Black Space / The Black Body in Space: Kgaugelo Lekalakala’s architectural practice 

Black Space

By Mamelodi Marakalala 

Author’s note: The term ‘architecture’ in this text is not to be confused with the registered professions in Architecture. It is used in the context of the artistic explorations of Kgaugelo Lekalakala as she investigates and critiques spatial constructs that surround people, specifically in transit. Lekalakala herself is an Architect in the traditional sense of a designer “of the human environment, mostly buildings, groups of buildings and the spaces between the buildings” as strictly defined by the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA). On the other hand, Lekalakala has established an architectural practice that leans towards the personal, artistic, and academic; and engages with the physical, systematic, social and cultural structures in spaces of travel and from the perspectives of African Black people. The latter is the sole focus of this article. 

Architecture serves a multitude of purposes in life. In the most general of terms, architecture made the houses we spend our lives in, the office spaces we occupy throughout our days of work, and the enormous buildings we enter when we have an appointment with the officials who facilitate our civil businesses with the government. However, the purpose and value of architecture go beyond sight, touch, and human needs.

Kgaugelo Lekalakala’s practice is about reaching the socio-political, socio-cultural, historical and experiential intricacies wedged between architecture as an art and the science of making structures. Having specialised in sculpting, ceramics, painting, and design in her schooling at The National School of the Arts between 2008 and 2012, she has the advantage of investigating and making works that flow between various art media in her explorations and critiques of spatial constructs. Additionally, coming from Mmametlhake, a village in Mpumalanga, Lekalakala has a wealth of experiences and knowledge to dig through the substrata of architecture as we know it, in ways that are frequently overlooked in the industry. Lekalakala also boasts a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cape Town and a Master’s in Architectural Technology from the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. 

Kgaugelo Lekalakala delves into and sparks critical conversations on the Black body in relation to architecture and the systems interwoven into the concrete and masonry, amongst many other building materials, we come across every day. She founded Black Space (stylised BL<CK SPACE), which enables her artistic-architectural work to take shape. 

“Black Space is an extension of myself, the experiences I have had, and the spaces I have navigated and continue to navigate through. It was founded in 2020 to be a professional mixed-media platform through which I do architectural, artistic, and academic work, and then there is a distant thread that stitches all of them together. It is a space where I am open to collaboration. It is meant to be a buildup of having conversations and presenting works or reflecting life around Black spaces. It is about giving Black people a way to confide and unpack spaces where they are situated. Because they go unseen, unwanted, and considered unimportant, I want to bring light to them and make people grapple with the nuances of these spaces,” she says.

In 2020, Lekalakala published Tales of the Vulnerability of African Black Women in Transit Spaces – a visual and textual project with personal, visceral, and poetic elements. She says about the project, “My images [and, in essence, the research and framework upon which they are supported] move beyond the limited methods provided by traditional architectural knowledge to explore alternative spatial imaginaries of everyday issues of vulnerability and safety and to reveal some of the nuanced gendered dynamics black women experience in transit spaces.” 

Engaging with this paper brings to mind the phrase ‘if walls could talk’, which we frequently hear in everyday conversations and popularised musical pieces. It is used to reflect how most of life is lost in history because there is no way for places and spaces to tell of the significant events that took place and were experienced within them. Its origin is difficult to trace, but one internet user claims to have found that the phrase dates back to a poem written in the 1850s, with the stanza: 

If these old walls could talk like folks,
We’d split our sides at their cracking jokes.
Think of the stories they might tell
Of flattering youth and blushing belle.

In this case, this stanza becomes, 

If these walls –
Built from systems of oppression and utter disregard –
Could talk like folks,
They would mimic the sounds
Of aching breaths travelling between taxi rank and hostel,
They would echo the toils
Of deafening apprehension and welcomed obligation.

Lekalakala’s undertakings in the field come as a call for walls to tell stories, for architecture to not only be in the surroundings and inhabited by different Black women but to also acknowledge and tell their very rich stories. She particularly speaks about South Africa’s culture of provincial migration as it pertains to many women, including herself; shifting between rural and urban regions, shifting between traditional gender roles that are expected of them in their cultures and contemporary public spaces that are necessitated by current modes of living, and shifting between the privacy of one’s being and public presence under others’ social gaze. The project features photographs and digital collage prints that are an artistic reflection of her ideas and experiences with transitioning between different spaces. 

Works falling under Tales of the Vulnerability of African Women in Transit Spaces were featured in the La Biennale di Venezia Architecttura in 2023, amongst various special projects that formed part of the Guests from the Future exhibition, curated by Lesley Lokko. The international art and architecture world got to see the reality and dynamics of transit spaces for many African women in South Africa. Going back to the purpose, value, and ever-pervasiveness of architecture in people’s lives, Black women are surrounded by “taxi ranks, walkways, and sidewalks” that often hold dangers of the city and leave them vulnerable to the outcomes of said dangers. Architecture is positioned as “real” because of the physical elements of structures and as “metaphorical spaces of journeys, transitions, and changes that describe where [the women] come from and where [they] are going” because it sustains life and enables experiences.  

Lekalakala invites us to look deeply at how architecture has historically been used to contain certain groups of people and aspects of humanity, as well as how cultural and political landscapes have been paved through designs and constructions, along with the movements within them. She also evaluates newer and innovative ways to approach contemporary postcolonial/decolonial design in seeking to, in her words, “provoke questions regarding the potential for more progressive and imaginative urban futures in the way urban transit and public space is designed.”

In addition to being used to superintend the Black body and Black people’s experiences according to its different exertions, architecture evidently and seriously exposes the state of a society. One of Lekalakala’s digital prints is called Trip to the Long Drop (2019) and highlights the neglect faced by people in rural areas, who have had to become their own and each other’s architects to build essential elements of their public spaces. Nevertheless, much like any art, the industry has the potential to stand for the greater good. It can ultimately be used, by architects like Lekalakala, to alleviate the Black body’s vulnerabilities in the spaces of intimate occupation and social movement. 

2024 sees a collaboration between Kgaugelo Lekalakala, a Kenyan artist and architect whose work is mainly in the construction sector Oriaro Ibrahim Damianus Masere, and Kenyan-born South African-based architect who specialises in the design of educational, healthcare, and mixed-use spaces: Maureen Muthoni Ndirangu. Titled Detained Bodies – Beyond the Border (2024), the project explores and evokes dialogue around the Black body in transit spaces. It demonstrates how Lekalakala’s practice has flowed from looking at rural-to-urban migration, to urban migration, and now global migration. 

These transit spaces are the backdrop to structures and systems of detainment, displacement, immobilisation, and cross-border migration. Not simply a backdrop but also the wiring through which different societal aspects are carried out as a result of the historical and very presently prevalent ways of controlling where the Black body comes from and how far the Black body goes, especially out in the world. An experience that Lekalakala had, preceding the Detained Bodies project, at an airport on her way to a Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA) conference in Denmark with 15 or so other African architects further enlightened her about the profiling and filtering of Black people that also takes place at the level of international travel, in spaces that are essentially of elite scale.  

Architecture serves a multitude of purposes in shaping society. In the most evident of terms in the history and accounts contextualising Kgaugelo Lekalakala’s work, architecture made the “matchbox” houses in the segregated townships that Black people were forcibly moved to, the “dodgy” areas of public transport and movement that many fear as they go between temporary homes they inhabit in the cities and their social and economic affairs, the old buildings entered into daily and any of those spaces that hold stories we will never know that are the ambit of Black cultures and generational hauntings, as well as the opportune spaces that have limited black faces. Architecture continues to serve the historical/governing nature of these spaces.

Lekalakala concludes, “Sometimes when you have an architectural floor plan or section, it doesn’t show the nuances and absurdities of racism, displacement, violence, and vulnerability that happen around Black people. It doesn’t show the ugly truths of those social settings, and we live through them every day. One has to constantly fight themselves in space, which is disheartening. So the prints forming part of these discussions are a metaphor for this reality.”

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