Contemporary Adaptation of Traditional Wall Decoration In Niamey

In a previous post we discussed Hausa traditional architecture and its decorative facades, their meaning and the socio-economic implications they traditionally held.

While wall motifs often held a deeper meaning than their decorative aspect, most homeowners didn’t know what that meaning was. Rather, for them, the symbol lied in the actual existence of the motifs on their wall. That in of itself, along with the esthetic beauty it held, determined the socio-economic message they were trying to send.  By and large, household heads in Cities like Zinder, believe that decorating their outer walls earned them a greater amount of respect and prestige compared to when their was decorated. 

Another positive aspect of the decoration for homeowners, was that they are very useful for way-finding. In our countries where home addresses are a rarity, these home decorations provide a way for visitors to identify a particular home. The homes also acted as landmarks in their neighborhoods, making it easier to find neighbor’s homes as well. But, as mentioned previously, these types of houses are a thing of a past in Niger.

One of the reasons for the disappearance of the house wall decorations in urban settings, was the introduction of houses made out of cement blocks. Because that material was considered foreign and was more expensive, it became a higher indicator of economic status and prestige. Homeowners no longer needed to give their homes that particular facelift: the simple fact that their home was made out of cement blocks was enough.

In cities like Niamey however, most middle class people have achieved the dream of living in a cement home, taking away some of the material’s status-lending ability. Ironically, it is now becoming more common to see upper class homes with compound wall decorations. In recent years, this trend has been picking up in the city and some fairly elaborate examples are commonplace. Furthermore, post-colonization, compound entries looked a lot like the gates of French middle class homes: simple metal fabrications of human scale that were wide enough to let a car through. For the elite, however, these entries have been taking on more of a monumental quality, a contemporary version of those from a bygone era. 

Today, when a new house is being built, it is not uncommon to also request that the architect come up with a cool design for its compound wall  (yours truly was approached for similar work a few months ago…) Before entering a home, its outer walls are back to being looked to for indications of taste, wealth and status. It is quite simply the new hot thing.

Many factors serve as drivers for the triumphant comeback of these traditional architectural expressions. 

  • Status: the main motivation for the evolution remains the same it was traditionally: to communicate a higher sense of socio-economic status and esthetic taste.
  • The rise of the merchant class: the second factor is the social makeup of the higher economic class in the city. The merchant class of the city (a large portion of whom are traditionally Hausa,) has grown richer in the past decades. They have been building mega-mansions in the city, which have had the city's traditional elite drooling. The style they build in is reminiscent of the contemporary homes of similar merchant classes in Northern Nigeria, home for the oldest traditional Hausa architecture. Because trade ties are very strong between the two countries among the Hausas, it is possible that architectural influences have also followed suit.
  • Functional needs: the wall decorations and modulations are being designed to have an even stronger three-dimensional quality, which also has practical functions. Niches are carved out to house lighting, bringing the walls to life even at night, but also providing security against potential thieves. They also very often include embedded planters that add to the decorative quality of the outside. Finally, they often display groves through which rain-water can be channeled.
  • Esthetics. While the purpose of wall decorations is the same in spirit, they express themselves differently and have taken on a more modern/contemporary incarnation. In Niamey, the motifs are larger and sparser than what was traditionally done. They are made using a relief approach (using cement), rather than a scratched-cement approach, which is more traditional, but has functional reasons, as explained above. Furthermore, there is typically no symbolism attached to the motifs themselves. In the past, the status symbol was reinforced by the sheer amount of motifs that could be crammed on the wall, regardless of the esthetic quality of the overall composition. That is no longer the case here and motifs strived to communicate a strong contemporary esthetic.  This is quite a twist in the comeback of this architectural feature: the wall decorations have now become a symbol of modernity, rather than tradition, because of their motifs and expression.
 Compound wall decoration in Niamey, Niger. ©Mariam Kamara

Compound wall decoration in Niamey, Niger. ©Mariam Kamara

Today, it seems as thought the esthetic harmony of the motifs (usually no more than different 3 designs for a facade wall) is more important in conveying status than their amount. This purification and simplification could be an indication of modernist (at least architecturally) influence on local taste... Or perhaps is this just the beginning. As more and more people start to have these decorations on their homes, the amount of decorative motif might eventually increase as well, in an never-ending quest for a new level of expression...

 Cement-scratched traditional wall decoration in Zinder. ©Mariam Kamara

Cement-scratched traditional wall decoration in Zinder. ©Mariam Kamara

 Compound wall in Niamey with niches for lights and low planters. ©Mariam Kamara

Compound wall in Niamey with niches for lights and low planters. ©Mariam Kamara

 Grand entrance doorway in Niamey. ©Mariam Kamara

Grand entrance doorway in Niamey. ©Mariam Kamara

 House under construction in Niamey with niches and planters framing entrance door. ©Mariam Kamara

House under construction in Niamey with niches and planters framing entrance door. ©Mariam Kamara