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Essay, History, Architecture, Tectonics

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Labelle Prussin on African Nomadic Architecture

By
Steven Lauritano
Essay, History, Architecture, Tectonics
A Tubu woman constructing her tent in the northern Ennedi region of Chad

In the midst of the Western emerald cities of Oz we have crime, greed, and homelessness. The architects of the twenty-first century, almost assuredly, will have to build a way out of a triple crisis of the materialist, capitalist, and idealist modes of intellectual production. Something has to give.

This unblinking assessment of contemporary architectural practice does not come from a recent zoom roundtable, an activist’s twitter account, or an incisive op-ed. It was written by Robert Farris Thompson in 1995, in the foreword to a publication on African nomadic architecture more specifically, on “nomadic women’s architecture,” a book he described as arriving “right on time.”[1] In the same foreword Thompson predicts that this work will gain traction as “surely one of the classics of twentieth-century architectural history.”[2] Today, his diagnosis of the challenges facing the profession still rings painfully true, but his prediction of a broad and enduring readership for this text on African architecture has not come to fruition. Somehow, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender [fig. 2], and more significantly, the oeuvre of its author Labelle Prussin [fig. 1], have slipped through the cracks of architecture school curricula.[3] Nevertheless, as the world’s population continues to suffer through a devastating pandemic, a book that details the cultural consequences of “sedentarization,” that suggests alternative scripts for collective creative action, that maps out the intersection of labor politics and gender identity, while describing architecture as a logistical process rather than a monumental product, once again feels “right on time.”

If one accepts the guiding premise of Other Assemblies, namely, that contemporary architecture is in the midst of a resurgent interest in tectonics, in the symbolic, social and affective capacities of material assemblies not merely to reflect cultures, but to participate in their transformation, then the African ‘tent-tonics’ elucidated by Prussin are well worth revisiting. Methodologically, her book models another mode of assembly, bringing together facts, images, vocabularies and stories to construct an architectural history around the concept of gender and the alterity of women’s worlds. According to Prussin, it is “the architecture of nomadism” itself which mandates this “innovative approach” and her critics frequently point out the underlying sympathy that seems to connect the author’s scholarly methods to the cultures she studied.[4] “Weaving” is the metaphor most often invoked to describe this bond, a word that alludes to a set of practices presumably absorbed over the course of Prussin’s fieldwork, then redeployed as an approach to history writing.[5] But this “weaving” is more than a structural metaphor (in the tradition of Semper). It describes an approach to assembling knowledge that takes special account of the social identities and the relationships connecting all those involved.[6] Prussin’s “weaving” is sensitive to rituals and routines, to the geographical distribution of resources, to power dynamics among actors, to the sacrifices they make, the time they invest and the manner in which all of these factors bear a reciprocal relation to built form.

Labelle Prussin depicted alongside Rudolf Wittkower in the Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians

[Fig. 1] Labelle Prussin depicted alongside Rudolf Wittkower in the Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians announcing her as the recipient of the SAH Founders’ Award “for the best article by a younger scholar in the Journal during 1974.” See Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians XX, no. 4 (August 1976): 4.

Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender

[Fig. 2] Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995)

As much as Labelle Prussin’s research on women’s nomadic architecture might resonate with present concerns, her book also merits reading as an artifact of activist scholarship developed within the context of the feminist movement. Prussin herself positions her research in relation to other examples of feminist architectural history.[7] In 1973, while teaching in the Department of Architecture at the University of Michigan and finishing work on her groundbreaking essay “An Introduction to African Indigenous Architecture”, Prussin encountered the work of fellow architect Doris Cole.[8] Prussin recalls:

At the height of the growing feminist movement, Doris Cole’s small paperback book (1973) appeared.[9] My intrigue with it had less to do with feminist consciousness than with a decade of architectural experience in Africa during which my scholarly appetite for the vernacular had been whetted. Plains Indian women had been building tipis for millennia in the Americas, just as their gender counterparts had been building yurts in Asia and black tents in the Near East and North Africa. It took little thought to make the analogy with the African nomadic women. Here, then, was a new kind of role model![10]

Cole’s book, From Tipi to Skyscraper attempted “to compile the first history of women in American architecture.”[11] Though Cole stopped short of connecting the project directly to the “contemporary women’s movement” she minced no words when it came to the facts: her study was written at a time when “approximately 2 percent of the architects practicing” were women and scarcely a single “conventional” source could be consulted to learn about the historical contributions of women architects.[12] Facing this reality, Cole sought to identify moments and spaces where “women were the architects of their communities.”[13]

Prussin took up this search for role models, but her own experiences in Africa, practicing architecture and conducting fieldwork, shaped a distinct critical perspective.[14] Earlier in her career she had learned about the work of architects like Louise Blanchard Bethune and Julia Morgan while also realizing that these women had followed professional paths unavailable to most: “few of us were in a position to benefit from the kinds of social opportunities that led to sponsorship and patronage by the nation’s financial elites.”[15] Still, by naming these architects in the introduction to African Nomadic Architecture, Prussin signals that the book is as much a study of women architects as it is an investigation of African nomadic building. More pointedly, Prussin uses her fieldwork in Africa to break the historiographical focus on individual auteurs. In her introduction she points out the necessity—and ultimately, the inadequacy—of collections like Architecture: A Place for Women (1989) [fig. 3] and other projects that continue the male-invented art historical tradition of compiling and celebrating individual artists’ lives.[16] Instead, Prussin’s book aims to present an analysis of communities in which women architects collectively shape the built environment. Among the Tuareg, the Tubu, the Mahria and the Rendille, Prussin and her co-authors attempted to document “the complexity of the cooperative networks through which art happens.”[17] At the time of the book’s publication, some colleagues, both architects and specialists in African art, struggled with this concept. For many designers, the kinds of practices described seemed insurmountably distant from their own milieux: contexts that perpetually reinforce personal achievement through awards, magazine spreads and individual licensure. From the perspective of historians, the emphasis on “creativity in a collective context” risked a dangerous return to an earlier, insidious practice that essentialized African art as an “anonymous art, subsumed by cultural (often erroneously attributed) identity.”[18] Prussin acknowledges the real damage inflicted by this “intellectual error” while cautioning against an over-correction—an interpretive approach that ignores collective authorship “in order to validate African art in a Western construct, for a Western audience and art market.”[19] Ultimately, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender tries to avoid both traps, while dismantling the false binary of starchitecture vs. “architecture without architects.” Its message is clear: collective creativity is not categorically anonymous.

Architecture: A Place for Women

[Fig. 3] Ellen Perry Berkeley, ed. and Matilda McQuaid, assoc. ed., Architecture: A Place for Women (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

To that end, the cover of Prussin’s book features three Gabra women constructing a marriage tent [fig. 2].[20] This representation mattered to Prussin, given her own lived experience. She had hitchhiked across the country to enroll in the architecture program at UC Berkeley, one of the few departments to accept women applicants at this time. She earned her M.Arch from Berkeley in 1952 and later took a job at Kaiser Engineers, where she lobbied for an assignment on the Akosombo Dam project in Ghana.[21] Initially, the company rejected her requests, declaring the assignment unfit for “a white woman with two little kids."[22] But Prussin persisted and this self-advocacy set in motion the experiences that later shaped her scholarly contributions. In Ghana Prussin found work as an architect and planner on several government projects and spent time teaching at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi.[23] As her interest in African architecture grew, she published a series of articles—often accompanied by her own photographs [fig. 4].[24] Beginning with a text on “The Architecture of Islam in West Africa” in African Arts, she wrote on a range of topics including the architecture of the Manding, West African mud granaries, Fulani-Hausa buildings and traditional Asante architecture.[25] These essays were written over the course of a career that Prussin has called “a lifetime of wanderings across a multitude of physical and cultural environments.”[26] After leaving the University of Michigan she held teaching positions at a number of institutions in North America and Asia, while continuing to conduct fieldwork in Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Kenya.[27]

Pages from Labelle Prussin, “Sudanese Architecture and the Manding”

[Fig. 4] Pages from Labelle Prussin, “Sudanese Architecture and the Manding,” African Arts 3, no. 4 (Summer 1970): cover (featuring a photograph by Labelle Prussin), 12-13, 16

The back of a Tekna Lansas tent in southwest Morocco

[Fig. 5] The back of a Tekna Lansas tent in southwest Morocco, photograph by Peter Andrews, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), Fig. 4.1, 67.

Two Rendille women bending gaer sticks to create architectural components in northern Kenya

[Fig. 6] Two Rendille women bending gaer sticks to create architectural components in northern Kenya, photograph by Anders Grum, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), Fig. 8.5, 157.

The rear reinforcing armature of a Gabra tent in northern Kenya

[Fig. 7] The rear reinforcing armature of a Gabra tent in northern Kenya, photograph by Labelle Prussin, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), Fig. 3.8b, 54.

A mat-covered armature Kel Ferwan tent

[Fig. 8] A mat-covered armature Kel Ferwan tent, Niger, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), Fig. 5.2b, 91; reproduced from René Gardi, Sahara (Bern: Kümmerly & Frey, 1970), 100.

By the time African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender appeared, Prussin had been researching building practices in diverse African contexts for almost thirty years. The book was originally imagined as an exhibition proposal for the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. It then morphed into a film script for a documentary on the Gabra marriage ceremony. This project, in turn, required additional fieldwork in Kenya, which eventually inspired the book’s final, multi-authored format. In many ways the documentary film, produced and directed by Peter Oud, provides a necessary counterpart to the academic text and its static illustrations [figs. 5-8].[28] Nagayati: Arts and Architecture among the Gabra Nomads of Kenya (1991) documents the wedding ceremony of Woto Mamo Wako and Joseph Jatani Diba, a Gabra bride and groom from separate villages. As Prussin’s script explains “house and marriage ceremony are synonymous in the Gabra language.” Over the course of the film, one sees a Gabra structure disassembled, packed, transported, unpacked and reassembled, no fewer than eight times [figs. 10-11].[29] Unbuilding and building form the basis of the rituals that bind the couple together. As the film opens, Joseph’s mother is busy making preparations for the journey to the bride’s village. She completes a complex tectonic metamorphosis, reconfiguring the disassembled wooden ribs, woven mats, plaited ropes and cowhides that constitute the family’s home into a new structure: a palanquin, a more compact, protected litter that will sit atop one of the family’s camels and provide her shelter for the trip to the bride’s village [fig. 9]. Once Joseph’s family has completed their journey, this transformative dis-aggregation is mimicked in the pivotal ritual of the marriage ceremony itself, but with an essential difference. This time, it is the bride’s mother’s house which is taken apart. While normally, she would direct this process herself, in the marriage ceremony she must stand silently by as a group of women, comprised of friends and family, take apart the structure and divide its contents into two piles. These women choose which elements will be combined with freshly completed ropes, ribs and mats to form the bride’s new home. When the sorting is complete, Woto’s mother takes stock of the remaining elements before quickly reassembling the residual materials into a smaller home for herself. Watching these architectural transformations unfold in real time, one comes to understand how generations of Gabra women have precisely calibrated their tectonic systems to conserve resources while simultaneously preserving cultural formations.[30]

Whether the nomadic Gabra women depicted in the film would identify themselves as “architects” (or rather the equivalent in their own language) remains a valid question – one Prussin herself poses in the introduction to her book.[31] In a review of African Nomadic Architecture, Victoria Rovine points out the difficulties one creates by applying received definitions of “artist” and “architect” to the sub-Saharan context.[32] Is it accurate, or even fair, to use the words “artist,” “designer,” or “planner” when the creative production of these women is neither structured as a profession, nor a hobby, but is deeply embedded in everyday life? For some avant-garde artists this synthesis constitutes the highest ideal of art. But what if that fusion of art-and-life is not the result of a conscious choice, but part of a system developed as a means of survival? Prussin expresses her interest in studying, celebrating, and upholding “women’s work” and writing explicitly against those texts “which focus on a cultural construct that denigrates those tasks.”[33] While at the same time she is careful not to “romanticize or glorify domestic labor.”[34] Ultimately, both Rovine and Prussin conclude that there is good reason to apply the terms “architect” and “artist,” however alien they may be to these contexts. Asserting that within these societies, “all women are artists,” puts a healthy pressure on existing definitions of the word.[35] For Prussin, the pathways of African nomadic cultures present an opportunity to confront presuppositions and re-examine constructed models of reality such as “Western and non-Western,” “feminine and masculine,” “works of architecture and buildings.”[36]

Gabra women securing tent elements that have been reconfigured to form the camel litter armature, northern Kenya, photograph by Labelle Prussin, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender

[Fig. 9] Gabra women securing tent elements that have been reconfigured to form the camel litter armature, northern Kenya, photograph by Labelle Prussin, published in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), Fig. 10.7, 199.

Stills from Nagayati

[Fig. 10] Stills from Nagayati: Arts and Architecture among the Gabra Nomads of Kenya, directed by Peter Oud, script by Labelle Prussin (1991; Smithsonian Institution).

Stills from Nagayati

[Fig. 11] Stills from Nagayati: Arts and Architecture among the Gabra Nomads of Kenya, directed by Peter Oud, script by Labelle Prussin (1991; Smithsonian Institution).

A book on African architectural history that opens with a brief survey of the existing feminist historiography of architecture, that openly acknowledges the crucial role of the author’s subject position as “architect,” “wife and mother” and includes a discussion of “code-switching” might have caught some readers off guard, but most critics appreciated the clear identification of Prussin’s motivations and perspective.[37] Prussin was not only interested in encouraging more women, and specifically women of color, to become architects, she wanted to suggest that designers might rewrite the script of professional practice. She offers not so much a guidebook for those looking to find success within the bounds of the existing profession, as an architectural history doubling as a template for alternative modes of reality: “It is hoped that the results of this effort will fire the imagination of a new generation in ways the nomadic experience did for me and my contributors.”[38]

According to author and psychologist Lisa Aronson, “gender” is the true subject of Prussin’s book.[39] It is impossible to describe African nomadic architecture without acknowledging what Prussin calls “the dichotomy of gendered worlds (in the sense of exclusion, not contradiction).”[40] These gendered worlds structure public and private spaces in different ways among the Tuareg, the Tubu, the Mahria, the Rendille, the Tekna, the Trarza, and the Brakna. The exclusivity of many spaces within these communities reinforces the “invisibility of women’s labor” and “the invisibility of women’s creativity in the nomadic context.”[41] Indeed, one reason so many of the art forms, techniques, and rituals practiced by these groups have been overlooked by generations of previous writers, anthropologists and historians, is that the researchers (as men) were not admitted to the interior spaces where the labor and creative expression took place.[42] Prussin, along with Uta Holder, Amina Adan, Arlene Fullerton and Odette Du Puigaudeau were able to access and document these spaces in part because of their gender identities.[43] What they encountered was a complex system of:

… woven tapestries, textiles and looms, leather pillows, carrying and storage sacks, wooden bedframes and their supports, assembled by means of metal and leather ties, enveloped in leather and fabric coverings, woven and embroidered room dividers and sleeping backdrops that hang like altar screens, plaited mats and ropes, tent armatures, carved wooden poles, and storage racks…[44]

These are the components of African nomadic architecture, most of them crafted, assembled, disassembled, prepared for transport, unpacked and re-assembled by women.

Aronson notes how Prussin and her collaborators were able to use “architecture as a window on the ways in which African nomads construct gender.”[45] The gender-discrete division of labor creates the conditions whereby women complete the work involved in design, planning, fabricating and building, preserving and educating the next generation of architects. Knowledge about tent construction, disassembly and transportation is shared between mothers and daughters from an early age. Among the Rendille in northern Kenya, for example, young girls learn how to create miniature tent armatures from twigs and cover them with leaves, later reconfiguring these materials into tiny camel loads.[46] This separation of tasks by gender is one practice that has contributed to the extreme continuity of African nomadic building traditions over time. As noted by architectural historian Nnamdi Elleh, Prussin assembles a variety of evidence showing the use of tent structures by African cultures dating back to extreme antiquity. Among the most compelling sources are a group of Tassili rock paintings that predate ancient Egyptian architecture by multiple millennia [fig. 12] and “give credence to the suggestion that some of the current tent building practices of Fulbe, Gabra, Mahria, Rendille, Somali, and Tubu have been going on for thousands of years, and may have been passed down by women from generation to generation.”[47] The other side of this extreme durability, or preservation, of building techniques and forms, is the fixity in relationships among gender and age groups, accompanied by hierarchies and inequities, with architecture playing a key role in perpetuating imbalances.

Rock painting at Sefar, Tassili n’ Ajjer, Algeria

[Fig. 12] Rock painting at Sefar, Tassili n’ Ajjer, Algeria, from ca. 6,000 BCE, photograph by George Holton, compare to Fig. 1.3c in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), 4.

It is important to note that these divisions are not always expressed, directly, in terms of gender within the languages of African nomadic communities. Prussin gives the example of the Gabra who differentiate forms of labor by bodily position: “standing is work, sitting is resting.”[48] By implication, any tasks completed while sitting do not qualify as “work.” Since herders stand, they are working. Whereas the transformation of raw materials into architectural components, or proto-components, usually carried out in a seated position, does not constitute “work.” This distinction—standing vs. sitting—divides labor among the Gabra, but the herding jobs are most often conducted by men and the architectural tasks are largely carried out by women. Prussin can identify these women’s efforts as a form of architectural practice, but within the Gabra culture the connotation is clear: because much of their labor is conducted while sitting, “women do not work.”[49] The fact that Prussin identifies these distinctions, carefully, again points to the fact that, despite her search for “role models,” her text is not a romanticized glorification of a culture in which women architects hold power.

Prussin’s discussion of the Gabra understanding of “work” is one moment among several in the book where she quotes an indigenous voice (in translation), and this begs the question: if the goal is to better understand African nomadic architecture, would it not make more sense to learn directly from an indigenous source? The simple answer is, yes. Prussin herself acknowledges as much in the foreword to her earlier book, Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (1986): “We are aware that with the removal of each successive cultural veil, there will always be, like the nets of the Sorko fisherman, another hanging before our eyes.”[50] Nevertheless, by framing an assessment of Prussin’s work only in these terms, one diverts all attention from the kinds of knowledge that can be gleaned from her book, and perhaps can only be gleaned from her book. African Nomadic Architecture is far from unimpeachable, particularly when judged from within the bubble of contemporary norms and standards. It is not entirely free of essentializing language and interpretive dead ends. At times, the arguments flow blindly down the path of phenomenology without full awareness of the consequences. But at the end of the day, Labelle Prussin’s work accomplishes something important. It demonstrates one way to collect and share information from distinctive culture contexts in such a manner that this knowledge puts pressure on the parts of one’s own familiar systems in desperate need of change.

1 Robert Farris Thompson, “Foreword,” in Labelle Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press and The National Museum of African Art, 1995), ix.
2 Thompson, “Foreword,” ix. Thompson also lauds the work as “one of those rare books that discovers and defines a whole new field,” x. It is worth noting that Thompson served as Prussin’s dissertation advisor at Yale, where she was awarded a Ph.D. in the History of Art in 1973.
3 I first encountered the work of Labelle Prussin while looking for a text on African architecture to include in Taubman College’s undergraduate survey of global architectural history. In 2018 and 2019, I used Prussin’s “An Introduction to Indigenous African Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 33, no. 3 (October 1974): 182-205, as the foundation for course lectures and discussions, and the material was received with enthusiasm by students. Prussin’s work has not completely slipped from awareness within the community of architectural historians. Kathleen James-Chakraborty, for example, incorporated Prussin’s research into her 2014 survey text. See chapter “26. Africa: Villages and Cities,” Architecture since 1400 (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 411-423; outside of architecture schools, Prussin’s texts are still recognized and read by specialists in the field of African art and architecture. Risham Majeed, curator of Made to Move: African Nomadic Design (March 22-April 21, 2017, Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York) described the exhibition as taking up and expanding many of the arguments first posited in Prussin’s “important book” (African Nomadic Architecture). See “Exhibition Situations: Risham Majeed in Conversation with Elizabeth Rodini,” Art Journal Open (12 February 2018): http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=9693.
4 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvii. Writing in a review, Mete Turan observes that Prussin’s “scholarship and analysis are commensurate with the resourcefulness and creativity of the nomadic women she is studying,” adding that the book’s “scholarly structured form – is no less an achievement than nomadic architecture.” See Mete Turan, “Anthropology and Architecture,” review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin and Semantic and Symbolic Architecture by Nold Egenter, Journal of Anthropological Research 52, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 356-357.
5 Jean-Paul Bourdier notes Prussin’s skillful “weaving together [of] diverse sources widely dispersed in the literature.” See Jean-Paul Bourdier, review of Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa, by Labelle Prussin, African Arts 20, no. 1 (November 1986): 12. Mete Turan likewise notes how “Prussin weaves the material from different disciplines such as psychology, etymology, anthropology, ethnography, and history into a broad perspective, thereby producing a credible architectural history of the African nomad.” Turan, “Anthropology and Architecture,” 356. Labelle Prussin’s daughter, Deb Volberg Pagnotta, in describing her mother’s “eclectic intelligence,” compared her scholarly process to “weaving a tapestry” (in conversation with the author, June 22, 2020). For her own part, Prussin states that “the nomadic building process is also analogous to weaving: the duplication of intricate structural requirements also involves the integration of individual patterns into total design.” Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, 33.
6 See, for example, descriptions in African Nomadic Architecture of the multi-step, multi-actor processes for creating woven saari (coverings) by Somali nomadic women, especially the tidic ceremony for finishing off the top fringe of the harrar and the ceremony for the collective creation of a kebed as part of wedding preparations. Arlene Fullerton and Amina Adan, “[Chapter] 9. Handicrafts of the Somali Nomadic Women,” African Nomadic Architecture, 174-178.
7 Many who have reviewed Prussin’s work praise the author for bringing a feminist perspective to her material. See especially Lisa Aronson, “Present Tents,” review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, The Women’s Review of Books 13, no. 12 (September 1996): 8-9; Frederic B. Pearl, “Architecture, Ritual, and Women’s Roles in the Sahara,” review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, Current Anthropology 38, no. 2 (April 1997): 318-320; Elisabeth Kallenbach, review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, Anthropos 92, no. 1/3 (1997): 296-298; Roy Richard Grinker, “Reconstructing the House in Anthropology,” review of About the House: Lévi-Strauss and Beyond, by Janet Carsten and Stephen Hugh-Jones and African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, et al, American Anthropologist 98, no. 4 (December 1996): 856-858; and Fassil Demisse, review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 30, no. 2 (1997): 395-398. For a recent account of pioneering feminist architectural histories see Andrea Jeanne Merrett, “Scholarship as Activism: Doris Cole’s and Susana Torre’s Pioneering Feminism in Architectural History,” field-journal 7, issue 1 (November 2017): http://field-journal.org/portfolio-items/field-7-becoming-a-feminist-architect/. For a broader historical perspective, see Torsten Lange and Lucía C. Pérez-Moreno, eds., “Special Collection: Architectural Historiography and Fourth Wave Feminism,” Architectural Histories (18 December 2020): https://journal.eahn.org/articles/10.5334/ah.563/.
8 Labelle Prussin, “An Introduction to Indigenous African Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 33, no. 3 (October 1974): 182-205. The essay was awarded the Founders’ Award by the Society of Architectural Historians having been “adjudged the best article appearing in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians during 1974 by a younger author.” See the notice in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 36, no. 2 (May 1977).
9 Doris Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture (Boston: i Press, 1973).
10 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvii.
11 Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper, ix.
12 Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper, vii. Cole described her ambitions as “documentary rather than ideological.” See Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper, vii. Andrea Jeanne Merrett describes the book as “not overtly polemical” but acknowledges that “one of Cole’s objectives was to encourage more women to become architects.” Merrett, “Scholarship as Activism,” 80. See also Andrea J. Merrett, “Against the ‘Stars’,” review of From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture, by Doris Cole, Architectural Histories (18 December 2020): https://journal.eahn.org/articles/10.5334/ah.560/.
13 Cole, From Tipi to Skyscraper, 2.
14 As Andrea Jeanne Merrett notes: “Before the creation of the women’s professional groups, it was not unusual for a female architect to not know any others. They often found themselves the only woman, or one of only a handful, in their class or in the office. They were unlikely to have any female teachers or bosses, nor did they learn about women architects during their education. For the most part, women were absent from architectural textbooks and survey courses, and there were no monographs written on any female architects in the US. Initially, the practitioners who wrote the first histories of women were searching for role models. In the face of discrimination, they soon realized that history could be used to challenge assumptions about female architects and their capacities, and promote their inclusion in the profession.” Merrett, “Scholarship as Activism,” 80.
15 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvii.
16 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xix. See Ellen Perry Berkeley, ed. and Matilda McQuaid, assoc. ed., Architecture: A Place for Women (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989). The tradition of compiling stories of celebrated, predominately male, artists’ lives dates to Roman antiquity and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (77 CE) but is predominantly associated with the Renaissance tradition established by Giorgio Vasari’s Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori [The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects] (1550; 1568).
17 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xix. These are some of the cultural groups discussed in Prussin’s text, but she is quick to point out that architectural traditions in the nomadic context map onto ethnicities, language-groups and other cultural affiliations in complicated, overlapping ways. As she puts it, the “anthology itself belies the concept of circumscription. In West Africa, for example, Tuareg marriages, involving the creation of a marriage tent, rest on a set of behaviors deriving from Hassaniya building technology, and the architectural components of the tent are often provided by Fulbe- and Hausa- speaking artisans. In the Sudan, Tubu tents are based on Kababish and Mahria building technologies on the one hand, and on Tuareg armature-type tents on the other. In East Africa, Rendille subclans use Gabra tent structures on one hand and Somali armatures on the other in order to define particular clans within their own cultural complex.” Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xxi.
18 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xix. These issues were explored in a recent exhibition curated by Allison Martino with Laura De Becker at the University of Michigan: “Unrecorded: Reimagining Artist Identities,” UMMA [University of Michigan Museum of Art], 12 May – 9 September, 2018.
19 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xix.
20 The color photograph on the book’s cover is incorrectly identified as “Mahria women putting up a marriage tent” on the dust jacket. The same photograph (in black and white) is correctly identified on page 63 as “A young child participating in the pitching of a Gabra tent.” Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, Fig. 3.12a, 63.
21 The Akosombo Dam (also called the Volta Dam) displaced an estimated 80,000 people from 740 villages. See D. Paul Lumsden, “The Volta River Project: Village Resettlement and Attempted Rural Animation,” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines 7, no. 1 (1973): 115-132; and Stephan F. Miescher, “‘No one should be worse off’: the Akosombo Dam, modernization, and the experience of resettlement in Ghana,” Modernization as spectacle in Africa, ed. Peter J. Bloom, Stephan F. Miescher and Takyiwaa Manuh (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 184-204. For a discussion of the broader architectural context in Ghana at the time see Lukasz Stanek, “Architects from Socialist Countries in Ghana (1957-67): Modern Architecture and Mondialisation,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 74, no. 4 (December 2015): 416-442.
22 This story was shared with the author in a conversation with Labelle Prussin’s daughter, Deb Volberg Pagnotta, on June 22, 2020. The architect Regi Goldberg recalls a related episode that took place in the early 1970s. Goldberg assumed that she would supervise the construction of a project she had been working on, but her employer told her “We don’t send blacks or women to the site.” See Merrett, “Scholarship as Activism,” 81. Like Prussin, Goldberg persevered and this experience eventually inspired her to found the Alliance of Women in Architecture (AWA) together with eight other women in May of 1972. This group laid the groundwork for the Archive of Women in Architecture, launched by a seed grant from the Architectural League of New York, and the Women in American Architecture exhibit, curated by Susana Torre at the Brooklyn Museum from February-April 1977. See Merrett, “Scholarship as Activism,” 81-87.
23 K. C. Arceneaux, “The IAWA adds books of Africanist Labelle Prussin to the Collection,” IAWA [International Archive of Women in Architecture] Newsletter, no. 24 (Fall 2012): 1-2.
24 Today, approximately 200 of Prussin’s photographs are preserved in the Yale Photographic Collections, within the Yale University Art Gallery African Art Collection: https://photos.yale.edu/directory/dirsinglecollection.php?collection_id=55.
25 Labelle Prussin, “The Architecture of Islam in West Africa,” African Arts 1, no. 2 (Winter 1968): 32-35; 70-74. Labelle Prussin, “Sudanese Architecture and the Manding,” African Arts 3, no. 4 (Summer 1970): 12-19; 64-67. Labelle Prussin, “West African Mud Granaries,” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde 18, (1972): 144-169. Labelle Prussin, Labelle Prussin, “Fulani-Hausa Architecture,” African Arts 10, no. 1 (October 1976): 8-19; 97-98. Labelle Prussin, “Traditional Asante Architecture,” African Arts 13, no, 2 (February 1980): 57-65; 78-82; 85-87.
26 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xxi.
27 Labelle Prussin held teaching positions at Indiana University, the University of Washington, the University of Texas, CCNY at CUNY, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the Universiti Sains Malaysia. See Arceneaux, “The IAWA adds books of Africanist Labelle Prussin to the Collection,” 1-2.
28 Nagayati: Arts and Architecture among the Gabra Nomads of Kenya, directed by Peter Oud [Script by Labelle Prussin] (1991; Smithsonian Institution): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMZ2YsjE8dQ.
29 The sequence can be summarized as follows: 1) The groom’s mother’s house is disassembled, transported and reassembled in the bride’s village. After the marriage ceremony is complete, the process is carried out in reverse. 2) The bride’s mother’s house is disassembled, and its components are separated into two groups. 3) The bride’s mother rebuilds a smaller house from the remaining components. 4) The other elements are combined with new components to create the bride’s new home. Once the assembly is complete, the bride’s new home is quickly deconstructed again and reassembled in the groom’s corral. 5) 6) 7) 8) This ritual dis-assembly and re-assembly is repeated three more times in the groom’s corral and then once more in a designated place in the village.
30 As Prussin emphasizes in her textual reflection on these events: “We tend to assume that ‘temporary’ is synonymous with ‘transient.’ If something moves, we consider it temporary. Although mobility may be its underlying purpose, a movable structure is not necessarily temporary. What is seemingly transitory and ephemeral, processual and only a body of images, is often, by its illusion of stability, more durable than our eroding stone monuments.” Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvi.
31 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvii.
32 Victoria L. Rovine, review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender, by Labelle Prussin and Mbuti Design: Paintings by Mbuti Women of the Ituri Forest, by Georges Meurant and Robert Farris Thompson, Woman’s Art Journal 20, no, 1 (Spring – Summer 1999): 48.
33 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xxii.
34 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xxii.
35 Rovine, review of African Nomadic Architecture, 48.
36 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xviii.
37 Prussin’s daughter, Deb Volberg Pagnotta, relates that her mother often spoke of her experiences ‘code switching’ and she prided herself on being “very good at adapting her communication.” Early on, she recognized the necessity of modulating her voice to put others at ease, whether that meant cursing on the job site, or adopting an art historical academese. See also Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xviii: “I found from my own experiences in both Africa and the Western world that only when I had successfully mastered design performance in the “male manner” could I return to what was, for me as a woman, a natural architectural design process of integrating components of space and surface, form and function.”
38 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xxii.
39 Aronson, “Present Tents,” 8.
40 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xx.
41 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xx.
42 Prussin explains: “those few who have traveled alone in the desert with the nomads have remained for the most part unsung, unpublished heroines. Over the centuries, most of the available written accounts and descriptions are the result of commercial, military, or colonial interest. As a consequence, the documentation of female productivity and creativity is almost nonexistent for those cultures where men and women move in and control such separate worlds. Museum and private collections accrued in the course of expeditions under such conditions are further skewed because they consisted primarily of artifacts that the male observer had access to and was interested in: tools of warfare, tools essential for economic productivity and the processing of materials valuable for the European market, and “durable,” permanent artifacts made of wood and metal.” Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xviii-xix.
43 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xviii-xix. While the book includes numerous photographs of tent structures under construction and schematic plans indicating programmatic zones within the interior, there are only four photographs that depict the interior of fully constructed tents. Two of these are tightly cropped views of important objects (Plates 19 and 21) and another is in fact a photograph of a reconstructed Kel Ayr mat-covered tent at the Musée Ethnographique, Niamey, Niger (Fig. 5.9). The one photograph taken by Uta Holder during her fieldwork that gives a sense of an interior is Plate 16 depicting the area of a Mahria tent where the bed is located.
44 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, xvi.
45 Aronson, “Present Tents,” 9. As Aronson notes, this was a relatively new approach at the time. Few in the field of African art and architecture had explored the topic as thoroughly. She cites Eugenia W. Herbert’s book on blacksmithing: Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) as one additional example.
46 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, Fig. 3.12. b., 63. Photograph by Anders Grum.
47 Nnamdi Elleh, review of African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender by Labelle Prussin, et al, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 15, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 178.
48 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, 58.
49 Prussin, African Nomadic Architecture, 58.
50 Labelle Prussin, Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), foreword. Quoted in Jean-Paul Bourdier, review of Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa, by Labelle Prussin, African Arts 20, no. 1 (November 1986): 21.