Many Stories Matter

Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa

Reviewed by Kofi Boone, ASLA

The Great Mosque in Djenné is among the largest mud structures in the world. Photo by Charlotte Joy.

With more than 15 million views, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s groundbreaking TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is likely the most viewed treatise on the consequences of making one story the story of the African continent. With surgical precision, Adichie reveals the lasting consequences of perpetuating Africa and Africans as only victims suffering from famine and war, or only the exotic backdrop for experiencing “charismatic nature.” But in the end, her most devastating criticism of the single story is embodied in her quote of the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, “If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with ‘secondly.’” Illustrating her point, Adichie asks facetiously what we would think if the story began with a “failed” African state instead of with European colonialism.

The issue of starting with “secondly” is present in cultural landscape study of the continent of Africa. The spirit of Adichie’s and Barghouti’s arguments resonates in the pages of Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by John Beardsley. The volume collects essays delivered at a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in 2013 and reflects an important first step in laying the foundation for future exploration. Through a wide array of disciplinary lenses, geographic locations, and time periods, Beardsley’s work eschews deriving a single conclusion about what is “African” and instead reveals the wealth of issues and opportunities with engaging the many cultures of a continent. The avoidance of narrowing and bridging the divergent voices contained within the book is challenging and perhaps belies the fact that this is one of the first mainstream publications on this topic. Given the lack of similar texts, there could be a tendency to attempt to be singular and definitive. However, borrowing from one of the book’s many themes, the result is a contribution to the “continuity” of a conversation about the lives and practices that have shaped meaningful place in Africa, a continent still invisible to the profession of landscape architecture.

In the book’s introduction, Beardsley attempts to align the divergent essays with a characteristic he associates with African cultures: “This book is intended to be something else—a polyphonic chorus, rather like Africa itself, of voices both black and white and from within and outside the subcontinent.”

The collected essays come from geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, art historians, African studies scholars, and a former Peace Corps volunteer. Two authors are architects and one is a landscape architect (Jeremy Foster). No “formal” works of landscape architecture are presented. However, using the framework of landscape studies, Beardsley situates these diverse voices in the inherently multidisciplinary traditions of describing changes in the landscape over time.

Landscape architects may be most interested in the confrontationally titled “Design on the World” (a play on Design on the Land by Norman T. Newton). In this essay, Grey Gundaker, an anthropologist on the faculty of William & Mary, offers a scorching critique of the forces that cause the design contributions of the African continent to be both ubiquitous and invisible in the global narrative of art and culture. Gundaker reminds us that the emergence of European landscape architecture and design traditions (for example, André Le Nôtre’s Gardens of Versailles, or the English pastoral landscapes of Humphry Repton and Capability Brown) occurred as European colonialism asserted its dominance on the non-European world. There is a connection between the systems of resource extraction, especially from places like Africa, and the wealth and power that enable iconic works of landscape architecture to exist. Further, the subjugation of Africa and dehumanization of Africans necessary for their economic exploitation set the stage for the hierarchical relationships currently elevating landscape aesthetics from one region (Europe) while diminishing others. A revealing quote referenced in this essay is from someone anonymous: “Do they have landscape?”

Gundaker also reminds us of the passive reinforcement of a European colonial mind-set that is embedded in our mainstream understanding of landscape architecture history. In their seminal book The Landscape of Man, Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe reinforced racist tropes to categorize non-Western landscapes in ways similar to the artificial categories proposed by Linnaeus centuries ago. The sorting of humans and their capabilities based on their physical characteristics, also known as “race,” has no scientific evidence and was used to justify colonialism and slavery. In The Landscape of Man, the Jellicoes aligned the history of landscape architecture with the history of “civilization” and “progress” with Europe on top, sub-Saharan Africa absent, and without acknowledging the processes enriching Europe at the expense of the continent of Africa. Their celebration of landscapes from the most powerful figures of their times without acknowledging the exploitation that enabled their practices is tied to the “one story” Adichie criticized. This elision, as well as reflections on the connections between African art and the rise of modernism and modernist landscape architecture, provide many threads from which to challenge why and how Africa has been excluded from the canon of landscape architecture history.

From there, Beardsley shares essays organized around three themes: “Monument and Environment,” “Pathway and Grove,” and “Rethinking Landscape.” Charlotte Joy, a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, begins the first theme by criticizing the narrowness of cultural landscape documentation methods. She uses UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre’s relationship with the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali to illustrate the complexity of preserving history in an active war zone (this case was documented in 2013 and during the rise of Boko Haram). She presents a surprising statistic: There are 47 World Heritage Sites in sub-Saharan Africa, while Italy alone has 45. This discrepancy, she argues, is indicative of bias in the documentation process. The “Monument and Environment” section closes with Neil L. Norman’s “Gardener Kings,” a thick description of the origins, appropriations, and the European dismissal of formal palace gardens in the Gbe Kingdoms (currently Benin). As examples of the formal transformation of the land to express wealth, status, and power, they are indistinguishable from their European counterparts that have received much more popular attention.

The second theme, “Pathway and Grove,” introduces two important ideas that reveal the complexity surrounding what are generally perceived as everyday landscape elements. Paul J. Lane explores the pathway as an alternative organizational framework to the “place” for reading the landscape. He acknowledges the value of place-defining elements (in his case, stone cairns marking key locations on a path in Kenya) but favors a movement-based analytical approach because they are more inclusive of nomadic African cultures. In “Good Bush, Bad Bush,” Ikem Stanley Okoye offers insightful arguments about the processes by which groves are formed. He enriches the discussion by revealing that in some cultural contexts, groves, based on their level of maintenance, are symbolic of chaos (in a spiritual sense) and undesirable places by local people even if a fascination for visitors and researchers.

The final theme, “Rethinking Landscape,” ventures into the postcolonial politics of places at the landscape scale. Joost Fontein offers a fascinating essay on how environmental crises like droughts are tied to community perceptions of political stability in Zimbabwe. Maano Ramutsindela describes the enduring landscape challenges with artificially imposed boundaries from European colonial rule in southern Africa. In a contemporary turn, conservationists have called attention to the European colonial era to leverage historical anti-colonial public sentiment and gain support for ecological strategies to improve ecosystem health—political narrative used in the interest of improved biotic function. This section closes with the landscape architect Jeremy Foster and the redefinition of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. Table Mountain exists in the legacy of Apartheid-era social controls barring indigenous African people from using the site for recreation and leisure. However, Foster argues that in contemporary Cape Town, hybridized meanings are emerging that are not neatly defined by temporal eras but the “immaterial” sensations of what Foster calls a “New World wonder.” This is defined by the juxtaposition of the mountain ecology against the fast-growing and ever-changing city below.

Tanzanian irira, or paths, once used to move cattle and goods between clans, are still in use today. Photo by Paul Lane.

The book has many strengths but also has some issues. The first is its decision to use the term “sub- Saharan” Africa as a euphemism for “Black (skin) Africa.” Even the African Union no longer uses the term. This language is out of date, reinforces artificial divisions on the continent, and assumes similarities between people owing to latitude and anatomical features. For much of human history, the Sahara Desert was not as large and obstructive to continental trade and movement as it is today. On the contrary, there are extensive records of cultural exchange and connections across what is now considered barren desert. And the origins of kingdoms in places like Egypt lay south along the Nile in what would be considered “sub-Saharan” Africa. African cultures are organized as families, villages, and ethnic groups. But historically, the continent of Africa as a whole has much more in common.

Religion and spirituality appear throughout the book, but the impact of their intersections and collisions are compartmentalized to each case study. In his pioneering BBC series and book The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Ali Mazrui (a native Kenyan) argued that understanding Africa means grappling with how indigenous beliefs, Islamic faith, and European capitalism (colonialism) expressed themselves across cultures over time. This is a precedent to “hybridity,” a concept referenced in Beardsley’s book. But more could be done.

Finally, there is little to no exchange among the many authors in the book. Occasionally, an author will reference another’s essay in his or her own work. However, given the spectrum of cases presented, creating a space to model the “polyphonic chorus” that Beardsley associates with African cultures would have only enhanced the work.

Cultural Landscapes in Sub-Saharan Africa is an important book because it represents the beginning of a global pivot in our conception of the landscape. Landscape architecture is a global profession with people from very different cultures joining to reshape the world in which we live. Our mainstream historical and cultural reference points come from Europe and the United States and do not reflect the life experiences of us all. This book represents an important step toward a new context for landscape architecture that engages the informative legacies of the continent of Africa. And as others follow suit, cataloging and engaging other places, we could get to the point where “many stories matter.”

Cultural Landscape Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by John Beardsley; Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Research Library Collection, 2016, 486 pages, $60.

Kofi Boone, ASLA, is an associate professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. He serves as vice president of education for the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

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