On Locality: Women Facing|Place

Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature visual by Amy Braaf

It’s been a rather long hiatus, and I must apologize for this. The reason being that I have recently relocated to a new city for a year. With this, came the inevitability of setting up in a new context and the mundane administrative and time-consuming tasks that came along. Rest assured, Matri-Archi Sunday posts are back up and running, so don’t neglect your wine racks.

Today, the theme of Matri-Archi’s post is LOCALITY. The theme speaks to how one is able and should be able to decide where one is local, and that that place need not necessarily be one’s place of origin. At first glance this may seem like a modern day trope in direct antitheses to many progressive conversations centered around identity and heritage, but I do find it quite fitting within this reality of reclamation. Reclaiming and taking ownership of your identity without the consent or validation of any deciding body/group of society who deem you to be a particular way because of “where you come from”. Furthermore, how we discover strings of our history in places unfamiliar, and create new histories through the heterogeneity of choice in locality.

What sparked this theme, was initially a TED talk by Taiye Selasi titled “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local” which I would urge you to all listen to, its On The Shelf as well. I am only a recent reader of Taiye Selasi’s work, with Ghana Must Go sitting on my side table, and I’m rather excited by the fact that literary discovery is infinite. Anyway,  Selasi is a writer and photographer born in London and raised in Boston. She is of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent and is now living in Berlin and Rome. Selasi’s work has a great focus on identity politics and locality in the contemporary world we find ourselves in today.

Today’s theme was also sparked by my recent relocating to Zurich, and the travel narratives of four incredible womxn (and dear friends) whose journeys I have been following rather religiously. One of the many advantages of digital space is the rewriting of distance and how that traditional notion of physicality becomes vestigial when we become a global (and close) community; a Facetime call or click away.

Along with Selasi’s novel on my side table, in and amongst the 17 tabs open on my computer, is Teju Cole’s photo journal essay titled “Far Away From Here”. His essay captured my attention because of a mutual Switzerland setting (even though in significantly different micro areas), and the way in which we can engage so intimately with other writer’s narratives through journalling and photography.

Scale becomes very important when addressing locality. Scale has a significant affect on our perceptions of place, and how intimately we can engage with the spaces we find ourselves in. Place is both trans-scalar and dynamic, and it changes according to context. It is these changes that this post is curious about. I won’t deluge on the (already) plenty and rich experiences I have had here in Zürich (yet). What I have encountered is a connection to other travellers, all women, from South Africa; all in places undiscovered, unknown for now, and perhaps strange. The response to the unknown is almost indescribable. However, in attempts to make that describable, Matri-Archi presents to you Women Facing | Place, a series of narratives speaking about locality and place. Matri-Archi is here to provide a platform for multiple narratives so that retrospectively in the far or near future, we can record an intersectional knowledge and maybe call it history or something like that. Definitely something less homogenous and single minded though; histories(?)

This blog post is longer than usual, but I can promise you that it is worth the read.


Woman Facing|Place

(find issue booklet link at end, and On the Shelf)

Download pdf:  Women Facing | Place

or view online at issuu below:


Place: feeling, sound, memory, form.

Feeling: fear, overwhelming, exciting, nostalgia, curiosity, temperature…

Sound: language [known?unknown], shouting, singing, sneezing, spitting, silence.

Memory: Known, Unknown? Transient? Temporal, Fast, Slow, Go.

Form: Building, street, texture, body, skin, face;

Place. [undefined]


Amy Braaf                  South Korea/ Vietnam          My Mother’s Jar

Tshego Mako             Delhi , India                            Space and Routine

Gabrielle Cohen        Chendgu, China                     Maneuvering Space

Josie Dalberg             Medellin, Colombia               Repetition: A revealing and recording

My Mother’s Jar | Amy Braaf

There was a jar that my mother kept in our first house.

It was slightly larger than the average jar and inside it were different notes of money from all over the world.

Every country she went to she made sure to keep a note from it, its now something I do. When she was pregnant with me she went to Hong Kong. After I came to Korea on my own all of my inhibitions I had left behind, however as a result my loved ones were left behind too. I decided to go to Hong Kong at the age of 22, and I’ve been collecting memories of faces ever since.

I am currently writing from Vietnam, a space that I feel quite uneasy in despite the fact that its perceived to be a “getaway”. But all I can feel is myself pulling further away from myself and falling into places that no longer accommodate me.

There is an enigmatic pull that cradles you when you come to live in a country on your own. But as time passes it fades and all that you are left with is a fear that has been planted in us as women from the moment we were born.

Whether its taxi drivers placing his hand on my lap in Vietnam, or a man trying to lure me into a hotel in Hong Kong or every invasive experience I had as a woman in South Africa. When will I be free in my body? I try and find that peace in new countries and continents, but I dread that I run out places to run to.

Its interesting to see how the air tastes in one country in comparison to another. The rain feels like a warm cup of tea in Korea, in Hong Kong it feels like a sharp stab of rejection, and Vietnam’s rain makes me feel unwelcome. Its so unpredictable that was soon as I feel safe and at home it changes. Perhaps its trying to wash me out – back to where I came from. Wherever that is. I’m not quite sure.

My photography has been the antidote to my feeling of constant displacement, I am mixed race woman and I’ve never felt like I belong to any group or society. But I find peace in my art – I lose myself in my lens, I dive into an objective viewer. A voyeuristic eye roaming cities that I can never belong to but as time goes on I am finding a place in myself – a home that goes wherever I do.

Photos by Amy Braaf


Space and Routine | Tshego Mako

Delhi Bridge’ depicts’ the everyday motions and movements of Delhi goers, myself in particular. Although cityscapes and traffic are not exclusive to Delhi, it is however an element that makes up this city. Over time it has become apparent that kinetic cities are where I thrive most. It is evident that there is a hustle and bustle nature about Delhi. All this is subdued when I am removed from ground level and am transporting myself across the main road only to return to ground and resume my daily routine.

Space and Routine, shortfilm by Tshegofatso Mako


Maneuvering Space | Gabrielle Cohen

I’ve moved to a city in which I literally cannot breathe. I thought I understood what air pollution was but as it turns out I fall into a category appropriately termed “sensitive groups” and my childhood asthma has been roused from its slumber. The shortness of breath and pursuit of air purifiers created an unexpected context for my move to China. China is also known for its hard water. This means that there is a high quantity of metals, calcium and chlorine in the water. You can’t drink from the tap and my skin and scalp have been irritated.

Moments into my journey both air and water had betrayed me and they had both done so in extreme heat.

In the event that it is not already painfully apparent that you are an alien in this land you should try and ask for a showerhead that purifies water using Google translate in your nearest Walmart. That will certainly get the point across.

I left the store with two water-filtering showerheads and a bottle of wine and the next day I cut the bulk of my hair off. I could immediately breathe easier.

Chengdu is noisy and dirty and unapologetically itself. It moves and breathes in a way that I’ve never experienced in any city in my life. Apartments are stacked upon each other. Chinese people stare at me intensely and then forget about me almost immediately, save for those that take not-so-subtle photographs of me with their phones, there is no move to interact with my westernism or to try to understand my English as many suggested would be the case. Being Chinese is celebrated.

Where I live the roads are wide and long creating areas free from tall buildings and fostering an illusion of space and air when you look up. The shortness of breath reinforces its illusory nature.

Outwardly, being here is anonymity and invisibility. Inwardly it is the puzzle of navigating a new space, which does not resemble any of the spaces that I’ve inhabited before, it is solitude and a lot of confusion.

It is also a lot of magic. The people are housed and fed (at least, where I live) and if you walk along the river at dusk you see groups of old women dancing and men fishing in the middle of this urban city. They aren’t doing it for you. I have not been groped or intimidatingly ogled at and the fresh produce is cheap and nourishing. I walked home at 2am alone with my earphones in my ears and I was safe and I felt like a more focused Frances from Frances Ha and I immediately put on Modern Love by David Bowie and bounded down the road.

Don’t walk on the right side of people here because their spit will land right on your shoe.

(Made In China, Higher Brothers)

Repetition: A revealing and recording | Josie Dalberg

I have been battling with the question of whether or not, given a finite amount of time, one should attempt to see multiple countries or if one should rather take that time to settle in one place. The former allows one to experience the diversities of place and to be witness to a far greater spectrum of realities and contexts. The latter, however, gives opportunity to do more than merely witness. Extended time (if utilized with meaning and respect) allows one to move beyond a mere surface-level engagement with place and its people. It gives opportunity to absorb, process and learn and it gives time to engrave place deeply and wholly into memory.

I do not dismiss that this can be achieved in short visits too but from my month-long stay in the Colombian city of Medellín, after six weeks of fast-travel, I feel confident in saying that settling leads to more substance.

Settling allows for repetition.

Repetition allows for familiarisation.

Familiarisation, when done with curiosity and intention, leads to two things, amongst many others:

  1. An understanding of processes of place, of one’s own movements through those places as well as how they are navigated by others.
  2. Familiarisation with foreign place may, on occasion, run parallel with those to whom the space belongs becoming familiar with oneself and vice versa.

This second point, for me, has proven to be a special one. It has lead to names being learnt and repeated, warmer greetings, and conversations that extend beyond the usual “de donde son” (where are you from), despite my mediocre Spanish. My visits to the local “tienda” (corner store), at least three-times-weekly, have evolved from quick impersonal consumer experiences into lingering moments. Conversations are now had with the owner and the members of his family — who have all been met on various visits — are known and friendly faces. I am no longer referred to as “gringo” (a shift that went hand-in-hand with a 50% price drop in their avocados, I’ll add) and they are no longer anonymous. They have become engraved in my memory of this particular place, an inherent part of my settling in and familiarising with a city once so unknown by me.

This same sense of familiarisation is achieved through walking. As students of architecture we have been taught to “map the city through walking,” paying attention to how we walk and how different intentions in our walking reveal different layers of our environment. This concept stresses the idea that repeating an exercise does not mean repeating an experience. Rather, this compounding of variables of place allows for an understanding of said place[s]’s multiple states, functions and frequenters. As importantly, this repetition of walking and re-walking is a tool for recording, for embedding space into memory. I think of it as muscle memory, putting one’s body and attention through the same motions until moving through that space becomes second nature, allowing for focus to shift onto details previously missed. A more complex understanding, a more formulated recording.

In walking — being on the ground and engaging with the finer grain of the city — one faces place in a full frontal and totally committed manner.

On the streets the city throws itself at you without filter.

It drills the local language into you then forces you to twist your tongue in reciprocation of said language, challenging you to communicate beyond flustered hand-gestures.

It forces you to confront not only your surroundings and those who occupy it but also yourself:

What is my intention here?

How do I achieve this?

What am I contributing to the space?

What am I taking from it?

Am I engaging with respect?

Which of my pre-conceived ideas are being dismantled?

These questions become easier to answer in the “re-walking,” in the reflection for which repetition allows. One feels oneself relax and loosen in these second, third, fourth navigations. No longer entirely submissive to space and its foreignness, one returns with the assurance of pre-gained knowledge and the confidence that said knowledge will be compounded upon.

This is how I have been facing place. And this is how I etch place into memory. Repeating the lines of navigation by walking  and re-walking until place is so deeply engraved into the mind that it would take much to be entirely lost.

“Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.”

– W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995)

Outro | Moving, Mapping

Place is undefined, and in our stories we realize that it will remain undefined; situated in our particular experiences and characters. Perhaps we will see the overlays, the very overlays and collisions that become a web of Intersectional Space. We may be miles apart but the known and unknown places we read in each others’ journeys may begin to taste familiar. Matri-Archi speaks about Lived Lines and Intersectional Space. We are, in our movement, mapping lived lines, and as we bump into and add to the places we experience, we create Intersectional Space.



More Reading:

(On The Shelf)

– Teju Cole- Known and Strange Things, 2016

– Teju Cole- Far Away From Here, 2015

-Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m local” https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local TED Talk, 2014


Cover photo by Amy Braaf.

Thank you to Gabrielle Cohen, Josie Dalberg, Tshegofatso Mako and Amy Braaf for contributing. 

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