Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 5, 2018
Michelle Apotsos Architecture, Islam, and Identity in West Africa: Lessons from Larabanga New York: Routledge, 2016. 216 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Hardcover $144.00 (9781138192454)

A book-length scholarly work on architecture on the African continent is so rare that a new publication is cause for celebration in the small community of scholars who study this topic. Michelle Apotsos’s in-depth, diachronic study of architecture in the Islamic community of Larabanga in northern Ghana fits the bill. The book accomplishes multiple tasks. It reconstructs the history of Larabanga as a seat of Islam in the West African savanna—including the history of its dominant ethnic group, the Kamara—and traces the simultaneous emergence of an architectural idiom that embodied the town’s unique identity. In the process, Apotsos also writes a concise and synthetic summary of Islamic architecture that overcomes the conventional dichotomy between Islam in North Africa, southern Europe, and the Arabian Peninsula and Islam below the Sahara. The book is the most recent monograph written in the anthropologically inspired tradition established in some of the first postindependence histories of African architecture by Western scholars including Labelle Prussin and Suzanne Preston Blier.

After a brief introduction, in which she takes readers on a visit to the mosque in contemporary Larabanga as though they were part of the stream of foreign tourists who have recently descended on the town, Apotsos frames her book as a challenge to conventional understandings of architecture as a material expression of permanence and presence. She suggests that “Afro-Islamic” architecture in particular poses an alternative because it emphasizes process instead of product and models modes of presence that are not normatively permanent. Accordingly, the scholarship on African architecture—most of which has been produced by Western interlocutors—has taken the problem of articulating difference in a nonessential manner as its raison d’être. It has, somewhat unsuccessfully, used concepts such as “postcolonialism,” “world architecture,” the “vernacular,” and “regionalism” to try to come to terms with this issue. After her synopsis of major questions in Africanist architectural history, Apotsos completes one of the most successful chapters of her book—a history of Islamic architecture in West Africa that starts with the now-classic layout and decorative program of the Great Mosque of Damascus, Syria; follows the adoption and adaptation of Islam in religious buildings and urban design in Egypt and Tunisia; traces the emergence of the iconic Sahelian architectural language of Djenné, Timbuktu, and Gao; expands on the almost unknown history of Islam in Asante cultural production; and culminates in the dual inheritance of architecture in northern Ghana. In her third chapter, “Mallams, Mosques, and Mystic Stones,” Apotsos makes her most original contribution through an analysis of all scales of Larabanga’s built environment. Following this is a fascinating section on “modern” interventions in the city’s built fabric and the Larabanga mosque’s integration into the tourism and global-heritage circuit. Thus Apotsos’s narrative moves from the general to the specific and from the ancient to the contemporary. The book thus lends itself to both comprehensive and targeted modes of reading and is therefore accessible to a variety of readers.

Understanding the cultural history of the Kamara is key to Apotsos’s project. The Kamara originated in the Sahel, where they forged ties with the early Mali empire, under whose influence they became part of the broader Malinke group and converted to Islam. By the sixteenth century, the Kamara were migrating southeast into the forest regions of Burkina Faso and the Gold Coast, where they established communities along the trade routes to the coast. Larabanga, the only documented 100 percent Muslim settlement in the region, is one of the most significant examples.

Larabanga’s founding was marked by the construction of a mosque—one that still stands today. This ancient building was constructed from earth and timber as early as the seventeenth century. The verticality of its tapered buttresses, plastered into smooth, repeating plastic forms, is counterbalanced by insistently horizontal, regularly spaced projecting wood beams. Though these two features recall the characteristics of the well-known but recently problematized “Sudanese styles,” the Larabanga mosque differs in important ways. As with other examples of the Dyula style, to which the Larabanga building belongs, the buttresses were widened and thickened at their bases to produce a building that was squatter and more bulbous than its predecessors in Mali. To accommodate the humidity and rainfall of the forest zone, the walls and buttresses were canted inward to create a trapezoidal massing, and horizontal wood members were added to tie the buttresses together. Since a large central prayer hall was no longer structurally viable, the interior was subdivided into small rooms. Likewise, the minaret could no longer serve its intended function as a platform for announcing the call for prayer and instead became a large-scale symbol. Overall, Apotsos illustrates that this distinctive design is the product of the gradual merger between savannah round-house traditions and four-sided terraced forms from the Sahel. She painstakingly reconstructs a process about which nineteenth-century European armchair scholars such as Hermann Frobenius only hypothesized (Hermann Frobenius, Die Moscheebauten im Sudan, Neuhaldensleben: C. A. Eyraud, 1896).

The spatio-architectural features of Larabanga’s Founder’s Grave and Mystic Stone, like those of the mosque, encourage circumambulation and emphasize boundaries. With its links to the ummah (community) embodied multifariously in these sites, Larabanga became a beacon of Islam that attracted and continues to host pilgrims. But official religious sites are only the beginning for Apotsos. She explores intangible architectures and “second-order” spaces that are activated through movement and practice, such as a soccer field that becomes a temporary mosque during Eid al-Fitr. An analysis of the layout of compounds in the community as well as individual residences and other built structures reveals similar and additional characteristics—the placement and embellishment of wall openings; the articulation of surfaces with pointillist patterns, Arabic script, or iconographic imagery including cartoon characters; and the selection of building materials, such as earth and timber or concrete and corrugated iron—which all work to articulate gender divisions, sociopolitical hierarchy, and spiritual phenomena, and ultimately perform multilayered Kamara identities. In the twenty-first century, Larabanga’s mosque was replastered in concrete and enhanced with men’s and women’s restrooms, and the community’s historical round-house compounds were replaced with freestanding L-shaped residences that require air conditioning. These changes are in direct response to residents’ new labor migration patterns, tensions between local agendas and postcolonial nationalisms, and new nonreligious forms of pilgrimage. Even with these changes, architecture in Larabanga continues to function as both a system that reifies communal life and a symbol that enables the community to operate as a kind of shrine. Rather than being permanent and present, architecture here is living praxis.

Apotsos posits her nuanced and detailed analysis as a methodological and historiographic model for studying the Islamic architectures of West Africa. But what exactly is her methodology? Ethnography is clearly the dominant approach, but it would have been productive to engage more critically with it. Such an engagement might have prevented the book’s narrative from straying into the ethnographic present. Changes in narrative tense signal these moments, but as critical anthropology has shown, we should never assume that the relationship between past and present is self-evident. An extended discussion of Apotsos’s own use of interviews and participant observation would have helped resolve this problem: Who were the interview subjects? To what degree did their views represent the entire community? How did the presence of an outside “expert” affect knowledge production? In a similar vein, Apotsos critiques nineteenth-century European imperialist epistemologies that produced derogatory stereotypes such as the “mud hut.” Yet hut is used interchangeably with round-house throughout the book in ways that ignore its loaded semiotics. This kind of slippage also occurs when the distinction is not rigorously maintained between modernity as a condition characterized in part by global-local connectivity and self-reflexivity about change and modernization as a process entailing the adoption of industrial technologies. But it is clear that this is largely a simple matter of linguistic imprecision that could have been eliminated during the editorial process. Ultimately, Apotsos has produced a compelling and innovative account that has much to offer both specialist and nonspecialist readers and significantly enhances the field of Africanist architectural history.

Itohan Osayimwese
Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University