Today’s guest post comes from Dr Mary Jo Arnoldi, who talks to us about the making of Mud Masons of Mali, an exhibition that opens next week on August 31 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Be sure not to miss it!
Mud Masons of Mali –The making of an exhibit
Mud Masons of Mali, part of the Grand Challenges Earth Matters initiative, opens on August 31, 2013 in the Focus Gallery of the African Voices exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It includes photographs, objects and 4 original films made in collaboration with masons from Djenné, Mali. In the exhibit the masons speak about the pride they take in their city, the skills they have acquired, and the different challenges they face in the 21st century.
The original idea for Mud Masons grew out of a number of visits to the city of Djenné during the course of my research in Mali over three decades. Djenné, a World Heritage site since 1988, includes some of the most magnificent mud brick buildings in the world including the city’s Grand Mosque and over 200 historic houses (photo 1). My interest was certainly piqued by the architecture, but I also wanted to learn more about the men who build and maintain the city. In 2003 I had the opportunity to work with a group of Malian masons who constructed a mud brick Djenné style city gate on the Washington Mall as part of the Smithsonian’s Folklife festival (photo 2). Later I was inspired by my colleague, Dr. Trevor Marchand’s collaborative research with Djenné’s masons (see his award winning book, The Masons of Djenné from Indiana University Press, 2009).
In 2010 Trevor and I began working together on this exhibit and the films. Many exhibitions and books have featured the architecture, but it was our intention to give a voice to the masons, themselves. Making the films has been a special delight involving working with five talented and generous Djenné masons: Konbaba Tennepo, Boubacar Kouroumansé, Lassina Kouroumansé, Salif Droufo, and Almamy Kouroumansé. Ranging in age from 77 to 21, each of them brings a different set of experiences to this story.
Our project posed unique challenges. Midway into it we were blocked by the escalating war in northern Mali and by the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of the Malian government in March of 2012. Unable to film in Mali, we decided to bring the five masons to Leiden, the Netherlands along with Bilangalama (Bill) Sissoko, a colleague, now retired from the National Museum in Mali.
Mody Sounfountera in Djenné handled the complicated logistics of getting passports and visas for the five masons and getting everyone to the airport and on the plane to Amsterdam (photo 3). Dr. Annette Schmidt, curator at the Museum für Volkenkunde in Leiden, worked with the Dutch embassy in Mali to secure the masons’ visas and hosted our film project at the museum. Pete Durgerian of Headfirst Productions from the UK shot the film in Leiden. He also sent a camera back with the masons to Djenné where Mody shot the masons’ working and other scenes in the city. He then uploaded the video over the internet to Pete, who incorporated segments into the films. We also commissioned an orginal film score from the Malian musicians, Lassana Diabaté (balafon) and Toumani Kouyaté (kora) which was recorded in Bamako.
The change of venue led us to new topics and global exchanges that were incorporated into the films. The team visited a Dutch Victorian era restoration project and the Malian masons and the Dutch masons bonded easily over their mutual respect for the craft. Indeed, Malians and Dutch masons, alike, echoed the complaint that architects and engineers, who often direct restoration projects, have no real feeling or experience with how these buildings were constructed in the past (photo 4). We also spent a morning at a mosque with the imam, who had originally emigrated from Morocco. While the masons and the members of the Leiden congregation come from very different regions in the world, what united them all was Ummah, the community of Islam.
The masons are now back in Djenné, the war in the north is over and peace has been reestablished. The national elections took place in mid August and a new Malian president was chosen. All the members of our project team – in the US, UK, the Netherlands and in Mali – look forward to peace and prosperity for Mali and for Djenné in the coming years.
For more information on Mud Masons of Mali please visit http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/mud-masons
Mary Jo Arnoldi
Curator, African Ethnology
National Museum of Natural History