When a book begins to breathe, it becomes a territory open to reflection, daydreams, and sometimes even to a shared questioning. The latest example of such a book is Ursula Schulz-Dornburg’s Bugis Houses, Celebes. The photographer is a familiar name to the London publisher’s audience, and her fourth book with Mack is a stunningly beautiful publication: it features twenty-two color photographs taken on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. All of them depict Bugis houses, which, to a Western mind, look more like something out of an Andersen fairy tale than structures native to the rice fields of what Wikipedia calls the “world’s largest archipelago.”
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg snatched these photographs in 1983, on her way to the airport of Ujung Pandang, now Makassar. She had accompanied two ethnologists and an architect on a research trip among the Toraja people on the island. “We were making our way down the mountains and into the plains, and there, I suddenly saw these small, enchanting structures, planted like colored objects in a museum display. It was just amazing.” She didn’t have much time, she adds, but she grabbed her Nikon, and started photographing: “The locals were as surprised and as happy as I was. It was just the lightness of these architectures, their colors coming alive with the slightest movement, billowing laundry, or a child in pink tank-top… And they smiled at me because they perceived my joy.”
This joy leaps off the pages of the book, it is felt in the breath of the images. The joyous grace of the photographs, coupled with a poignant text by Sirtjo Koolhof, conjures up the Bugis people, the main ethnic group of the archipelago (about six million), their creation myths, their curious deities, and their epic story, La Galigo… Their houses, made of wood and bamboo, propped on blocks of stone, seem like offerings to eternity.
You don’t need to be an architect to appreciate these constructions which, “from a horizontal point of view, resemble the human body” (Sirtjo Koolhof). Their exteriors, with distinct flights of stairs and varied number of panels in the timpalaja, or tympanum, say plenty about the life of their inhabitants, mostly farmers, and “their position in the social hierarchy.”
There are many details to be gleaned about these Bugis houses which would have amazed the French philosopher of the “poetics of space”, Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962). They have enchanted Ursula Schulz-Dornburg precisely because they fit easily into her own work, which combines a wealth of landscapes and the people who have built them, or who destroy them, or who travel through them, be it Armenian pedestrians, tourists at St. Mark’s Square, or visitors to the Russian State Arctic and Antarctic Museum in St. Petersburg.
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, born in Berlin in 1938, lives in Düsseldorf, the city were Hilla and Bernd Becher, the typological influencers, had once taught. Ursula Schulz-Dornburg has traveled far from this school: she is more sensitive to the wind, to the strangeness of history, and, as far as the Bugis are concerned, to the intensity of their “peculiar culture, which has survived for an immeasurable span of time without worrying about borders.”
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Houses Bugis, Celebes. With text by Sirtjo Koolhof. Mack, 64 pp., 35 €.
To learn more, visit the artist’s website.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, Penguin, 2014.
Hilla and Bernd Bechers’ photographs can be seen, among others, in the collection of the Mudam (the Museum of Contemporary Art of Luxembourg).