South of the Sahara was a 60 x 60 foot pop up exhibition that visually reframes the history before European hegemony, recognizing and celebrating the rich origins of the earliest mathematicians from ancient African civilizations.
In today's classrooms, very little is taught in American schools about Africa. The snippet that is presented is rarely curated in a positive light. Much is focused on slavery, safaris, Egyptian pyramids, and overlooks the exceptional innovations that took place in regions South of the Sahara. In addition, many Hollywood and other media outlets further reinforces these negative stereotypes, perpetuating systemic challenges that poses hurdles to the development of our children. For many students of color, growing up with such a myopic learning environment contributes to how they see themselves in the world, doubting their self worth, who they can become and ultimately what they can achieve in their life.
As the Design Lead for this exhibition, it was my personal mission to turn this notion on its head, transporting families on a journey back in time through a different perspective and pay proper tribute to the African regions across South of the Sahara, delicately and respectfully.
The exhibition composed of activity based learning for parent-child interactions that fostered discovery and exploration of how math was woven into the fabric of everyday life through games, artifacts, art and culture. Tangible learning outside of the classroom were brought to life while exposing children to a different perspective of both history and math through playful experiences.
From the baskets that carried goods to and fro; to the weaved mats and fencing that kept people warm; to the textile patterns of traditional cloths; to secret communication of drum vibrations echoeing miles away; to how a home was built and laid out - math could be seen, heard, and felt - it was alive and visible.
South of the Sahara brought families to a time and place where young herders, from what is known as modern day Rwanda, were masters of memory, recognizing their cattle among hundreds by merely facial features to children from modern day Tanzania reciting complicated triangular number series up to 48.
9 games were chosen to showcase the different types of math learning that existed beyond the numbers. They were designed and built to provide an engaging experience while staying true to its original content. To bring these games to life, the surrounding environment was inspired by common threads that surfaced during secondary research: the importance of community, round architecture, diversity of cultures. and respect for the earth.
It was common across many early civilizations to help build and decorate each other's homes where meals were shared as gesture of gratitude. This importance of community had to be visible within the layout of the space and inspire families to engage with each other, physically interacting and away from their screens.
In contrast to many western cultures of grid based city, many traditional African settlements were dominantly laid out in a circular and fractal geometric fashion, the repetition of similar patterns at infinitely smaller scales, visible from only the sky. Often times it was tied to the hierarchy of the household as well as a means to protect their valuable cattle.
"When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn't even discovered yet." - Ron Eglash, Ethno-mathematician
These fractal settlements inspired the bamboo structure of the exhibition where a larger circle enclosed a smaller scaled circle that housed the interactive central exhibition experience. In doing so, we were able to replicate a small bustling village which truly brought the experience to life.
In ancient Africa - and still some regions today - round forms of architecture was prevalent across many settlements across the continent. Round architecture adapted to different climates and weather and provided energy efficiency that leveraged the heat from the day to warm the nights; it curved the heavy winds from penetrating the walls, and kept the rain out. Mathematically, it is also more strategic to build a round unit than a rectangular one given the same amount of materials because it would yield a larger surface area. It is also worth noting that all of these homes were 100% biodegradable and used locally available resources, something we struggle to grasp today as we face climate change.
I wanted children to experience this beautiful architectural phenomenom that was overlooked and mislabeled as "primitive huts" to showcase how societies once lived in harmony with nature. Four living quarters were selected to represent different regions of South of the Sahara and its diversity of architectural styles. The goal was to create the sense of traveling across the continent and witnessing the mathematical significance behind each region through these game spaces.
Research has shown that parents have a huge impact on their children's motivation to learn and how well they do academically. It was crucial to create a welcoming environment where children and parents can be encouraged to play together. By having many of the game spaces on the floor, it altered the perception of authority children had of their parents and provided them with agency to engage with one another. We often heard how surprised parents were to discover their child's secret talent in mathematics through this tangible approach that the traditional methods of learning and digital devices could never substitute.
The visual design behind South of Sahara was inspired by the African Pygmy Kingfisher bird, a colorful bird that can be found in all regions South of the Sahara. It was only fitting to leverage its beautiful colors as the backdrop to the whole experience. Each poster throughout the exhibition had a unique background layout that hinted to the region of relevancy based on the main welcome banner's map.
The South of the Sahara exhibition represents the contributions of geographical areas that lies south of the Sahara, formally known as "Sub"-Saharan Africa. The name challenges the "sub" prefix which holds negative representation as being "under" or " beneath" or "below" "subordinate" or "inferior to" when the achievements and developments of early African mathematical thinking were anything but. The intentional renaming of the geographic locations as the label for the exhibition was to take back the beauty of the diverse environments and bring a poetic ring to create a sense of pride in those regions and celebrate in a colorful way. In addition, I wanted to introduce the families to lesser known regions South of the Sahara and their contributions to today’s technologies, beyond the typical focus on Egypt.
The only way to design for an exhibition without physically visiting the space was to prototype and test the segment of the experieince. Cardboard cutouts provided a framework to role play through the flow of navigating the space and possible scenarios that families would encounter. CAD models helped to develop accurate 1:1 measurements of the space which was then used to test out a slice of the experience to get a sense of how many people could comfortably fit in each game space.
To introduce families to the complex stories of the origins of mathematics and its relevancy of understanding how and why math played a huge role in everyday life, the center of the exhibition provided a space for them to get an overview of the exhibition.
Kids and adults challenged their knowledge of geography with the interactive table where they explored all the different workshops and games available in the exhibition. When a country of interest was placed correctly onto the map, visuals and videos displayed information relevant to the region and where to find that experience. Artifacts livened up the space to bridge the cultural connection of the role math played in the early cultures.
9 games and 4 workshop experiences were carefully curated and handcrafted based on the original ancient games that have been around for centuries. Each game board was designed and tested to refine both the physical interaction of the board itself but also the game rules were quickly picked up. It was important that all of the game boards had elements of nature to tie it back to the theme of the exhibition. They also had to be accessible to all ages regardless of disabilities such as vision impairment, safe to use for younger children, and quick to learn.
The first exhibition took place in Chicago. On the second year, the exhibition was held on a smaller venue, so it had to be scaled down to fit within a 50x50 foot space. Because of the original fractal layout and carefully crafted proportions, the amount of materials were flexible enough to redesign the smaller space. We additionally had access to fewer volunteers, so we strategically removed the workshops which required highly trained volunteers and focused on game spaces. This resulted in a very open-air market environment that further emphasized the small village look and feel. (See video below)