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Reviewed by:
  • The Masons of Djenné
  • Michael Herzfeld
Trevor H. J. Marchand, The Masons of Djenné. Bloomington and Indianapolis IN: Indiana University Press (pb $29.95 – 978 0 253 22072 1). 2009, 384 pp.

Marchand’s book has no subtitle. He makes no extravagant claims to theoretical innovation or global comparison. Like the straw-hatted mason whose focused body adorns the stunning cover, he delivers to us a text that displays confident artisanship and aesthetics, but he does not expatiate much on the larger implications of his handiwork. He has already done that extensively in Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), his study of Islamic builders, and he briefly cross-references the older work as he now contemplates an African environment similarly earmarked for the attention of heritage enthusiasts and promoters on the international stage. One reads The Masons of Djenné, not as one might a doctoral thesis that breaks new ground and must frame its author’s every move as an innovation, but as instantiating the qualities of careful but sure-footed construction and artistry that its author seeks to describe in this vivid portrayal of a community of Malian masons.

Marchand seeks to create an empathy between reader and subject, with himself as a modestly present mediator who facilitates our understanding of the social roles of master builder and apprentice, of the identity politics that mark off Malian from foreigner and Bozo from Mossi and Dogon, and of the debates that animate the tension between the conventions of specific styles (‘Tukolor’ or ‘Moroccan’) and the inventions generated by modern materials (concrete instead of mud, for example) and by the locally eccentric needs of the occasional well-heeled expatriate.

Marchand brings two important and highly specific externalities to bear on his material. First, he tells us that he is an architect by training, thereby implicitly suggesting that his transition to anthropology both informs and was provoked by his awareness that there is more to building than form and technique, but also clearly showing how knowledge of both disciplines can heighten appreciation of remarkable skills that are often disarmingly embedded in the modest disclaimers through which masons, forever aware of the potentially malevolent power of words and jealousy, shrug off praise. In his treatment of the joking that colours the masons’ interactions at every turn, he even takes us back to the bedrock of social anthropology, invoking Radcliffe-Brownian analyses of ‘joking relationships’ with such deadpan earnestness that at first I feared a reversion to the teleology of old-fashioned functionalism – until, to my relief, I discovered that the inter-ethnic banter [End Page 506] was actively and self-consciously used by the Bozo to retain their professional primacy among the various ethnic groups represented in Djenné’s workforce. The joke, at that point, is on the reader. But it also reminds us, with poetic force, and for anthropologists as much as for artisans, that old-fashioned techniques are what often give the innovations of today their conceptual and artistic purchase.

The second externality is the history of architectural sensibility, exoticism and the invention of World Heritage status – a burden as well as a blessing that Djenné shares with Marchand’s other site, the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Marchand contextualizes the observations of Africanists Griaule and Paulme within this larger background. In so doing, he alerts us to forces that drive the search for authenticity, within which the search for originality is both constrained and heightened – and is the subject of much of the banter among the masons.

These masons exhibit a powerful and explicit respect for knowledge transmission. While Marchand does briefly invoke Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s Situated Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1991), he shows us that the masons of Djenné are less inclined than their Yemeni counterparts to force their apprentices into ‘stealing with their eyes’ – a globally frequent phenomenon, but one that seems strikingly absent from the Djenné masons’ often patient verbal directions and manual demonstrations.

The confident arcing through the air of skilfully selected mud and the slapping sound that announces its targeted arrival, the attentive shaping of Djenné architecture’s classic forms, and the occasional mishap occasioning raucous commentary...


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pp. 506-507
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