage that would serve as a destination to receive Bateba figures that are being returned to Lobi peoples through restitution, and to house the seven diviners that work with them.

The site is alongside a hill at Gaona in Burkina Faso. After studying the context, climate and local architecture, Aina proposed a combination of Lobi vernacular construction involving timber and banco (mud brick) with new earthwork techniques. These will create a long structure with strategically positioned light slots – the effect creates a sort of earthen sundial – and circular diviners’ quarters.

The Bateba are delivered to the Vessel and interrogated by the diviners, who decide the most appropriate next step for them according to their characteristics and nature. Some are restored to shrines within the Vessel, some are deemed ‘in flux’ and housed on a series of earthen plinths, some are buried, and some are to be redomesticated in ‘seed shrines’, situated on the outside the Vessel. These may become domestic shrines for new homes that are built around them in the traditional Lobi manner, and in doing so may, over time, seed a new community.

The proposition recognises the importance of the architect’s collaboration with key agents such as the land chiefs and the master mason – the closest role to architect in Lobi culture – and their apprentices. Aina anticipates that the Vessel would in their hands enable the architecture to ‘thrive’ by evolving and expanding over time.

He would like to visit Lobi lands and convey the proposal to land chiefs and master masons in order to test its viability, and make subsequent revisions to the design of the Vessel in response. ‘I’m hoping to contribute to the discourse on contemporary west African architecture,’ he says. 

  • Lobi cosmology system. At the top is Thangba Yu (God). The Bateba are manifestations of God’s intermediary Thila.
    Lobi cosmology system. At the top is Thangba Yu (God). The Bateba are manifestations of God’s intermediary Thila.
  • The domestic shrine with the diviner and Bateba within.
    The domestic shrine with the diviner and Bateba within.
  • 1:20 model showing how light drawn in through the Vessel’s roof openings and the shrine roof illuminates each shrine during the early afternoon.
    1:20 model showing how light drawn in through the Vessel’s roof openings and the shrine roof illuminates each shrine during the early afternoon.
  • Bateba re-shrined within the Vessel.
    Bateba re-shrined within the Vessel.
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DISSERTATION HIGH COMMENDATION

Ben Sykes-Thompson
Overlooked Sounds: Reinterpreting Traditional Japanese Architecture as Aural Space
Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL)
Tutor: Murray Fraser

DISSERTATION COMMENDATIONS

Ian Bugarin
Bodies Split in Two: Contested Monsters and Queer Space in the Philippines
London Metropolitan University
Tutor: Ektoras Arkomanis

Manuela Reitsma
The Secular House: A Manual for Preservation and Seismic Improvement of Vernacular Stone Dwellings in Bhutan
Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy
Tutors: Takayoshi Aoki; Francesca de Filippi; Roberto Pennacchio

DISSERTATION MEDAL JUDGES

Chair in absentia: Lesley Lokko

Founder and director of the African Futures Institute in Accra, Ghana, and visiting professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
Ex officio non-voting chair: John-Paul Nunes
RIBA head of education projects
Emanuel Admassu
Assistant professor of architecture at Columbia University, USA
Hugh Campbell
Professor and head of architecture at University College Dublin, Ireland
Emma Cheatle
Senior lecturer of architecture at the University of Sheffield, UK

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