Connections through Architecture
  A glance shows three images of decorated building fronts built in three different cultures. A closer look suggests a relationship between them. The Kwakiutal house front is of great political significance in its community while the Abelam men’s house holds a more spiritual purpose. The Yoruba Sango shrine functions as a bridge between the two as it combines religious and political roles.  The architecture of these varied cultures is both deliberate and beautiful. Designs rely heavily on symbolism while pleasing the eye. Although many such structures exist now only in photographs and drawings, victims of fire, robbery, and development, their powerful presence remains intact, providing an alternative to much of the uninspired architecture of the present.
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Canada. Alert Bay, Kwakiutl. plank-built chief’s house. nineteenth century.
(Picture source: Jonaitis p.73)

The most politically motivated house front of the three, the plank house is decorated with a large centered painting of a thunderbird carrying off whale. Depicting a legendary animal of such strength and power is in direct relation to the owner of the house, the chief. Only he could reserve the right to use this symbolic creature. So close was this relationship that the Kwagiutal said thunder crashed whenever a clan chief passed on. A clan chief uses his thunderbird crest to assert his presige in much the same way the men of Abelam use their long yams to assert theirs.


Nigeria, Yoruba, Oyo Empire. Ibadan.  Shango shrine. Photograph taken 1910, courtesy of Frobenius Institute.
(Picture source: Drewal, Pemberton & Abiodun, p.156,fig.171).

Yoruba culture regards it political leaders, or obas, as religious leaders as well. For instance, the history of Oyo is characterized by a close relationship between the cult of Sango and the existing political system as the senior priests also held high positions in the court
(Drewal, Pemberton & Abiodun, p.166). For this reason, shrines like the one at Ibadan are constructed very much like a Yoruba palace, or Afin. The Agbeni shrine is characterized by the fifteen veranda posts that line the house front as they line the front of a king's palace.  Sometimes, the Sango shrine is connected structurally to the king's palace.
New Guinea, Abelam. Decorated Men’s House.60-80ft. Mid 20th century. Anthony Forge,1962.
(Picture source: Corbin, pl.1)

Consistent themes in Abelam art are fertility, masculine power, magic, and warrior proficiency. All these themes are represented in their men’s houses.  Sexual imagery   associated with the initiation house relates to Abelam  concern with fertility. A phallic symbol sits at the peak of the house. Sculpture on the lintel separating the lower wall from the towering triangular facade covered with bark paintings depicts a couple engaging in sexual intercourse in a feet to feet position. The small entry way at the lower right represents a woman's womb.  In celebration of their ancestors, five male spirits are depicted wearing shell necklaces just above the lintel. More examples of clan imagery can be seen in the series of male faces above those.   The pointed oval shape framing these faces is an encompassing female symbol.  Abelam belief in the supernatural is reflected in the depiction of the female witch carved near the peak.
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