REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links


Ndebele house art
For more on the meaning of color as applied to houses, visit Metaphors and Meanings of the House: African Painted House Traditions and "AFRICAN HOUSE PAINTINGS"

The colors which make up a sign can imbue it with intensified symbolic meaning. It is even possible to create an entire language based only on color. (This process of using color as the primary communication medium is called quantography.) For instance, the Benin and Edo people of southern Nigeria have developed a chromatographic system of writing based principally on different color combinations (“Writing System Of The Ido People.”)

house wall artIn many cultures, the colors of the exterior walls of a house indicate the status and power of the inhabitants. In some areas of Africa, this form of painting can be a demonstration of individuality or a form of public address, offering prayers, announcing marriages and sometimes initiating protests. Throughout Africa, brilliant exterior wall painting combines the intricacies of individual artistic expression with traditional architectural forms. In Accra, the capital of Northern Ghana, women have historically painted both the inner and outer the walls of their houses using traditional patterns and colors including blue, white and earth red triangles and spirals. Using specific and unique colors to identify their homes is a form of semiotic indexing: although the art is abstract, without definite reference to any characteristic of a given home, anyone having seen these buildings will recognize this distinctive set of patterns and hues, immediately associating them with the houses of the artists.

Symbolically, particular colors have assumed significance as safety devices when applied to doors or exposed spiritual “entry points” like the peak of a roofline. Greek legends state that sky blue has the power to deflect evil, radiating an invisible shield when applied to a door. Sacred places such as Greek churches often have their cupolas, windows, doors, walls, staircases and fences all painted a bright sky blue to deflect demons. Chinese altars and temple roof tiles are also considered more protective if they are covered with heavily glazed blue (Arnheim 5).

Ndebele house art In South Africa, Ndebele tribeswomen have become world renowned for the vivid paint work originally created for the walls of their houses. In the same way that the women of Ghana use an index of color and patterns, the Ndebele designs are passed down from generation to generation, and usually involve brilliant colors, strong geometrics and many of the patterns also used in Ndebele beadwork. Using bundled twigs and feathers as brushes, the women use the brightest pigments available, mixed using traditional cow dung pigments, clays and modern acrylics. The designs, while personally meaningful, are generally abstract, intended to reflect the taste and talent of the artist more than telling any specific tale or representing any particular person. These shelters combine the use of iconic designs, symbolic colors and a full index of acquired meanings to relay their semiotic messages.

Read more about patterns here: Patterns


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, Fall 2004

"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
"An Indian Corn Morning" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 48" - Oil on Masonite
"Japanese Juniper" by Marney Johnson: [central triptych panel] 34" x 36" - Oil on Masonite
All images courtesy of Marnie Johnson: Visit her work here:

Last updated 07.15.04