Professor Trevor H J Marchand

College of Fellows Keynote Speaker

College of Fellows Lecture
Trevor H J Marchand
Professor of Social Anthropology, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS University of London

The Djenné Mosque: World Heritage and Social Renewal in a West African Town

Following an historic and architectural overview of the Djenné Mosque, this paper raises questions of ownership and control of cultural heritage. The Djenné Mosque is reputed to be the largest single mud structure in the world and each year during the dry winter season the town's population festively re-plasters its surfaces in an exhilarating one-day ceremony. Traditionally, an auspicious date for the ceremony was agreed by a group of sagacious elders and the association of masons lent their blessing. In 2005, however, control over scheduling the event was assumed by a festival planning committee with vested interests in attracting foreign tourists and international development aid to Djenné. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is one such donor, and in 2009 they oversaw a massive conservation project for the Mosque, stripping its walls, roof and buttresses of accumulated layers of plaster in order to restore the building to its “original” form and to address points of structural weakness. Debates and discussions ensued among conservationists, material scientists and town residents over the long-term preservation of the building, and it was rumoured that one group of foreign experts even proposed the application of a more permanent protective layer that would render the annual re-plastering ceremony obsolete.

Based on ethnographic research, the paper will argue that such scientific solutions and Western-framed conservation agendas neglect the important social function played by the communal re-plastering effort. The annual ceremony renews bonds among the town's citizens and between the various town quarters. It also provides an important forum for youth to learn about their architectural heritage and religious identity, and it introduces young men to basic building techniques that they can apply in the upkeep of their own homes. In sum, the Djenné Mosque is more than a place for Muslim prayer or an object of architectural interest: rather, it is the focal point around which Djenné society, identity and knowledge has been continually renewed and reinforced. According to master mason Konbaba Tennepo, ‘Each year the people of Djenné congregate to re-plaster the Mosque, and the event rekindles love and understanding between them. I don’t want that to stop. If you replace the mud plaster with tiles or cement, it will all stop! But with mud, people have in mind that they must come back, from wherever they are, to participate.’

The paper demonstrates that scientific solutions and Western-framed conservation agendas and preservation strategies risk undermining the very grassroots activities that maintain historic buildings and renew their social function. Therefore, how might “preservation” be best practised in a context where construction materials are perishable and buildings are in a continual state of physical transformation? What can be learned from vernacular methods of building maintenance? How might we think differently about the meaning of “architecture” and “buildings”? And how might tangible and intangible forms of heritage be considered together in a more productive, unified framework? The concluding remarks of the paper will address these questions and open a forum for general discussion.
The paper is grounded in the author’s long anthropological fieldwork with the masons conducted between 2000 and 2002, and in data gathered from published reports, interviews, and during subsequent visits to Djenné, including documentary film shoots in 2005 and 2012.

Professor Marchand has spent much of his career researching and engaging in “intense participant observation” in the study craft knowledge, skill learning and apprenticeship. From observing and experiencing first hand the different influences on crafts persons in Nigeria, Mali, Yemen and England he has gained insight into how society, culture, religion, technology, learning methods and globalization impact the role of apprenticeship and crafts persons in the modern world. Professor Marchand is working to expand popular definitions of ‘knowledge’ and promote a greater appreciation for skilled handwork. His approach of observing and working with different cultures and mindsets to compare and contrast learning through the work of craftspeople is a great example of our theme Méttisage and we welcome him to our Conference.

After completing studies in architecture (McGill 1992), Trevor was granted an award by the Canadian International Development Agency to conduct field research on the mud-brick building practices and decorative styles in the Hausa Emirate of Zaria, Northern Nigeria. This study fostered an anthropological approach to his core interests in architecture, building-craft knowledge and apprenticeship. Trevor’s PhD in anthropology (SOAS 1999) was grounded in long fieldwork with masons in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Sana’a, and resulted in the publication of Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen (Curzon-Routledge 2001). Later, as a SOAS Lecturer, he resumed research with West African masons, this time working as a labourer and apprentice in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Djenné, Mali. This produced a second monograph, The Masons of Djenné (Indiana University Press 2009), winner of the Elliot P. Skinner Award from the Association for Africanist Anthropology, the 2010 Melville J. Herskovits Award from the African Studies Association, and the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology from the Royal Anthropological Institute. 
His work with Djenné’s masons also resulted in a co-produced documentary film The Future of Mud: A tale of houses and lives in Djenné; and a London public lecture series and photographic exhibition, Djenné: African City of Mud, at the Royal Institute of British Architects (2010). More current research with Djenné masons has resulted in a second documentary film Masons of Djenné (2013) and a long-term exhibition, Mud Masons of Mali, in the African Voices Focus Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

In 2005 Trevor was awarded a three-year ESRC Fellowship to study craft knowledge and vocational training with carpenters and furniture makers in England. This produced an in-depth ethnographic study of English fine woodworkers (The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work, monograph in preparation), and a unique cross-cultural comparative analysis with craftspeople in Arabia and Africa. In 2013, Trevor took up a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to continue studies with woodworkers, this time focusing on the complex relation between the human brain, hands and tools, as well as on problem-solving in practice.
Trevor’s courses at the University of London, Anthropology of Urban Space, Place and Architecture and Crafting the World introduce students to the study of the built environment, heritage politics, craftsmanship and the making of things.

Photo by Claudel Huot


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