Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature visual by Lehlohonolo Ndlovu
It has been an extremely thoughtful few weeks preceding this week’s article, which I have decided to title Validation and the “Vernacular”. The post is also a film photo series captured by an incredible creative and dear friend of mine, Hlohi Ndlovu. The theme at hand speaks about the reality of validation within hegemonic beauty ideal structures and furthermore tying into the forced need for validation of African and marginalized identities through the constant narrative lens of white hegemonic record of history in Architecture.
Having recently read Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut, analyzed and reflected on what is seen to be a credible source South African History by reading critiques of The South African Architectural Record journal, along with my daily reference reading being Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist thought- plenty thoughts orbiting around validation in contrast to freedom, as well as authorship and ownership that people of colour should have, have contributed to the thought process of writing this article.
In addition, as a person who responds to a visual world, and an avid instagrammer myself, I have for a long time been following accounts that journal African narratives: many different ones- non prescriptive. And so I found it most fitting to speak to the subject at hand for today through a series of images creatively co-directed with and captured by Hloli Ndlovu in a series of film shots.
I’ve cut all of my hair off.
I won’t delve into every last reason as to why I did, but I will include the necessary reasoning in relation to conveying today’s theme and the reality of what I imagine many other women of colour have gone through/that are going through or will perhaps go through.
For the longest time, even though I had never consciously admitted it to myself, my hair defined my confidence in asserting my beauty in space. From the early days of relaxed hair to breaking away to a more comfortable state of natural hair, the idea of length kept me feminine enough, kept me beautiful enough. Long red braids, longer black braids, bantu knots at night in preparation for a day of aesthetically cool black girl curls…the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I do not dispute these practices and looks; they shaped the person I am today and were pinnacle points of embracing who I was at the time of I went through the experience.
However, wow! I have never felt as liberated as I do today with NO HAIR! – None to touch, none to ridicule, none to fetishize over. And trust me, I have been in too many spaces where white men, white women, white people find the urge to touch my hair, not knowing that the act in itself is a form of invasion. One thinks of Solange’s lyrics, (very pop culture I must admit) from the song Don’t Touch My Hair “Don’t touch my soul… don’t touch my pride… don’t test my mouth”. A good friend and gloriously great vlogger, Tshegofatso Mako, speaks about an experience very similar and I would urge you to watch her video “Unapologetically Black on Youtube (reference in list). The point is, this narrative exists in many spaces. Black women across the globe can relate to one another spiritually but also sadly through the harsh reality of the enormous amount of systematic oppression we have received throughout history and still today.
As a spatial thinker, I automatically think of what I read, what I learn, and how that is projected into how I think about occupying and creating space. The typical point of departure in design lies in research, precedent and history. From my previous blog articles you will be able to tell how I find knowledge production founded in universal Western epistemology problematic. I look back to many project briefs I had once received based on finding and investigating design that speaks about the “vernacular”.
Sources of credibility, or what we have for a long time considered to be credible have been the main go-to point when finding information about the conception, and development of South African “vernacular’ architecture. My mother tongue is Tsonga, and still to this day I find a huge struggle in finding how my people innovatively housed themselves and creatively designed on both macro and micro levels. Obviously an abundant amount of dense knowledge lies in means outside of the academic discourse rooted in Westernization. And so, we look to books that have been dominantly produced through that western lens: Where our people and their spaces have been written about through the lens of westernization and colonialism, and furthermore encouraged and given highest priority in social intuitions. We can acknowledge that there has been a slow change, and I can see this through my current course reading lists including African writers- but that is also due to the agency of the lecturer as an individual. It is sadly not an embossed principle that I personally feel should be included in African institutions of knowledge.
Elisa Dainese, an architect and historian currently teaching as an Assistant Professor for Architecture at Dalhousie University writes in her Histories of Exchange: Indigenous South Africa in the South African Architectural Record and the Architectural Review 2015, “Despite an open-minded attitude that ignited interest in South African traditions among British and South African architects, the articles published in the Architectural Review and the South African Architectural Record show an asymmetry in the discourse on indigenous architecture. The articles reveal a deep imbalance within the magazines’ cultural milieu that was bolstered in the architectural exchange between European and African cultures. Both British and South African architects and historians promoted a Eurocentric perception of indigenous South Africa. In nurturing an interest in tribal architecture, the Architectural Review and the South African Architectural Record participated in the unequal power dynamics of colonialism and apartheid. As a result, the native voice was almost completely silenced in the magazines.”
And so the history of African ideals, both in bodies and space, have been tainted by the mythisazation and fetishism by virtue of being recorded through the Western lens. I personally don’t expect white people to stop writing about various topics, but marginalized groups and their ways of identification and culture cannot be recorded through a voice that does not occupy that space. These bodies and spaces are not subjects. Specimen culture, I sometimes call it.
Here lies the importance of self-definition, which Patricia Hill Collins writes about in Black Feminist Thought, “Self definition speaks to the power dynamics involved in rejecting externally defined, controlling images of Black womanhood. “ What would a world where knowledge focused on particular contexts were produced (in various media, as many communities and sites of study remain formally uneducated) by those at the centre of experiencing those contexts. A world that prioritizes those with a direct experience and way of knowing according to that particular site; with an ease of access to undiscovered histories laying dormant in storytelling and cultural practices which are mostly seen as folktales and “ethnic” “Other” forms of knowledge. What would a world look like where the “Other” is eliminated, and locality begins to dominate, allowing multiple sites to produce rich information for the world to share? I suppose considerations such as resources and sites of institution need to be considered. They should be. But the current hegemonic setup of the Global North/The West acting in a binary relationship with the “Other”- ie the rest of the world, the marginalized identity groups- maintains this production of oppression. Even in the contemporary world we occupy today.
As a generally privileged individual, I see experience this through black beauty ideals projected on Instagram and consumer marketing. Marketing where beautiful black models are remain copies of white women in their physique, with exceptionally dark and coconut oil dripping skin, or alternatively light skinned mixed black women with bouncy beautiful bronze curly afros. These women should continue to flourish! Of course they should, but by only projecting these images in pop culture, those who do not conform to this aesthetic, fall outside of the ideal. It may not be a conscious reaction, but after having gone through cutting my hair, I’ve come to invite subconscious reactions to converse on this platform. Collins extends on this further in a sub chapter of Black Feminist Thought titled “Mammies, Matriarchs and Other Controlling Images”. I do encourage you to give it a read. We can acknowledge that naturally, critical mass occurs in response to trends on a Planetary Urbanism scale which can be seen in fashion trends, Instagram lifestyle minimalist bloggers and “black girl magic” movement. It’s all a lot, and should never be deemed to prescription, but we do need to admit that these spaces maintain forms of control.
Where there is control, freedom is tested or simply non-existent; and women of colour tend to be at the core of that dilemma.
It’s all a mess I know. But we do need to begin to dismantle these troubles. At the moment, I would say that a step forward lies in making sources of knowledge inclusive, and truly addressing authorship in order to remove the production of assumed knowledge and more importantly the oppression of bodies, cultures, sites and spaces having to find validation in universal theory.
- Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Dainese, E. Histories of Exchange: Indigenous South Africa in the South African Architectural Record and the Architectural Review. 2015
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAAUyWnqSMg Unapologetically Black, Mako, T
- Photos – Hlohi Ndlovu