It may be time for a reappraisal of the old saw about architecture being the marriage of form and function. If nothing else, the innovative ideas and implications of the tents and topics covered in Made to Move: African Nomadic Design—a show conceived and executed by Risham Majeed, with input from two of her Ithaca College undergraduate classes—belie the relative modesty of both the show's form (in a small, changing college exhibition space) and the tent structures themselves.

Made to Move represented the Handwerker Gallery's first significant loan show, borrowing works from both the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University and from Amyas Naegele. With this show, and its tightly written, scrupulous catalogue, Made to Move sought to open visitors' eyes to the role that women, particularly the Tuareg and Rendille nomadic women primarily featured, are part of a larger woman-centered architectural practice that created, adapted, and built one of the most elemental and inventive building forms the world has known.

Made to Move acknowledges its debt owed to two never-realized exhibition projects. Each of these predecessors—an exhibition once intended to accompany Labelle Prussin's seminal catalogue African Nomadic Architecture (1995) and an exhibition, organized by the Qatar Museum Authority, that sought to marry Prussin's ideas with those of twenty-first century architects—sought to build on the ideas examined in the Ithaca show. Given the practical constraints that stymied both predecessors, of exhibiting fragile, tensile, organic structures in the constraints of Western museum spaces and practices, the Ithaca exhibition was commendable for its successful realization alone. (Indeed, in addition to acknowledging the work of its predecessors, exhibition texts also addressed the impracticality of effectively exhibiting the spatial realities of architecture at all.)

The Ithaca show, however, aimed higher—and succeeded, efficiently. Its primary goals were twofold: to open visitors' eyes to what has heretofore been framed as the classically Modernist principles at work in such nomadic architecture (fundamentally efficient structures, devoid of excess ornamentation) and to return the agency for the engineering of such forms to the women who invented them. The exhibition examined the structures and associated nomadic design elements developed by Tuareg female architects, from the central Sahara, and Rendille women engineers, from northeastern Kenya.

Visitors engaged with Tuareg, tensile tent practices first, as they quickly encountered upon entering an entire woven tent screen, suspended across and dividing the initial exhibition space. Through an incredibly simple design technique, Majeed and the student curators thus gave visitors the opportunity to understand the spatial logics of such a structural element, which in a more typical museum arrangement—if exhibited at all—might have been shown folded or flat. This impetus, to show the available building fragments as architecture, was echoed by a clever arrangement of openwork carved tent posts embedded in a white shelf, as if waiting for the application of their goat-skin roof velum, represented in images nearby. Tuareg bags and mats, in turn, were displayed rolled and unrolled, full and flat, to allow visitors to understand the manner in which the vicissitudes of nomadic life necessitated that even small items carefully marry form and function.

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A tent wall divider by a Tuareg artist.

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A tent wall divider by a Tuareg artist.

A large wall projection introduced the section focusing on Rendille architects. Here, visitors had the chance to watch as Rendille women began the complicated processing of constructing armature tents, built from pre-bent acacia wood posts and covered with mats consisting of raffia and hide. Exceedingly difficult to display in their own right, the pleasingly fibrous textures of such structures were represented with immersive wall images of mat details. In a move that sought to reinforce the economical design concepts in such works, functional works by Rendille women (and creators from related eastern Kenyan and Somali cultural groups) were exhibited behind a patterned wall composed of a 4 × 5 grid of extreme detail shots of the works in question. With a rougher, earth-toned, fibrous look, such objects have typically been harder to love for Western connoisseurs, but this installation made a strong case for this minimalist aesthetic.

2

Tent posts by Tuareg artists.

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Tent posts by Tuareg artists.

3

Leather bags, by Tuareg artists, alternately stuffed and hung flat.

3

Leather bags, by Tuareg artists, alternately stuffed and hung flat.

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Functional design items, by Rendille artists.

4

Functional design items, by Rendille artists.

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Documenting repairs in Tuareg and Borana bowls (left); detail of Rendile design display (right).

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Documenting repairs in Tuareg and Borana bowls (left); detail of Rendile design display (right).

In addition to highlighting these nomadic architectural traditions and participating in a reclamation of the role of women as their users and authors, Made to Move also made significant claims about the historiographic and temporal place of such practices. Modernist and Western architectural history has tended to belittle so-called vernacular architectures—seen as somehow lacking the innovative and disruptive force of individual (male) architects' personalities, and belonging to places somehow not coevally participant in time.

The exhibition and its catalogue instead observed the fundamental effectiveness of these tent structures' adaptations to their harsh environments and, thus, limited need for major reinventions of a form that had well served for centuries, however adaptable to new materials or conditions their architects nevertheless remained. If anything, as highly efficient, locally sourced, environmentally suited structures built and occupied by the engineer-architects who created them, Tuareg and Rendille tents could effectively be reread as the epitome of a Modernist “machine for living.”

Made to Move makes the case for a reappraisal of the form and function of the architectural history canon itself—placing these women not in a faceless, ethnographic prologue to Western, Modernist male heroes but, instead, in the now.

References cited

Prussin
,
Labelle
.
1995
.
African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place, Gender
.
Washington, DC
:
Smithsonian Institution Press
.