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October 30, 2006

African History in Detroit

Yesterday David and I went to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. I had never been before, and enjoyed it quite a bit. The permanent exhibition, And Still We Rise, is a fabulous account of African American history, from the beginning of civilization in Africa, through the slave trade, the middle passage, and emancipation, to present-day Detroit. It was neat to see photographs and artifacts from places I had been in Africa, particularly those associated with the slave trade, such as Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

We began with the permanent exhibit, and then moved on to a temporary exhibition that David particularly wanted to see, Lasting Foundations: The Art of Architecture in Africa. For the most part, it was a superb exhibit. It covered many different regions of Africa, demonstrating how the architecture in these places used available materials and reflected local religious affiliations. One of the most remarkable was a mosque in Mali that is the largest adobe structure in the world. A video showed how its congregants replaster it with mud every year.

I was disappointed, however, that there weren't many examples of contemporary African architecture. Only the South Africa section showed modern buildings, and these were presented as "white" buildings that have been reoccupied by black South Africans since the fall of apartheid. When I was in Ghana in the summer of 2005, I was quite impressed with the way Ghanaians used shipping containers as storefronts, particularly in Accra, the capital. I told David that I wished they had shown some of that architectural style, and he replied that it was probably too depressing. I don't find it depressing, at all, however. Rather, it is an ingenious use of available materials and reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of Accra residents. As it was, the exhibit presented Africa as ancient, static, and stuck in the past. Including contemporary architecture would reveal the dynamism, initiative, and creativity of Africans and African societies. It is fine that the permanent exhibit left Africa in the past, as it is about African-American history rather than African history. But in an exhibit on African architecture, I feel that presenting only "traditional" architecture hides the true modernity of present-day Africa.

Posted by eklanche at October 30, 2006 08:48 AM

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