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Africa's Painted Patterns


How do you express what is on your mind? Maybe you keep your thoughts privately in a diary or a scrapbook. Or perhaps you share them publicly by wearing a certain kind of clothing or hairstyle. Or maybe you communicate your thoughts through painting or dance or theater.

In many parts of Africa, women paint the exterior walls of their houses with bright colored patterns made up of geometric shapes to express their identity, represent personal prayers, convey their hopes and dreams, and mark significant happenings in the family.

The meanings of the patterned paintings differ among cultures. Geometric patterns can symbolize weddings, births, or other celebrations. They can also depict things that the women hope to have one day, but do not currently have. Electric lights, swimming pools, multistory houses, telephones, airplanes, and water taps all appear in these paintings.

Other paintings honor ancestors and serve as visual prayers. Triangle patterns can symbolize higher powers or even lightning. The zigzag patterns might represent a prayer for rain or be a symbol of the cosmos. In some cases, these patterned houses function as flags that assert the owner's cultural identity in the face of their oppressors.

In early wall paintings, designs were made with earth pigments ranging from bright yellow to brown. The pigments were ground up and mixed with liquid to form a paint that was used to decorate doors and window frames. Later, designs were made by people dragging their fingers through wet plaster to leave a variety of markings, from squiggles and zigzags to straight lines.

Today, women continue to use traditional colors, such as black from soot and limestone whitewash, but they also use commercial paint colors like sky blue and pink. Because the natural pigments are only temporary, each year, after the summer rains, the paintings have to be redone.

To begin a wall painting, the artists divide the wall into sections and then use chalk to mark each section with diagonal lines. Next, they paint the black outline of the design for each section. Each section is then filled with contrasting paint patterns. Without rulers, the women are able to carefully create symmetry, proportion, and straight edges.

Throughout the African continent, women use these bold geometric patterns on the outside of their houses to represent what is on their minds. What shapes and designs would you use to represent what is on your mind?






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