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
Richard Aina: A Culture of Craft: West Africa UNObjectified
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.
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