Black Monuments Matter

A Virtual Exhibition of Sub-Saharan Architecture

Presented by:
Zamani Project - University of Cape Town
Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations - Aga Khan University, London

Exhibition curators and organizers

Professor Stephane Pradines and Professor (emeritus) Dr. Heinz Rüther 

The Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations and the Zamani Project at the University of Cape Town are pleased to present the online exhibition “Black Monuments Matter”.

Black Monuments Matter recognises and highlights African contributions to world history by exhibiting World Heritage Monuments and architectural treasures from Sub-Saharan Africa.

In doing so, this exhibition sweeps away ideas based on racist theories and hopes to contribute to both awareness of African identity and pride of African Heritage. The exhibition is inspired by the “Black History Month” in the United Kingdom.

Black monuments matter and Black cultures matter. Sites and monuments are physical representations of histories, heritage, and developments in society. This exhibition aims to display the diversity and richness of African cultures as part of world history through the study of African Monuments; bringing awareness and pride of African roots and contributions to other cultures.

African cultures suffered extensively from slavery from the 16th to the 19th Century, and during the acceleration of European colonisation through the 19th and early 20th Century. Black Monuments Matter aspires to create links to living African heritage by making it visible, assessable, and known to as many people as possible.

In general, we would like to raise awareness of and respect towards Black cultures and Africa’s past to a larger audience. At the Aga Khan University, the University of Cape Town and the Zamani Project, we believe in the relevance and knowledge of cultures, and the importance of education towards its understanding and appreciation.

Through an approach founded on the latest knowledge and technology, this online exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to learn more about the glorious monuments and sites of African heritage and black cultures across Sub Saharan Africa.

The African continent has numerous sites and monuments of historic and cultural importance, and our exhibition showcases some of its diversity and richness. From the Pyramids of Sudan, the Great Mosque of Timbuktu, to the Swahili cities of East Africa, each site is presented in a virtual room and is introduced by short texts written by African scholars.

Many of Africa’s monuments are protected by UNESCO and have been given world heritage status. They are also protected and supported by national heritage authorities and by the support of international organisations such as the World Monument Fund and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Our hope is that visitors to this exhibition will recognise and support the work of national and international organisations committed to the support of African heritage.

All the documentation presented in the exhibition are the result of many years of dedicated work by the Zamani team from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.  

Stéphane Pradines 

Stéphane Pradines is an archaeologist and Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) in London. He was the Director of the excavations of the Walls of Cairo (Egypt) and many other excavations in the Indian Ocean (Maldives) and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros). He is a specialist of Islamic archaeology in Sub-Saharan Africa, Indian Ocean medieval trade and Muslim material culture of war (military architecture and weapons). Nowadays his main excavation projects are Kua in Tanzania and Lahore fort in Pakistan. Finally Stephane is the founding Editor of the Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World (MCMW), an academic journal in full open access published by Brill in partnership with The Aga Khan University and the Aga Khan Museum.

Heinz Rüther, Professor (em)

Heinz Rüther, Professor (emeritus) for Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, graduated with the Degree of Diplom–Ingenieur at the University of Bonn and obtained his Ph.D. in photogrammetry at the University of Cape Town . From 1990 to 2002, he was the Head of the Geomatics Department at UCT. In 2004 he founded the “African Cultural Heritage Sites and Landscapes Database“, now known as the Zamani Heritage Documentation Project, which he leads as Director and of the Principal Investigator.

He has extensive experience in the areas of digital and close-range photogrammetry, precise engineering surveying, laser scanning and deformation analysis and has worked on photogrammetric and surveying projects in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and especially Africa. He served as external examiner at several African Universities and was Scientific Coordinator of the Lake Rukwa Basin Integrated Project, an development initiative in Tanzania.

Professor Rüther’s present research interest is focussed on the 3D-modelling of architectural structures and the spatial documentation of cultural heritage sites.

He is a Fellow of the University of Cape Town, a Fellow of ISPRS, a Fellow of the South African Academy of Engineers and, a Member of the South African Academy of Science. 

Commentary about the exhibition

Dodé Houéhounha, African World Heritage Specialist
Bryan Koffi Opoby, Junior African World Heritage Specialist

Patiently but surely, we make our way. As protests spread across the globe against systemic racism, police brutality, and injustice, 2020 turned out to be an exceptional year to reflect on what can be done to empower Black lives. This desire to correct an outdated and racially targeted system applies to many different areas such as education systems, employment opportunities, health care, and also, to the history and richness of the African continent.

In "Black Monuments Matter", as in the expression "Black Lives Matter", it is the philosophical precision that counts. "To matter" is of course about the importance of social recognition, but what stands out in these words is surely the refusal of discrimination and the desire for equality. The desire of a community to rediscover, make known, and have its history and heritage recognised. It is this dynamic that currently drives the African heritage sector.

Indeed, African experts are today multiplying actions in order to preserve and promote a heritage that is unfortunately endangered. Over the last few years, many actions have been carried out with the aim of continuously improving the conservation and management of African World Heritage sites. There are numerous examples testifying to the successes of recent years.

The creation in 2006 of the African World Heritage Fund, whose objective is to provide financial and technical support for the effective conservation and protection of cultural and natural heritage, is one such example. This is also reflected in the growing involvement of motivated young people, in the increased participation of schools, and the growing number of training courses accessible in the heritage field. We should also note the increase in international funding collaborations, particularly in terms of capacity building workshops for site managers and, above all, in assistance provided to strengthen nomination files for the inscription of sites on the World Heritage List. These actions, taken collaboratively by a wide range of heritage actors, bear witness to the current dynamic.

In this virtual exhibition, you will be guided through some of Africa's World Heritage sites. The Old Towns of Djenné, inscribed in 1988 are an exceptional witness to the pre-Islamic civilizations of the inland Delta of the Niger, and an outstanding example of an architectural group of buildings that illustrate a significant historic period. The Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela represent a unique artistic achievement, in size and the variety and boldness of their forms. It is also an exceptional testimony to the medieval and post-medieval civilization of Ethiopia. As for the Asante Traditional Buildings, they are the last remaining testimony of the unique architectural style of the great Asante Kingdom.
The diversity of the sites that are here presented is a reflection of the diversity of African heritage. With this exhibition, you will discover the richness and variety of a heritage that transcends time, ages and eras.

In this exceptional context of health crisis, where these sites of exceptional value are now hardly accessible, it is this form of digital initiative that keeps our heritage alive. The use of new technologies to promote our incredible heritage and allow us to make it accessible to as many people as possible. It is only this way, by multiplying actions for its promotion and accessibility, that we will succeed in showing, raising awareness and educating people about the wealth of African history and heritage. This is a task that requires a lot of initiative yet, patiently but surely, we will make our way.  

Dodé Houéhounha, African World Heritage Specialist

Dodé Houehounha is a heritage professional with experience in more than 15 African countries. He was recently awarded the International Young Conservationist Award 2018 by the International Ranger Federation (IRF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature – World Commission of Protected Areas (IUCN/WCPA) in recognition of his commitment to conservation.

Koffi Bryan Opody, Junior African World Heritage Specialist

Bryan Koffi Opoby is a postgraduate in Diplomacy and Public Affairs, from HEIP Paris, School of Advanced International and Political Studies. After undertaking different experiences at global level, he is now working on the conservation, preservation and promotion of African World Heritage.

Commentary about the exhibition

Ernesto Ottone, Assistant Director General for Culture, UNESCO, Paris

2020 has been defined in many ways by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the intensification of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following incidents of police brutality. COVID-19 and the BLM movement have both highlighted persistent vulnerabilities and deep inequalities in our societies. Yet they have also revealed the extraordinary ability of people everywhere to meet adversity and tragedy with resilience, solidarity, determination and hope. They have shown that meeting global challenges requires a united response, one built on the recognition of our common humanity. Finding unity in diversity has also been the message of UNESCO for the last 75 years, as we have worked to promote dialogue and mutual understanding through education, science, communication and culture.

Among the sites showcased in this exhibition, six are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, namely: the Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe (Sudan), the Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela (Ethiopia), the Old Towns of Djenné (Mali), Timbuktu (Mali), the Asante Traditional Buildings (Ghana) and the Great Zimbabwe National Monument (Zimbabwe). Each of these sites testifies the richness of African civilizations across thousands of years of history. Despite differences in location, material and context, they each have universal value. These sites matter, because they represent the common heritage of all of humanity. They embody the full diversity and richness of human creativity. No matter where we come from, safeguarding these places is our collective responsibility. As one of its two global priorities, UNESCO has put Africa at the centre of its efforts to safeguard the cultural heritage of humanity. Home to over 100 World Heritage sites in more than 40 countries, Africa is a place of extraordinary cultural and natural heritage. UNESCO is committed to ensuring that this heritage is recognized for its outstanding universal value and protected for generations to come.

UNESCO would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Aga Khan University (London, United Kingdom) and Cape Town University (South Africa) on this initiative. Beyond its aesthetic, architectural and heritage values, the exhibition reminds us again of the cultural vibrancy of Africa. It is our hope that this exhibition will inspire the public to learn more about the culture and heritage of Africa, to shape a better future for humanity, one that embraces the beauty and richness of its diversity. 

Ernesto Ottone R.

Mr Ernesto Ottone R. is the Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO. Prior to this position, Mr Ottone R. served as Chile’s first Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage from 2015 to 2018. As Minister of Culture, he created a Department of First Peoples, a Migrants Unit and strengthened copyright laws and heritage protections. During this time, he also chaired the Regional Centre for the Promotion of Books in Latin America and the Caribbean (2016 – 2017). From 2011 to 2015, Mr Ottone R. served as Director-General of the Artistic and Cultural Extension Center of the University of Chile, which manages the National Symphony Orchestra of Chile, the Chilean National Ballet (BANCH), the Chile Symphony Choir and the Vocal Camerata. From 2001 to 2010, he held the position of Executive Director at the Matucana 100 Cultural Center in Santiago. Mr Ottone R. holds a Master's degree in Management of Cultural Institutions and Policies from the University of Paris IX Dauphine (1998) and a Bachelor of Arts in theatre from the University of Chile (1995).

World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) in Sub-Saharan Africa

Stephen Battle, Architect, Principal Project Director

World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) mission is to safeguard the world’s significant cultural places to enrich lives and build mutual understanding. WMF has been active in Africa since 1965, when the organisation first became involved in preservation at Lalibela in Ethiopia. Since then, WMF has supported heritage preservation across the continent. Africa’s built heritage is extraordinary. No other region of the world has such diverse cultural heritage. From the ancient rock art of Matobo Hills, dating back tens of thousands of years, through the remarkable earthen structures of Bandiagara, to modern Asmara built in the early 20th century. Africa’s heritage is full of beauty and invention, technical virtuosity and high artistic achievement, with a universal value that transcends time and place.

The rate of change in Africa is rapid. Climate change, poverty, economic liberalisation, are driving rapid demographic and social change. More and more people are moving to cities. As Africa changes, the social, cultural and economic fabric that maintained diverse cultural heritage is being rapidly eroded. Africa’s heritage is uniquely threatened because so much immovable cultural heritage is made of ephemeral materials; earth, wood, grass. As the systems and context that maintained heritage are weakened, so it quickly disappears. There is an urgent need to preserve Africa’s endangered monuments.

WMF’s role is to serve as a resource and catalyst for communities around the world to gather what they need (technical expertise, funding, media exposure, advocacy) to safeguard their and the world’s heritage and shepherd it into the future. Preservation done well has the potential to contribute to more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements. It can generate economic opportunities, and it reinforces communities through a sense of shared responsibility and civic participation.

In supporting heritage preservation in Africa and around the globe, WMF’s ultimate goal is to participate in creating a better world, helping connect the present with the past and the future; a world where people can interact with each other's culture and history, learning from it and creating opportunities around it. A world where communities around the globe can work and learn together, safeguard our shared accomplishments, and build empathy and understanding for each other. 

Stephen Battle

Stephen Battle is an architect with 30 years professional experience managing conservation projects in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He started on his professional path in Zanzibar, where he worked on projects in the historic Stone Town. From 1998 to 2008, he worked for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture based in Geneva, where he was project manager for conservation and urban rehabilitation projects in Syria, Tanzania and Pakistan. He joined World Monuments Fund in 2009 as Program Director, responsible for managing WMF’s projects in sub-Saharan Africa. He has led major multi-year conservation projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Mali, Ghana, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Maldives, and Uganda. From 2017 to 2020, he developed and implemented a project in Jordan and Lebanon to train Syrian refugees, Jordanians and Lebanese in stonemasonry and conservation, funded by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund.

Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations​

10 Handyside Street, London N1C 4DN, United Kingdom

Zamani Project

University of Cape Town
Menzies Building, 5th floor
Cape Town, South Africa
Tel: +27(0) 21 650 2327 /4593

Aga Khan Centre

​10 Handyside Street, London N1C 4DN​, United Kingdom​​
Tel: +44 (0)207 756 2663

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