Written by Khensani de Klerk | Feature visual by Khensani de Klerk adapted from Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair music video
“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect. It means that I must everlastingly seek to cleanse myself of the hatred and the contempt that surrounds and permeates my identity, as a woman, and as a Black human being, in this particular world of ours.” – by activist, poet and writer June Jordan, 1978.
The perceived notion of self-care, through the not-so-lovely aspect of fast paced pop culture often alludes to the idea of the act being a trend, or an aesthetic movement of egotistic #blackgirlmagic. I had recently read a few essays in a book titled Participation in Art and Architecture, which speaks about the potential and often inherent protest in the aesthetic of objects and acts, and how through objects and acts having a particularl aesthetic, possess initiative and maintain agency. Shortly after reading these essays, I listened to my weekly does of podcast Black Girl In Om (BGIO), which is a space that allows women of colour to breathe easy; which altogether led to the culmination of this week’s FOTW. The specific episode (number 33) is titled “Higher and Higher: A Lesson in Vibrating Higher Daily with Lalah Delia” and is all about maintaining the right energies for progress, growth and fruition through self-care. Yes perhaps it sounds gushy, but its extremely important. To explain why, this FOTW has been set up into 4 short themes, with mention to a few (of many) brilliant, intellectual and fervent individuals who have and continue to advocate for the survival of black womxn in this urbanizing landscape. There will naturally be a focus on the spatial industry, to reveal the pressing need for this culture in architectural discourse and practice.
Setting the Scene
If you are black and female, then you already know that you belong to a group that, in the eyes of some, has a demeaned spot in history. But if there’s something that you want to do, you just look past it. I’ve encountered racism and sexism, but to succeed, I can’t focus solely on that. – African American Architect and Founder of Roberta Washington Architects, PG. (Syrkett, Warerkar and Sisson 2017)
As it stands currently in South Africa, it is shocking (yet no surprise) that there are only 65 registered black female architects in the whole country. That is less than 2% of the total amount of architects registered with the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) (Niekerk 2017). The reasons behind this are copious, and often difficult to pinpoint direct solutions to. This article won’t particularly go into that, but what is important to note is that the core of the problem is centred around the structuralism of the profession favouring the progress of white men, followed by other privileged positions that then end up at the bottom of the food chain where black women tirelessly tread (read up on “Dead Fish on the Beach: The Problem with “Women in Architecture”).
The issue is further emphasized when looking at the patriarchal code of the profession and the evident oppression that is still being actively conducted outside of the historical and institutional structuralism of Architecture. In light of the Shitty Men in Architecture list that was recently created by (we clap hands for) Suzanne LaBarre and continues to circulate; women in schools of Architecture and practices world-wide are speaking out about the sexual abuse and rape culture that nonchalantly exists in our work spaces by blatantly calling out those men who have been sustaining such misconduct. It is apparent that patriarchy runs rapidly and viciously through the channels of the architectural industry.
One might say that this is changing, with initiatives such as WiASA and multiple press releases from professional bodies being released, but the current situation reflects how the agency (against all forces that attempt to suppress it) of black women is the only thing allowing them to survive in industry. From tolerating and trudging through abuse with strategy in mind, to uplifting one another through example, it is the return to self-importance that empowers not only the individual black womxn, but encourages and gives fuel to the collective as a whole to progress, exist and breathe on our own terms. As a black womxn in the industry myself, these words are a living mantra.
Self-Care as Self Preservation
Audre Lorde describes this act in A Burst of Light simply: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” (Lorde 1988). In a world where no space has been designed or reserved for black womxn, the political pattern of POC women being in minority conditions persists. In addition, the globalizing world has set a pace of fast living and instant gratification, which serves to feed the ego. This ego-feeding monster exploits individualism and is a driver of quick media consumerism. And so, as mentioned in the BGIO podcast episode, the increasing prevalence of black womxn returning to slow living (taking a break to focus on the essence of being, relationships, physical conditioning and mental well-being) is yes, an act of self-care; but beyond that is also an act of self-preservation in order to survive being consumed in a globalized and politicized condition that seeks only for the betterment of Eurocentric benefit.
Self-Care as Armor
Self-Care and the sharing of self-care with other women is a quintessential factor that has allowed women to survive the architectural and other male-dominated industries. The empowerment in self-assertion is a form of armor in itself by virtue of it’s agency. With an active step to giving time to yourself and exiting the productionist-industry mindset for a moment, self-care becomes an unapologetic way to both giving the middle finger to capitalistic pace but more importantly introduces a way of being and living that returns to the essence and spirit of being – an inherent trait in POC ancestry. Thus, by exercising self-care actively as black womxn, we are unlocking ourselves from ancestral amnesia that is pacified by consumerism and colonialism. In the BGIO episode, specific mention is made to how self-care practices are not new to POC women but are made to be resold to us through the consumerist virtual culture of trends today. Self-care for black women is simply a return to our natural practice.
You may be asking yourself (and I’m suspecting that you aren’t a POC womxn if you are) how the ego is detached from the increasing prevalence of self-care amongst POC #blackgirlmagic women. Well, it is the sensationalism of the trend that can be (but is not) subject to being twisted into an ego-trip. We are aware of the selflessness in self-care through the increasing amount of black collective and safe spaces emerging. Artists such as Lady Skollie shine light on the need for black women to avoid competition as if we have limited space for success (check her painting, “Kind of, sort of united we stand: the ups and downs of competitive sisterhood” which remains a constant reminder to many in my opinion). BGIO extends on the importance of this and is essentially one of the many reasons collective and safe spaces such as itself and Matri-Archi exist.
When one POC women succeeds in the industry, it encourages another to realize that it is attainable, and in doing so gives strength and endurance for other POC women to collectively widen the gaps and create space for each other to flourish. At the same time, reasons for reflections such as this article, reveal that it is the dismantling of structuralism and not solely a surface value increase of POC women into the industry that will transform and allow for inclusive progress. ‘If you don’t already see how patriarchy and misogyny are embedded in the ways in which people write and think, bringing women to it isn’t going to change it. You have to fundamentally do both” – Mabel O Wilson, Founder and Architect of Studio &. (Syrkett, Warerkar and Sisson 2017)
Self-care is important. Not just for you, but for the greater collective. Unapologetically taking care of yourself, and showing that off is a statement that permeates boundaries of constant oppressive confinements. So, lets not be narrow minded when thinking about black women and their baths, shared notes, praise and self-importance mantras- it is a source of food that feeds our basic existence and armors us with tolerance, endurance and strive.
“Black women’s self-care is subversive because to take care of ourselves means that we disrupt societal and political paradigms that say that Black women are disposable, unvalued. Indeed, people and things that aren’t cared for are considered expendable. So when we don’t take care of ourselves, we are affirming the social order that says black women are disposable.” (The Feminist Wire)
- Syrkett, Asad, Tanay Warerkar, and Patrick Sisson. 16 architects of color speak out about the industry’s race problem. February 22, 2017. https://www.curbed.com/2017/2/22/13843566/minority-architects-diversity-architecture-solutions-advice (accessed March 19, 2018).
- Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light. Michingan: Firebrand Books, 1988.
- Jordan, June. “Where is the Love?” In Moving Towards Home: Political Essays, by June Jordan, 82. London: Virago, 1978.
- Niekerk, Garreth Van. South African Architecture Is Failing To Transform. November 7, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/11/07/south-african-architecture-is-failing-to-transform_a_23268987/ (accessed March 18, 2018).
- Stierli, Martino, and Mechtild Widrich. Participation in Art and Architecture: Spaces of Interaction and Occupation. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016.