James Morris

Butabu: Press Reviews

Butabu : selected press reviews


The New York Times.
Book review.
Sunday December 7th 2003.

Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa. By James Morris – text by Suzanne Preston Blier (Princeton Architectural Press $50)

The British Photographer James Morris easily takes the palm for the year’s most haunting images with this album of the baked mud buildings of West Africa. These sensuously hand modelled and boldly painted structures mix the raw vitality of folk art with the mad flights of imagination generally ascribed to high-style mavericks like Gaudi and Gehry

One wonders how long Morris had to tarry to achieve such luminous gradations of light and atmosphere in these breathtaking pictures. The graceful way in which he incorporates human and animal figures into his compositions – helpfully, because the scale of these idiosyncratic buildings is difficult for the untutored eye to gauge without them – adds immeasurably to their engaging humanity and exquisite strangeness.


Mud, mud, glorious mud
The Times (London).
Tuesday December 16, 2003

JAMES MORRIS: BUTABU, Zelda Cheatle Gallery, London W1,


IN A BLAZE of raking sunlight, an elder from the village of Kolenze in Mali, in long, yolk-yellow robes, walks past what appears to be a giant piece of civic art.It is a huge, decorative cubic sculpture, adorned with rows of protruding sticks and carved out into a pattern of triangular and oblong shapes. The man in yellow is not just there for decoration in James Morris’s photograph. He is also a human yardstick with which to convey a sense of scale, for the monumental block is, on closer inspection, not an artwork but a house built of mud.

In Mali, and in Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin, mud is not just used for making pots. It has been used for hundreds of years to build sensational structures -houses, mosques, palaces, temples, entire communities – which are repaired and remoulded every year during engagingly splashy mud festivals. And the very viscosity of this most malleable material has produced some highly inventive forms that seem to encompass ancient cultures, the spirits of the Sahara and even a touch of Surrealism.

Morris visited the desert communities of West Africa during a four-month stay in 1999 and 2000, hauling his bulky and heavy camera and tripod in and out of clapped-out cars, motorised pirogues (dug-out canoes) and at times on foot to find remote villages of elaborate mud structures.

But in spite of the dirt, the exhaustion and the heavy consumption of home brew millet beer, it was worth it -for him and for us. His lens loved these sensual shapes. Morris let it rove across planes of cracked mud walls resembling the knobbly surfaces of brown bread. He let it gently caress the broad undulating outlines of buildings, sketching out a muscular sense of
form and allowing walls to be transfigured and metamorphosed into enormous planes of elephant hide or the broad shoulders of a mud-caked buffalo. He placed it in the pillared arcades of mosques, capturing a brilliant range of textures, the rich modelling of the clay-like mud and the bristling timbers of permanent scaffolding. And if you look carefully at all of Morris’s West African architectural photographs, now in a small show at Zelda Cheatle Gallery to coincide with their publication in Butabu (Princeton Architectural Press), you can see how the sun bakes the earth of these sensational buildings, and then redefines their surfaces throughout each day.

In some ways, Morris’s photographs are architectural only in the most abstracted sense. The motivation behind their framing and design is perhaps more concerned with the geometric puzzles and strange amorphous shapes of their outlines, so that the photographs are turned into an unfamiliar visual experience in which space and structure contest with pattern for primacy. And time after time, pattern seems to win out. We see stripes, curlicues, jaunty paisley effects, composite columns, gothic arches and Moorish windows; and everywhere strange, Gaudi-like indentations in triangular and oblong shapes, eroded by the wind into smooth-edged lozenges.

Some of these softly undulating buildings look as if they have somehow risen out of the ground fully formed. One spectacularly handsome picture, of a house in Fortal, Niger, looks like a block of skin, its surface pitted with tiny varicose veins that have run riot and spread to cover the entire body. Morris seems to see the world graphically, in terms of pattern, and in this photograph the simplicity of his design gives us precise blocks of harsh black shadow in sharp contrast with the Cubist mass of mud, a sensuous plastic sculpture of a seemingly natural form.

The liveliness and surprise of this image depend on the fact that Morris has recognised and used not only the forms of the building itself but also the temporary and accidental forms created by light and shadow. As such it avoids the vacuous predictability that afflicts the work of many photographers faced with comparable subjects. And in the far distance, he finds a small boy standing on top of another structure, bent over and poised to jump, his legs and arms bent in anticipation of the impact.

His shot of the mosque at Bore in Mali manages a remarkable clarity that depends on modelled shapes and on surfaces mottled with light and shade, pitted and crumbling with age. It is tempting to wonder how these apparently Western style monumental columns of stone with their moulded bases and chunkily designed tops could have been plucked from some southern European cathedral and transported all the way to Mali. But in the end, the dry mud floor and the exposed timbers remind us that these columns too are merely mud, put together generations ago and simply resurfaced every year.

Morris has managed well to understand and anticipate the behaviour of West Africa’s favourite building material. His photographs describe both the look and the feel of these beautiful, remote buildings. And their strength lies in the fact that they are almost (but not quite) free of the tugging presence of the mundane world.

James Morris: Butabu is at Zelda Cheatle Gallery (99 Mount Street, London W1, 020-7408 4448) until January 9. Closed December 22-30.


Mud, glorious mud
The Guardian (London) Monday November 10, 2003


The great mosque of Djenne in Mali is one of those buildings that haunted my boyhood imagination. It never seemed real, more a surrealist fairy-tale illustration. Even when I got to visit it some five years ago (after it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site) and found it fronted by a busy market and surrounded by buses, I still found it hard to believe. Here, somehow, was a composite of the spirit of Sahara, surrealism and even a touch of Spain – Dali, Gaudi – mixed up in walls like termites’ nests, made of west African mud. It seemed at once a sort of natural outcrop of the muddy sandbanks of the nearby River Niger, a structure built by some desert spirit and, inevitably, a place of profound and ancient worship, older than Mohammed, older than Christ.

The mosque’s riddles have partly been solved in the pages of a new book by James Morris, the photographer, and Suzanne Preston Blier, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard. Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa is a well-researched and beautifully presented study of the sculptural mud architecture of Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso. Far from being the work of nameless desert djinns (local spirits or “genies”), these often beautiful buildings were designed and built by architects for kings and emperors, making the best of local materials and know-how.

What these magnificent mosques prove is that mud buildings can be far more sophisticated than many people living in a world of concrete and steel might want to believe. Mud is not just a material for shaping pots, but for temples, palaces and even, as so many west African towns demonstrate, the framing of entire communities. The very fluidity, or viscosity, of the material allows the architects who use it to create dynamic and sensual forms.

Morris’s photographic trips through the region in 1999 and 2000 record a world of architecture that, sadly, is increasingly under threat. Perhaps it is mostly poverty rather than culture and memory that keeps this rich and inventive tradition of building alive. The tendency in this part of the world, as in any other, is to move from naturally elegant traditional buildings to fast-buck junk.

Morris’s lens all but caresses the buildings it focuses on. Walls resemble elephant hides, or adopt esoteric geometries. Many of the buildings appear to have been conjured rather than built laboriously by hand. On close inspection – and Morris’s camera allows us to get very close – it is fascinating to experience the way in which the interiors and exteriors of these buildings flow one into the other, to feel the mood of the buildings change as light and shadow shift through the course of the day. Intriguing, too, to understand how the mud architects of west Africa made, and continue to make, a play of primary geometries just as those working in the Graeco-Roman and modern tradition did and do. And, finally, it is possible, with a keen eye, to imagine how the designs of these buildings flowed into the southern European consciousness – in particular, the Spanish experience.


Architects Newspaper (New York 12/8/03)

Mud appears to be the most elegant building material of all in Morris’ stunning images. This might be the most important book on vernacular architecture since Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 Architecture Without Architects.”


Library Journal

The 70 color and 110 black-and-white reproductions are of fine quality and speak vividly of the photographer’s mastery. Blier complements Morris’s effort with insightful cultural and historical context.”


LA Architect: Jan/Feb

The soft folds and highly textured surfaces of Mali mosques, Niger chiefs’ houses and other examples of the African adobe vernacular have lured a succession of hippies with a wobbly sense of focus. So it’s a delight to see a photographer who has chronicled the sharp-edged structures of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers bring clarity to such a picturesque subject, and to reach such an illuminating essay on its cultural roots.

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