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Ron Eglash, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design – New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999

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Abstract

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165Nexus Network Journal - Volume II, 2000
Every once in a while, a book is published that significantly advances scholarship. Thus, I am
not going to be apologetic for beginning this review by stating boldly that Ron Eglashs African
Fractals is bound to be regarded as one of the greatest books on African studies produced in this
century. This brilliant, scientific work contributes significantly towards shattering long-held
myths and misconceptions about Africans (both on the Continent and in the Diaspora), the
most pervasive and pernicious of which is the notion of Africans as inactive agents in history –
a people devoid of writing systems, technological background and culture.
The book is divided into three parts with 14 chapters. The first part introduces fractal geometry
for people without any mathematics background, fractals in African settlement architecture,
fractals in cross-cultural comparison, and intention and invention in design. The second part
discusses geometric algorithms, scaling, numeric systems, recursion, infinity, and complexity. The
third part focuses on theoretical frameworks in cultural studies of knowledge, the politics of
African fractals, fractals in European history of mathematics, and futures for African fractals.
What Eglash teaches in the 14 chapters is that elaborate cornrow braids on an African
woman’s head, for example, can be viewed as more than an affinity with culture or a fashion
statement. The intricate patterns are also useful for learning about African fractals—geometric
patterns that are repeated on smaller and smaller scales to produce intricate designs that are
beyond the scope of classical or Euclidean geometry. Fractal geometry has emerged as one of
the most exciting frontiers in the fusion between mathematics and information technology.
Fractals can be observed in many of the swirling patterns produced by computer graphics, and
they have become a vital tool for modeling in the natural sciences. While fractal geometry can
allow one to get into the far reaches of high tech science, its patterns are surprisingly common
in traditional African designs. Also, some of the basic concepts in fractal geometry are
fundamental to African knowledge systems: quantitative techniques, symbolic systems,
engineering, architecture, games, traditional hairstyling, textiles, sculpture, painting, carving,
Ron Eglash
African Fractals: Modern Computing
and Indigenous Design
New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999
Reviewed by Abdul Karim Bangura
Nexus00/01_163-200 31-05-2001 17:34 Pagina 165
166 Book Reviews
metalwork, and religion. As Eglash explains, although most people learn Euclidean geometry
in school, few study fractal geometry, which plays a significant role in the computer modeling
process in the hard sciences. Meanwhile, according to Eglash, fractal geometry has long been
a theme in Africa, with a wide variety of local cultural associations, including kinship, labor
practices, politics, and religion.
Eglash’s research began in the 1980s while investigating settlement architecture in Central
and West Africa. Aerial photographs of various settlement compounds revealed that many
were composed of circular structures enclosed in other circles, or rectangles within rectangles,
and that the compounds were likely to have street patterns in which broad avenues branched
into very small footpaths. As Eglash notes, at first he thought it was just from unconscious
social dynamics. But during his fieldwork, he found that fractal designs also appear in a wide
variety of intentional designs – carving, hairstyling, metalwork, painting, textiles – and the
recursive process of fractal algorithms are even employed in African quantitative systems.
Eglash adds that in the design rationales and cultural semantics of many African geometric
figures, as well as in indigenous quantitative systems (additive progression, doubling
sequences, binary recursion) and symbolic systems (iconic symbols for feedback loops,
equiangular spirals, infinity), there are abstract ideas and formal structures that closely parallel
some of the fundamental aspects of fractal geometry. These results, Eglash concludes, are
congruent with recent developments in complex systems theory, which suggest that pre-
modern, non-state societies were neither utterly anarchic, nor frozen in static order, but rather
utilized an adaptive flexibility that capitalized on the nonlinear aspects of ecological dynamics.
While in Africa, Eglash encountered some of the most complex fractal systems that exist in
religious activities, such as the sequence of symbols used in sand divination, a method of
fortune telling found in Senegal. Some of his other findings include the use of sophisticated
mathematical ideas in everyday objects. In the arid region of the Sahel, for example, artisans
produce windscreens by utilizing a scaling design that gives them the maximum effect
–keeping out the wind-driven dust – for the minimum amount of effort and material.
When Eglash returned from Africa, one of his colleagues advised him to focus on scaling
patterns in African hairstyles. An enthusiastic group of students at Evergreen State University
volunteered their programming skills to help create a multimedia lesson on African fractals.
The Hairstyle Storyboard Website (http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.dir/afmulti.htm) that
has been developed utilizes a style referred to as “the braids of threads”, from Yaoundé,
Cameroon, to explicate African branching fractals. The “fractal hairstyle” module guides
users, step by step, through the creation of a three-dimensional fractal, beginning with the
initial design and then mathematically determining the ratio of each iteration. The major goal
is to eventually combine the images, software and video on African fractals.
Given all this, at least two critical questions can be raised: (1) Since some scholars have
found that all cities (historic, primitive and modern) are fractal precisely because they are
complex natural systems, and other scholars have discovered that fractal tiling patterns exist
on some of the oldest European tiled floors and in ancient Chinese art, what then does this
say for the validity of Eglash’s arguments concerning African fractals? (2) At what number of
scales does self-similarity occur in African fractals and what method does Eglash employ to
determine self-similarity? Eglash deals with these questions in several ways.
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167Nexus Network Journal - Volume II, 2000
First, Eglash demonstrates that traditional African settlements typically show repetition of
similar patterns at ever-diminishing scales: circles of circles of circular dwellings, rectangular walls
enclosing ever-smaller rectangles, and streets in which broad avenues branch down to tiny
footpaths with striking geometric repetition. He easily identifies the fractal structure when he
compares aerial views of African villages and cities with corresponding fractal graphics simulations.
To estimate the fractal dimension of a spatial pattern, Eglash uses several different approaches. In
the case of Mokoulek, for instance, which is a black-and-white architectural diagram, a two-
dimensional version of the ruler size versus length plots is employed. However, for the aerial photo
of Labbazanga, an image in shades of gray, a Fourier transform is used. Nonetheless, according to
Eglash, we cannot just assume that African fractals show an understanding of fractal geometry, nor
can we dismiss that possibility. Thus, he insists that we listen to what the designers and users of
these structures have to say about it. This is because what may appear to be an unconscious or
accidental pattern might actually have an intentional mathematical component.
Second, as Eglash examines African designs and knowledge systems, five essential
components (recursion, scaling, self-similarity, infinity, and fractional dimension) keep him
on track of what does or does not match fractal geometry. Since scaling and self-similarity are
descriptive characteristics, his first step is to look for the properties in African designs. Once
he establishes that theme, he then asks whether or not these concepts have been intentionally
applied, and starts to look for the other three essential components. He finds the clearest
illustrations of indigenous self-similar designs in African architecture.
The examples of scaling designs Eglash provides vary greatly in purpose, pattern, and
method. As he explains, while it is not difficult to invent explanations based on unconscious
social forces – for example, the flexibility in conforming designs to material surfaces as
expressions of social flexibility – he does not believe that any such explanation can account for
its diversity. He finds that from optimization engineering, to modeling organic life, to
mapping between different spatial structures, African artisans have developed a wide range of
tools, techniques, and design practices based on the conscious application of scaling geometry.
Thus, for example, instead of using the Koch curve to generate the branching fractals used to
model the lungs and acacia tree, Eglash uses passive lines that are just carried through the
iterations without change, in addition to active lines that create a growing tip by the usual
recursive replacement.
In essence, any serious student of African studies, anthropology, computer science,
engineering, or mathematics should run to a bookstore and get a copy of Eglash’s unique
masterpiece. It is worth every penny. As a matter of fact, the book has motivated me to push
on with my own work entitled Chaos Theory and African Fractals. I am quite sure that some
readers will be stimulated in similar ways.
First published in the NNJ online October 2000
The Reviewer
Abdul Karim Bangura is currently Director of The African Institution in Washington, DC; Project Co-director
of The International Communication and Negotiation Simulations Project at the University of Maryland at
College Park; Researcher-In-Residence at the Center of Global Peace and Professorial Lecturer in International
Nexus00/01_163-200 31-05-2001 17:34 Pagina 167
168 Book Reviews
Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC;
and Professorial Lecturer in Political Science at Howard University in Washington, DC. Bangura holds three Ph.Ds
to date—in Political Science from Howard University, in Policy Sciences (specializing in Development Economics)
from the University of Maryland Baltimore, and in Linguistics from Georgetown University – and is completing
a fourth Ph.D. in Computer Science at Columbus University. He is the author of 19 books and more than 100
articles in refereed journals and other sources. His recent publications include Chaos Theory and African Fractals
(in preparation) and Historical Political Economy of Washington, DC (2000). He is the Editor-In-Chief of two
refereed journals: Journal of Research Methodology and African Studies and African Journal of Languages and
Linguistics. He is a member of and holds offices in many professional associations. He also is fluent in about a
dozen African and six European languages.
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... The architectural world is largely ineffective as it remains heavily invested in normative theory (Çalışkan, 2017) 2015). "While fractal geometry can allow one to get into the far reaches of high-tech science, its patterns are surprisingly common in traditional African designs" (Bangura, 2000). Despite these ancient wisdoms, modern architecture has persisted in its strategy to look like a machine, beguiled by perceived time and cost efficiencies. ...
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