The Sunday Mail
Recently, I sat with Clifford Zulu in his office at the National Gallery in Bulawayo.
We were discussing our forthcoming publication titled “The Preservation of Ndebele Art and Architecture”.
Both Zulu, a curator at the gallery, and I have chapters in the book due for launch by the US Ambassador this Wednesday at Amagugu International Heritage Centre.
Other contributors to the book are Dr Andre van Rooyen and Professor John Knight from the National University of Science and Technology’s Architecture Department.
It is a publication that was inspired by the My Beautiful Home Project run by our team in some wards in Matobo North.
However this article is not about the, My Beautiful Home — Comba Indlu Ngobuciko, nor is it about the book.
As we discussed the publication, our talk took us to the proposed new Parliament Building being constructed in Mt Hampden.
A fortnight ago, President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa officiated at the ground breaking ceremony for the building, which a Chinese company will construct.
Our attention was drawn to the artist’s impression of the plan for the imposing structure. I was seeing it for the first time. My heart nearly missed a beat with excitement and sheer joy.
For many years, I — being both Afro-centric and Pan-African — have been writing and giving talks on African ideas that relate to both architecture and design in general, and African aesthetics in particular.
Little did I realise Zimbabwe was already embracing traditional African architectural designs.
There, right in front of my eyes I gleaned a design that is inspired by Africa’s past.
I remembered the words of one colleague who used to say, “To modernise is not the same as to westernise.”
I could not, at that time, help recalling the day Reverend Paul Bayethe Damasane visited the new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The building’s architecture is informed and inspired by African ideas relating to design and aesthetics.
At the time we were flying into Addis, I was seized with the chevron design.
It was during that flight when it dawned on me that after all, the universe features circularity as its basic building block.
Nature has no rectangles or right angles.
Stellar, planetary and lunar bodies are circular in design. Further they are in constant motion along elliptical orbits.
It was then that I began to see that a chevron icon or motif is the basic unit in a chevron patter.
I already knew that the body of a woman inspired the chevron unit —that part of her body that represents and expresses the womb whose design is spherical.
I remembered the early days when I was a Biology teacher but had not been alert to circularity within sexuality.
Everything ranging from ova to sperms was circular. The resulting zygote, too, was circular.
I was later to become conscious of the ubiquity of the circular design among all ethnic groups in black Africa. Their artifacts, architecture, sitting arrangements were all circular.
‘As above, so below’
The African sought to replicate the cosmos on the Earth’s cultural plane.
Sadly the design was regarded by the gatekeepers of this world to be associated with primitive black people. To modernise, then, began to mean westernising.
“Modern” buildings among Africans that were regarded as modern were those that assumed elements of western architecture.
Africans, mentally colonised believed the rectangular house was the modern house. The kitchen hut has retained traditional or vernacular architecture.
It was this hut where the women of Matobo district continue the age old tradition of painting their huts. It was a tradition that was waning till the MBH Project was instituted in 2014.
The US Ambassador’s Cultural Fund provided funds to undertake research on Ndebele Art and Architecture and to document the findings both in a book publication and a video.
Hopefully, our research will shed light on many aspects of art and architecture. The book we were discussing was the culmination of that research.
The proposed Parliament Building has a circular design, one that is spiritually inspiring and links us with our past.
It is a legacy bequeathed on us by our ancestors. It is a design that is Pan-African and centres on African ideas of aesthetics alongside fundamental messages which are being lost in the thick mists of history.
We noted, too, that the Victoria Falls is equally inspired by the African past and shall deal more specifically with it later.
No start, no end
Essentially a circular design which has been adopted for the proposed Parliament Building has two aspects: embedded aesthetics or beauty and cosmologically inspired fundamental messages.
At the beginning, messages and aesthetics occurred together.
However, over time, aesthetics endured while the messages were lost.
Let us deal with the message first. A circular design has the same Africa-wide message. A circle has no beginning and no end.
It thus has come to represent and express the all-important African ideas of continuity, endlessness, perpetuity, eternity and immortality.
Both in animals and plants the ideas are expressed through sexuality or sexual reproduction, hence the attention that is given to the circular womb which is located within the triangular or V-shaped part of woman’s body.
Individuals perish, humanity is forever. The majority of us alive today will have passed on within the coming 100 years.
But more importantly there will be human beings even then, despite our having perished. It has been observed that the circular design has been presented in more reconfiguration as a way of killing monotony but retaining the same meaning.
I argued in “Echoes from the Past” that chessboards and herringbone motifs are reconfigurations of the basic organising unit — the circle with enduring message or meaning.
It is this meaning and significance of the circular design that has been lost in the thick mists of history. However the aesthetics which are visual have endured.
There are many senses that capture African aesthetics such as the circle or circularity, movement, rhythm, symmetry and equilibrium, inter alia.
The chevron pattern captures many of these senses and hence its popularity though its messages are lost.
Regarding African aesthetics, anything circular embraces some element of beauty.
Our cultural eyes are trained to appreciate beauty within creations characterised by circular design. It is against this background and realisation that we applaud those who have, through the architecture of Parliament Building, afforded African aesthetics and African cosmology a new lease of life within the august house.
However it is important that we get to appreciate the inspiration behind the circular design that celebrates the African past and its artistic renditions.
Indeed to modernise is not the same as Europeanising.