The Decorated Walls in Tiébélé
BY Ann Schunior | September 8, 2011
The art of community pride
It’s late February, the middle of the dry season. It’s not the time when the Kassena women of Tiébélé usually decorate their houses, but the community center opens in a week, and community pride dictates that it be elaborately decorated with traditional designs. Tiébélé is a moderately sized village in southern Burkina Faso, a poor, land-locked country north of Ghana. While most Burkinabés lack monetary wealth, they are culturally rich, and decorating the walls of their buildings is an important part of their cultural legacy in this area of the country. Wall decorating is always a community project done by the women. The community center the women are decorating on this day has modern, cement block construction. The women, however, have learned they can layer mud over cement and proceed with mud decorations just as they would their more traditional mud brick structures.
By early morning, the yard is lively as women gather around piles of mud, each a different color. These piles, and the white chalk that will be rubbed over part of the design, are the women’s palette. Cow dung is added to the mud and stomped with bare feet until the mixture is well blended and smooth. Fresh dung, soaked in water and strained to remove excess fiber, acts as a binder and strengthens the walls.
On this occasion the women are decorating two walls, one inside and one outside. Each wall is first covered with a base layer and carefully smoothed. Everything is done by hand. The second layer is a rich rust-red and is soon added over the first, smoothed, and compacted.
The work on the walls reflects the informal organization of the community. Women of all ages come together, with the older women taking the lead and guiding the younger women. The most senior woman is responsible for taking a stone and incising the first line. She starts with a long horizontal line across the top, drawn quickly with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. Other women then join in, filling out the overall pattern with a series of vertical lines that outline the primary columns, the principle design element of the inside wall. The outside wall proceeds the same way, but is unified by horizontal bands.
Once the base layers are on and the general outline incised, the complicated design work begins. Black mud and chalk are used to outline some areas and fill in others. Much of the rust colored layer stays exposed, becoming a major part of the pattern. Gradually, as it becomes more complex, the design turns into a dance of color and texture. The finished wall is carefully burnished with stones, each color burnished separately so that the colors don’t blur together. Finally, the entire surface is coated with a natural varnish made by boiling pods of néré, the African locust bean tree.
The decorated walls function on many levels. To someone from outside the community, they are beautiful abstract designs. To those inside the community, they carry meaning and invoke spiritual protection. But mud designs also serves to protect the walls themselves. The decorating is usually done just before the rainy season and protects the outside walls from the rain. The incised lines break the flow of water in heavy rainfalls. Adding cow dung, compacting layers of mud, burnishing the final layer, and varnishing with néré all make the designs withstand wet weather, enabling the structures to last longer. In the end, the decorations are as practical as they are beautiful.
To see more of the women of Tiébélé and their house decorating, watch the excellent documentary Traces, Empreintes de Femmes (Traces, Women’s Imprints), directed by Katy Lena Ndiaya, 2003. http://cultureunplugged.com/play/3857/Traces--Empreintes-de-Femmes--Traces--Women-s-Imprints.