An African Folktale, Chapter III

In Utero

An African Folktale by Toni Arola, Chapter III

Entering a Gurunsi house meant entering a closed space filled with darkness. You had to get in on your knees. There were no windows, only a door and holes in the roof that they would cover and uncover when needed. The houses were rounded. The darkness felt warm, humanlike. Every family had its own its territory, their own patio. They spiralled into each other, creating a series of protective nuclei for the tribe.

The architecture seemed to have some sort of algorithm generating a protective womb that reflected their conceptualisation of society. The walls both served as a way to divide space and to safeguard, protecting them from heavy flooding and livestock wandering too far off. Each patio recalled an utero, a womb. As if the Gurunsi were born into them to be nurtured there, to grow up in them until they became strong enough to climb its walls.

I saw a child crawling over one of these walls; his skin blended with the wall as if both made from the same material, the same land. The constructions seemed to follow the drawing of a fractal for the shapes looked like they were growing in a spiral. They were built right next to each other in a stream of houses, some bigger and some smaller, square when inhabited by men, rounded when nesting women and family. In contrast to the rough and rugged architecture of the Dogons and the Niger area, the mud here creates sinuous structures that feels gentle under your fingertips, serpentine in your hands, and flowing under your feet while you walk barefoot. You feel protected by the living and unwrinkled surface. Life here flows seamlessly, you forget you’re a guest and where you are. You just float, as if in a womb.

Every wall of every house was painted with geometrical figures. I noticed how the base pattern kept on repeating itself everywhere we went, in a constant repetition of the triangle. It was everywhere; in the materials, the structures, the colours, the way one dresses and ties together his or her hair. Much like the Sub Saharan stories, they were never absolute, always ambiguous.

I was surprised how the pattern would sometimes change all of a sudden. Climbing up the stairs, its shape became so different. I learned that their ornamentation was an expression of the soul and personality of the one who had created it. Disoriented, clean lined; like an artistic expression I could never fully understand it in all its symbolism and function.

Photography. Antoni Arola
Words. Vincenzo Angileri
Watercolors, drawings and sketches. Antoni Arola

Thanks to Valerie Steenhaut and Júlia Rossinyol

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Toni Arola

Toni Arola

Designer & Artist
Toni Arola works in various fields, ranging from lighting projects to furniture perfume packaging, interior design and ephemeral installations. He combines his professional career with teaching, artistic experimentation and light research. His eternal pursuit of beauty, inspired by ancestral cultures and his particular vision of light, give him a unique versatility which radiates through every project.
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