Fractals a Part of African Culture

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Fractals are a part of nature, they are a part of us. Undeniably, fractals also form part of different cultures, long before computer generated fractals were discovered – from the architecture of Indian temples that resemble fractal structure to indigenous African villages where fractals are embedded in their architecture, textiles, art and religion.

According to Ron Eglash, university professor and author of African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, this was not simply unconscious or intuitive. Africans linked these fractal designs to concepts such as recursion and scaling that exists in African indigenous knowledge system.

ba-ila-africa-fractal-design-of-the-village
Aerial view of Ba-ila settlement in southern Zambia shows fractal pattern

Architecture

Many villages, constructed over many generations without anybody being in charge, formed an intricate fractal pattern as a whole.

Fractal pattern in Ba-Ila village in Africa
Fractal pattern in Ba-Ila village in Africa

Like in southern Zambia, the Ba-ila housing settlements are designed like enormous rings. Each extended family house is like a ring-shaped livestock pen with a gate at the front of the ring. Near the gate are small storage buildings, and moving around the ring, the buildings become progressively larger dwellings, until the largest, the father’s house, is opposite the gate (back of the pen). Thus front to back measures a status gradient for the home. At the back of each family’s house is the household altar.

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Similarly, the front of the settlement is the gate. Near the gate are smaller home rings, progressing to larger as we go around the settlement ring. Inside, which is also the back of the settlement is the chief’s house. The front of the chief’s house is the gate, with progressively larger buildings around the ring, until the largest, the chief’s home, at the back.

It is a ring of rings and a status gradient increasing with size from front to back, reflected in every scale of the settlement. The relation of the chief to the tribe is described by the word “kulela,” means “to nurse and to cherish.” He is like the father of the community, and this relationship is echoed throughout family and spiritual ties at all scales and is structurally mapped through self-similar architecture.

Eglash began this research in the 1980s when he noticed the striking fractal patterns in aerial photos of African settlements. He explains this further in the video below –

An African Mokoulek
An African Mokoulek

In the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon live various ethnic groups commonly referred to as Kirdi. Their Mokoulek’s follow fractal design, with small circular granaries and larger circular granaries spiraling within 3 large stone enclosures, which themselves spiral from a central point which is the square part in the blue print.

There is a sort of recipe or algorithm that determines how the system expands to accommodate growth. It is determined by knowledge of the agricultural yield. This volume measure was then converted to a number of granaries and these were arranged in spirals. The design is not simply a matter of adding on granaries randomly, but rather the expansion of a quantitative and deliberate process.

Culture

African gods of cyclic change represented using fractals
African gods of cyclic change represented using fractals
Log spirals in Ghana symbolize the spiritual force of life
Log spirals in Ghana symbolize the spiritual force of life

Not only architecture, but fractals are also seen in African textiles, sculptures, masks, religious icons and cosmologies.

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In Ethiopia, fractals can be seen in crosses (with a three-fold iteration) and also in the Lalibela churches.

Fractal imagery is used in African religions to show gods with the most and the least spiritual power. Gods representing orderly, cyclic patterns (such as Nummo in Mali and Dan in Benin, shown above) tend to have low power. Gods associated with the power of life like (Nyame in Ghana, Mawu in Benin) have higher power.

Ethiopian cross showing use of fractal shape
Ethiopian cross showing use of fractal shape
Fractal patterns in cornrow hairstyles, every braid is a fractal in itself
Fractal patterns in cornrow hairstyles, every braid is a fractal in itself

The same principle of construction based in a fractal shape can be applied to designing Cornrow or braided hairstyles. Africans have been using fractals to create beautiful and intricate hairstyles for a long time, braiding iterations of a same form.

african blanket
Design on a African Blanket

Even their wedding blanket, which is primarily woven from camel hair, has an interesting story attached to it. The weavers say that the blanket has spiritual energy woven into each pattern and that every successive iteration shows an increase in this energy. They believe that if the work stops in the middle (where the pattern is most dense, and hence the spiritual energy is greatest) they would risk death. So the wedding couple has to keep the weavers awake until its complete by giving them food and kola nuts.

The African focus on fractals emphasizes their own cultural priorities: it can even be heard in their polyrhythmic music (similar simultaneous rhythms at different scales).

This is an amazing find that shows how fractals play a vital role in forming the fabric of our universe, its not only present in plants, trees, clouds, mountains, rivers, etc., but its present in ancient civilizations across the world that mimic our cosmic design.

References:

African fractals

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