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  • Dr Sechaba Maape

What being one of the curators for the SA Pavilion at the18th La Biennale Architettura taught me.

Dr Sechaba Maape

Afreetekture/Wits School of Architecture and Planning


In late 2022 my friend and colleague Dr Emmanuel Nkambule got in touch to incite me with the proposition that he, myself, Stephen Steyn and a team of other professionals apply for the tender for the Venice Architecture Biennale SA Pavilion. At that time, I had just finished working with a team from Wits on a proposal for exhibiting at the Biennale, a proposal that I and my then team spent weeks if not months on and was unfortunately rejected by Venice. When Dr Nkambule called me, the last thing I wanted was to participate in the Biennale and felt utterly shattered by the disappointment I was still navigating. I told the good Doctor that I don’t mind being involved, as long as I was not required to put in too much effort because by that time, I was working with a new team on the Africa Town competition led by architect Peter Rich, so my eyes where sharply set on an entirely new target. And so very characteristically, Mr Stephen Steyn ran with the proposal for the Biennale after some discussion in December of 2022. Early in 2023, news that I would have never in my life expected landed in my WhatsApp, a letter that the team was awarded the tender. I could not believe it, and thus the deeply emotional roller-coaster ride begun.


SA Pavilion - Council of Non-Human Beings Exhibition at the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale

Prior to going to Venice, I saw this Biennale as very important to me because for more than a decade I have dedicated my life to the question “how do we practice architecture in a post-colonial Africa?”. Anyone who is familiar with my work will know that my interests have always been at the intersection between decolonisation, liberation, African identity, and architecture, as well as issues of sustainability and climate change. So naturally when the first announcements came out about the Biennale, I was excited, but also felt a degree of dread because I had no idea how I was going to participate. I had no real relationship with Prof Lesley Lokko other than meeting her at GSA events during the time she was the director. In fact, the GSA wave totally missed me.


When Prof Lokko started the GSA there was a real disruption in the South African architecture community. When she arrived on the scene, she came with a storm of new ways of doing things, suddenly Bjarke Ingels was in South Africa, and there was a new method of teaching architecture in the form of the unit system. This was all during an incredibly tumultuous time with the Rhoads/Fees Must Fall protests and debates around decolonisation of higher education. The events that were hosted by Prof Lokko were spectacular, even in the midst of debates. I remember trying to make sense of it all and felt swept over by a wave of never-ending talks, exhibitions, workshops all happening in the most stylish ways with branding that felt like it was designed by Steve Jobs himself. At the time my own architecture school at Wits had our own international arrival in the form of our new head of school Prof Nnamdi Elleh. I was very excited about this because the Prof is a respected scholar who focuses on African architecture, the theme I had pursued for many years, and Wits was the epicentre of the Fees Must Fall movement, thus I dug my roots deeper at Wits and made no real effort to be part of what was happening at the GSA.


Therefore, the wave left me, and all I could do is sit on the sidelines and watch the marvellous spectacle of international names, starchitects, and highly prestigious accolades being awarded to South Africans since the time Peter Rich won the international best building award. Even though one cannot deny the talents of the people who suddenly became world famous architects at the time, it is also disingenuous to separate their successes from the disruption that Prof Lokko introduced. And then suddenly she was gone, there was silence for some time, at least for my ears, I would here murmurs that Prof Lokko is now in the US, then the next time I heard anything was when she won a couple of prestigious awards, then suddenly the announcement came, something that I don’t think the world of architecture saw coming, and like a bomb, Prof Lokko was announced as the next curator for the Venice architecture Biennale.


This was indeed a water shed moment, and as I said, was for me an important milestone in the history of architecture. I wanted to be part of this moment, therefore when my first team and I received the news that we were rejected, it was a real blow to me. Little did I know that the South African Department of Sports Arts and Culture, along with 2BLN, Breinstorm Brand Architects and Spiece Architects would come and save the day. We were trusted with national resources to participate in what I think is going to go down in history as one of the most iconic moments in architecture during the early 21st century. I truly believe that people have failed to really acknowledge how significant this moment is, perhaps comparable to when the Bauhaus was launched, or when LeCorbusier wrote Towards a New Architecture.


What Prof Lokko did in South Africa from 2016 and what I discovered was profoundly important about her curating the Biennale is that she was a real disruption to the status quo. And even though I did not really appreciate it at the time, her actions were slowly implanting the kind of audacious sense of pride and dignity that I think is only comparable to when Sol Plaatje visited the Queen to protest the new Union of South Africa. I always say, in a time when Africans were systematically made to see themselves as inferior, disconnected from their land and resources, and made to ultimately be units of commerce and production, how is it that Sol Plaatje, and later Steve Beko found a spirit that told them that they are human and more than deserving of dignity and rights, to the extent that Plaatje took it upon himself to confront the Empire and demand that they do something about the oppressive forces in the Colony. Being at the Biennale, and witnessing the many black, African and female participants, many of them being from South Africa, has to me achieved that same spirit.


It is not to say that South Africans did not have the spirit of Sol Plaatje before Prof Lokko came along, I for example was raised by a man who refused to be turned into a thing, and spent 5 years of his life in Robbin Island for his audacious spirit. Many of my colleagues in the architecture world also possess this spirit, and one could ultimately argue that the Fees Must Fall movement was driven by this spirit, which may or may have not gained the attention of people like Prof Lokko - But when I saw what she achieved at the Biennale, and seeing her interact with all manner of important people in the higher echelons of architecture with that same spirit, not to mention the fact that she did so in the context of an incredibly successful exhibition, it occurred to me that we have reached a new reality. To be clear, I am not talking about arrogance, I am referring to the spirit that says, I as an African, a person of colour can be there and perform at the highest levels in places that are considered to be where only the best of the best participate.


For me, engaging Italian contractors, seeing the behind the scene of the whole thing, down to the way people take waste disposal seriously at the Biennale, I suddenly was given a seat at the table and I could witness with my own eyes that the people behind such events also breathe air just like me. Once you realise that it is only humans, and not gods that achieve such things, it changes something in your brain. I began to recognise the energy that was pulsating during Prof Lokko’s time in Johannesburg, and that in spite of what anyone has to say, she carried the audacious spirit and made things happen that like it or not, had never happened in the South African architecture community before. The people she invited to speak, the sponsorships she solicited, the radical disruption she caused was that of someone who did not have a slave mentality defined by timidity or fear.


Today I am still left buzzing from the Biennale, at first I came back wondering, what was the point, now what? However, my brain has slowly been catching up with how momentous the whole thing has been for me and the many other people who participated, weather they know it or not. Just to be clear, I come from a tiny dusty town called Kuruman in the Northern Cape Provence of South Africa, I grew up in a small match box house playing black-my-patile barefoot with my friend Thabo Kgwarai, and then fast forward 30 years later, thanks to the Department of Sports Arts and Culture providing resources, and Prof Lokko the platform, I am with the greatest minds in the world discussing the most incredible ideas. This means that all the Sechaba’s and Thabo’s out there need to recognise that this is possible, and that they need to also have the audacious spirit, and that those who are achieving great things in this world are just people like us, and have worked hard (and some have many resources) to get to where they are.


Say what you will about Prof Lokko and the Biennale, I believe we have not truly understood the impact of this epic moment. People like Prof Lokko, or my father for that matter, can come across as tough, and this may put many people off. My father always tells me stories of how Govan Mbeki was not an easy man to interact with, and that you would always have to have your story correct before approaching him. I have heard people say the same thing about other people who achieve the audacious spirit, even Credo Mutwa was a force. For me Prof Lokko is a force, and even if you do not agree with her ideas and academic stance, one of the most important lessons that I believe we, especially people who have always been sidelined is that, to use the words of Zozibini Tunzi, she emulates “taking up space”, and sometimes we need to be audacious to do so. She has demystified the Biennale, and what was once seemingly unattainable has now become possible. This moment is equivalent to why we celebrated Zonzibini, Black Panther, when Barack Obama became president or now when Rishi Sunak became prime minister of the UK, our previous imperial master.


What does this now mean going forward, for me it means no limits. If we thought we were soaring into the stars before, now we need to create stars, and galaxies and universes. It means that we need to have that buzz that came with the first moments of the GSA be a culture that is present throughout all the architecture schools, not necessarily the same subject matter, or methods, but the audaciousness through which those moments occurred. We need to keep the Biennale fire burning, in fact it needs to be a supernova. This is really our moment, and it will be up to us to decide where we take it. Lessly Lokko crossed the ball, now it is up to you to score.


“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living”.

Nelson Mandela


Halala Africa halala, it is our time. Wakanda Forever!

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