TiébéLé: A Town in Africa That Appears Hand-Painted
A small African community maintains an artistic lineage of undeniable beauty.
Burkina Faso is one of the world’s smallest and most isolated countries. However, in the west of the African continent, lying between Mali and Ghana, this country is the cradle of an artistic lineage of kings that live in a little village, and which, it would not be an exaggeration to say, is hand-painted: Tiébélé.
The circular town measures just three acres and maintains a hundreds-of-years-old peculiarity: its facades are decorated with geometric shapes and symbols of local folklore by members of the community, converting the town into a living canvas of clay and history.
For the tourist or outside observer, the patterns can appear simple, clumsy or repetitive. But from the form in which they are displayed, as well as the place itself and the details of each house, the hierarchic position that the inhabitants hold within the community can be deduced; the house of the royal family, for example, has much more detailed designs and the door (the houses do not have windows) is very small, which is believed to provide greater protection. The designs also differentiate between the houses and the mausoleums, as the people live alongside their dead.
Tiébélé is the home of the Kassena, one of the world’s oldest ethnic groups, and which settled the area in the 15th century. The houses are made of clay, in the form of a flattened cone, but the sequence of the walls reminds us of the form of a labyrinth, or a continuous structure, more than that of western houses, or of an Apache teepee or an igloo, other ethnic architectural structures according to their landscape and the elements.
But the elements could play against the survival of the town: wind erosion and the danger of floods in the wet season have made Tiébélé vulnerable, and international organizations have taken a role to ensure that the community’s legacy survives.
In addition to the international efforts, the Kassena themselves are transmitting the knowledge and the techniques linked to the creation of these inhabitable works of art to the younger generations, who little by little leave their place of origin to seek better opportunities for survival.
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