Greenlaw's Suakin: the limits of architectural representation and the continuing lives of buildings in Coastal Sudan

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Author: Nancy Um
Date: Winter 2011
From: African Arts(Vol. 44, Issue 4)
Publisher: MIT Press Journals
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,172 words

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The island city of Suakin on Sudan's Red Sea coast thrived as a center of trade and pilgrimage from at least the thirteenth century during the Mamluk period. Then, after coming under Ottoman rule in the early sixteenth century, the city became a vital node in the transregional maritime matrices that connected the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and inland Africa to Mecca. In 1869, the opening of the Suez Canal further bolstered Suakin's key coastal position. But the port's fortunes shifted in 1909 when the British constructed Port Sudan to Suakin's north. Shortly afterward, trade operations moved to the newly built port and Suakin's merchants eventually vacated the city, leaving their distinctive houses, built of coral-rock quarried directly from the shoreline, to deteriorate. Today, there are no inhabitants left on the island, only architectural ruins. (1)

Despite its ruined state, Suakin's architecture is well known internationally, particularly among archaeologists and those who study vernacular building. This enduring reputation may be attributed largely to The Coral Buildings of Suakin, a copiously illustrated text published by the artist Jean-Pierre Greenlaw (1910-1982) in 1976 and then reprinted in 1995 with a new subtitle and foreword. Hailed at the time of its original issuance as the "finest published contribution in English to Sudanese art history," it has been used widely as a source for the architecture of the connected regions of the Arab world, the Red Sea, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean (Hale 1977:5) With its handdrawn plans, elevations, sections, and architectural details of the houses, mosques, and public structures of Suakin, the text has almost single-handedly retained the memory of a lost tradition of vernacular building.

This study represents an effort to look closely at the images that fill The Coral Buildings, which was not a scholarly work, but nevertheless has served as a classic resource for the architecture of a city that is now destroyed. A reassessment of Greenlaw's wider visual project, which was not simply a transparent documentary effort, is now timely for several reasons. After arriving at Bakht al-Ruda training college in Sudan in 1936 to integrate drawing and crafts into the primary school curriculum, Greenlaw went on to become a major figure in Sudan's colonial education system and art world (Clark 1977:45). Most notably, in 1946, he established the School of Design at Gordon Memorial College, Sudan's first art program at the level of higher education. (2) There, he worked with fellow teachers Shafiq Shawqi and Osman Waqialla to train local students in art and design. Of his protegees, Ibrahim El Salahi, who would later become the leading artist of the Khartoum School, is undoubtedly the most famous (Clark 1977:46, Hassan 1995:109-110). Now that the legacies of his Sudanese colleagues and students have been canonized in the rewriting of a globalized modern art, a study of this transformative mentor and educational reformer is due.

Moreover, since 2002, Sudanese and international scholars and archaeologists have engaged in the Suakin Project, which is a government-sponsored initiative that has overseen...

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Source Citation
Um, Nancy. "Greenlaw's Suakin: the limits of architectural representation and the continuing lives of buildings in Coastal Sudan." African Arts, vol. 44, no. 4, winter 2011, pp. 36+. Accessed 27 Oct. 2021.
  

Gale Document Number: GALE|A274790872