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Djenné: African City of Mud, London, UK

The Great Mosque and the community that support it

Since being made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, Djenné’s fame has escalated. Its historic 1907 Great Mosque has become emblematic of West Africa, and the beauty of mud buildings in particular. With this image fixed in mind, I visited the RIBA’s show on the architecture of this small town in Mali and the skills of its masons.

Many of Djenné’s buildings, including the Great Mosque, are made from sun-baked mud bricks, set with a mud-based mortar, which are coated with a mud plaster that provides the sculptural element. The exhibition’s comprehensive photos, drawings and selection of mason’s tools left me reminiscing about the numerous half-built mud structures I have seen across Western Africa. What I have never seen is the beautifully hand-crafted Great Mosque, with massive mud walls that vary in thickness depending on height, its walls impaled with bundles of rodier palms projecting from the surface.

’The real discovery of the exhibition lies not with the architecture, but in the story of the community which maintains the site’

The classic images of the Great Mosque usually show it devoid of humans, but here we see astonishing imagery of thousands of mud-covered bodies rebuilding the mosque in an annual festival that repairs the building after the rainy season. You cannot help feeling humbled by the scale of what is essentially a labour of love.

Drums beat as women bring buckets of water, boys trample mud and water to make plaster and children ferry the plaster to the highly regarded masons, who climb up the projecting palms to replaster. The achievement of the RIBA’s show lies in its ability to convey the coordination, energy and speed of a such process, which, amazingly, is finished by mid morning. I’m going to suggest drums at my next site visit.

Djenné: African City of Mud

Where: RIBA London

When: Until 29 April

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