‘Building Africa: The State of Things’ enacts memories, resonances, contestations, and imaginations of state architecture

Building Africa 2

By Hashim Tarmahomed

Collecting stories about the relationships between architecture and politics in an African context, Building Africa is a tripartite exhibition conceptualised and curated by Prof. Julia Gallagher and Dr Kuukuwa Manful, of African State Architecture (ASA), a research project funded by the European Research Council and based at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The exhibition is premised on ASA’s area of research, which broadly asks: ‘How does African architecture manifest statehood, and how is statehood understood in the ways citizens use, view and engage with the buildings of the state?’

Travelling to Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Accra, three research-driven architectural teams were commissioned within each city to respond to the exhibition theme for its local audiences. As the exhibition lands in Johannesburg, a team comprising Khensani Jurczok-de Klerk, Aude Tollo, Tshego Mako, and Tapiwa Manase of Matri-Archi(tecture) collaborate with the curators to design the South African edition, cleverly subtitled The State of Things! Founded by Jurczok-de Klerk, Matri-Archi identifies itself as ‘an association that hosts a network of spatial practitioners dedicated to the development of African spatial education, offering a site for artistic collaboration through design, art and architectural research projects.’

The Matri-Archi-ASA partnership approaches the project with creative and intellectual depth, while maintaining the necessary sensitivities and accessibilities to appeal to a broad audience. The exhibition focuses on two politically significant sites: the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which houses the seat of the South African government, and was initially conceptualised as an architectural symbol of a British-Afrikaans alliance in South Africa; and Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which houses South Africa’s Constitutional Court within a complex of old fort prisons. Today it is a museum and cultural site. Building Africa: The State of Things! invites visitors to critically reflect on their relationships with these spaces, and to conjure up personal memories, resonances, contestations, and imaginations.

Situated at Keyes Art Mile in Johannesburg (with a smaller, special appearance at Decorex Joburg), the exhibition is not striking but for its curious forms and intriguing layout. Far from being a spectacle in line with the curatorial language surrounding it, the exhibition foregrounds visitors and their experiences, both with the space and the subject. Located in the Annex of Keyes Art Mile, it overlaps with the main foyer, becoming a reception to the arts centre, generously and gently inviting participation. By dislocating the exhibition from the sites of its subject, agency is returned to the participant, who is free from its spatiality and architectural context. Jurczok-de Klerk notes that this deliberate dislocation looks beyond the participation of people who frequent the respective sites, instead using the exhibition to encourage others to visit the Union Buildings and Constitution Hill themselves. She adds that the team’s priority in locating the exhibition lay in finding a space which was safe and stable, but still freely accessible.

Drawing on Saidiya Hartman’s concept of critical fabulation, the project embraces subjectivity, fragmentation and fiction as ways with which to engage the archive, says Tollo. The exhibition is layered, figuratively and literally, and requires a personal unpacking of its components. A six-section grid organises the exhibition, each unit consisting of a lectern and aligning placard. The assembly of the lecterns require a performative engagement in which the visitor addresses the architecture in a process of deconstruction. First, questions are posed in a book, which participants are invited to write their responses into, and in which they may read and interpret others’ responses. Then, flipping the back cover of each book reveals fragments of model representations of the buildings, contextualising, juxtaposing, and reflecting their spatialities and geographies. These pigmented plaster models are imperfectly handcrafted, and encourage creative imagination.

The material palette is kept minimal, using everyday textures and consciously and unconsciously recognisable geometries. Constructed out of locally sourced plywood, each lectern stands in acknowledgement of the human scale, its wings vaguely reminiscent of the structure of the South African flag. Newsprint is used for paper elements, while standard-sized correx boards are used for the exhibition panels, onto which black and white photographs of the buildings are printed. On-the-ground materialities of political presences and vocalities like the newspaper and the placard are used throughout the exhibition to enact textures of agency. The models are pigmented after the rich colour of the Union Buildings’ edifice, the fragility of which is held in the hands of the visitor, symbolically subverting the power relations between state and citizen. Personal and intimate experiences are foregrounded within a space for the collective voice, especially during a moment of immense political distress in South Africa.

Situating the exhibition within a larger intellectual context, Jurczok-de Klerk notes the broader vision of the exhibition in its contribution towards imagining alternative methodologies of engaging the archive.

Building Africa: The State of Things! is on show until 11 August 2023 at Keyes Art Mile. The exhibition continues in Accra in November this year, and the collective accumulation of Building Africa will be exhibited in London after that.

For more information, visit African State Architecture’s website here.

This story is made possible by the Arts Story Incubator programme of Breinstorm Brand Architects, in collaboration with Klyntji and IQOQO. It is funded by a PESP-3 grant that is supported by BASA and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.

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