Pattern and Decoration: The Mud Structures of Tiébélé

Burkina Faso is a small landlocked country in West Africa. It was formerly known as the Republic of Upper Volta. Near the southern border of the country is the small village of Tiébélé.

In Tiébélé is a compound of hand-built, hand-formed structures made of earth, wood and straw. The compound is home to the chief, royal court and nobility of the reclusive Kassena people who first settled the region in the 15th century.

The structures in this compound have walls that are more than a foot thick. They have only a few openings to let in a minimal amount of light. Some of the houses – including the chief’s – have tiny doorways near ground level that make it extremely difficult for an enemy to breach.

A remarkable quality about this specific compound is that nearly every structure in it is obsessively covered with patterns and symbols. This special decorative treatment helps separate these structures from the rest of the village and the homes of the common people.

decorated mud structures of Tiébélé

decorated mud structures of Tiébélé

Preparing, painting and finishing the walls is a communal process that falls to the women of the village at large. They apply the patterns using colored mud and white chalk. The walls are then burnished with stones – each color burnished separately to avoid smearing the pattern. Finally the entire surface is coated with a natural varnish made from the locust bean tree.

decorated mud structures of Tiébélé

The walls of the structures are covered with a new layer of colored mud every year before the start of the rainy season. The new layer of mud, plus the burnishing and the varnishing all work to protect the walls from the weather.

Here is a short video about the structures. Some text at the beginning is in French but the video uses mostly visuals and music. (If you receive this through e-mail click here to view the video.)

Pattern is important to humans and has been with us in a major way since our prehistory. You can read more about it in Chapter 13 of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook. You can also see more examples of pattern in art on our Pinterest board.

Click on this link to see additional images and learn more about the decorated mud structures of Tiébélé.

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