/ 2 November 2018

African Mobilities and the African City

Space: Mpho Matsipa unpacks the notion of movement and time and African cities. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy
Space: Mpho Matsipa unpacks the notion of movement and time and African cities. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

If you were able to travel at the speed of light, time would cease to exist. The faster you travel, the slower time will pass. Time is simultaneously real and unreal, and is tied to movement.

In his essay, Enigmatic Mobilities/ Historical Mobilities, a contribution to the African Mobilities exhibition in Berlin earlier this year, Nigerian architect and historian Ikem Stanley Okoye says: “Africans are well practised in matters of motion, both of bodies in space travelling over long distances, and of how to make ideas that travel, are dispersed, reassembled and reformed across the continental vastness.”

To help me to understand these divergent realities and possibilities, I spoke to Dr Mpho Matsipa, curator of the African Mobilities exhibition at the Architektur Museum der TU München, which focused on movement and how architecture responds to migration.

Dr Matsipa has lectured in architectural design, planning and African Urbanism at the Wits School of Architecture and Panning and is an assistant professor of architecture at Columbia University, where her research includes design and urbanism in African cities. She curated the South Africa Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2008 and Studio-X Johannesburg at Columbia University from 2013 to 2016.

When we talk about the future of the “African city”, we tend to think of it in terms of aesthetics. What are the values that the future city will or should embody? How does, or how should Jo’burg sound, smell, taste and look?

I think it’s possible to gain a new awareness of the world and the cities we inhabit through our senses. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the South African artist Nolan Oswald Dennis — who really grounded my understanding of the idea of synaesthesia, of “mining” sound — as a register of the smallest measure of human experience, memory and, yes, values.

They are fully integrated in our perception of the city and its spaces. In some way this could be a model for the aesthetics of the city, and which would involve the visual as well. These questions can open up a whole set of questions about values.

In my view, aesthetics are political. They are the product of a whole range of political, ideological, environmental, cultural and economic practices that are all tied to values, and they also have the capacity to either reinforce notions of “the good life” or “beauty” or its opposite.

Aesthetics can also be invoked to make value judgments about places, people, societies — which was a large part of the colonial project — to impose an “ideal” form on Africans and other colonised people, and re-make us in the image of the colonising society. So we’re confronted with the dual legacy of modernity, which was also a colonising project, along with its attendant aesthetics.

Is there space for “megacities” in Africa? What do these mean for the poorest of the poor?

I’m wary of discourses that reify poverty. Not because poverty isn’t real and very urgent, but because it hides the mechanisms, institutions, individuals and processes through which poverty is produced.

And, more importantly, if we start posing questions like: Which people or institutions have both political and economic power? it might help to reframe questions about poverty, dispossession, displacement and disenfranchisement at the level of both symptom and cause.

The concept of megacities comes out of a colonial and global taxonomy of cities of the world. Centres of global capital (mainly in Europe and the United States) are called world cities, whereas cities with exponential population growth, poverty, gross inequality, homelessness and unemployment (where the rest of us live) are referred to as megacities.

The term “megacities” actually pathologises cities where the majority of the Earth’s populations live or will live, because we do not conform to the idealised image of a productive Western industrial city.

I’m thinking about a comment you once made regarding imagining different ways in which space could be arranged. So, if one has not been to different parts of the continent and experienced how people live, what is the scope of alternatives?

Before one can rearrange space, one would have to have an imagination about what that space might be, for whom and how we might inhabit it ourselves, with each other — and also what kinds of spaces we want to leave behind.

I think imagination and know-ledge are key. They can animate our social and political imaginations about possible futures. I read about Lagos and Kampala and Dakar long before I had the opportunity and privilege to visit them. There is a long history of African artists representing their worlds in a wide range of ways that provoke a different way of seeing the world, from fiction writers and historians to musicians. I think the resources are there to trouble our assumptions about the context and what we believe is possible.

It’s interesting to think of cities as places of desires and a hardening of souls when those desires seem further and further away.

Do you have any thoughts about the topic of cities and “wanting” that happens in cities?

Many African women throughout the colonial era came to cities to be free: for an education, for (relative) financial freedom and to escape oppressive husbands and fathers. I’m thinking here about shebeen queens in particular — as ordinary urban women who, at the turn of the last century, were financially and sexually powerful (relatively speaking) and who challenged colonial and apartheid administrations, but there are many other examples, of course.

I think many cities are spaces of both desire and despair. People come to the city with the hope of making a better future for themselves. Desire, in part, is what drives movement and transformation.

I’m reminded of the work of South African artist Senzeni Marasela, whose character, Theodora, scours the city in search of her husband — and, in turn, is forced to confront the devastation of what is essentially a city that is based on violent extraction.

What subjects relating to movement and cities are you currently thinking about?

I’ve been working on the curatorial project African Mobilities — this is not a refugee-camp exhibition-since 2016, which was a collaboration between the Architecture Museum at the Technical University of Munich and the University of the Witwatersrand, with support from the Goethe-Institut and funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

Although the exhibition opened in Munich on April 26 2018, it was, in fact, a distributed exhibition with collaborative and experimental teaching and learning platforms and public events across seven cities in Africa and in New York before the opening.

I was curious about how African architects and other cultural producers think about mobility in this age of “crisis”. I wanted to share a space with people of my generation who are interested in the complexities of black and brown lives on the move, within cities, across geopolitical territories and also across and within spaces of the imagination. I was most excited about collaborating with a lot of independent creative practitioners and institutions across the continent and the diaspora — and for us to embark on this journey of widening the conversation on African circulations together.

Currently, I’m developing a book project, a collection of scholarly essays, graphic artworks on themes of mobility and circulation and architectural drawings. I’m also exploring funding opportunities for how the exhibition might travel on the African continent in the coming years.

This is an edited version of an interview with Dr Mpho Matsipa