Mpho Matsipa, architect and educator, Johannesburg

with Asha Veal Brisebois


Skype call between Mpho Matsipa and Asha Veal Brisebois

Mpho Matsipa is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Architecture at Columbia GSAPP and Curator at Studio-X Johannesburg. She is also a researcher at the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. After completing her professional degree in Architecture at the University of Cape Town, with a distinction in design, Mpho was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and later, a Carnegie Grant as a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mpho has worked as an architect and she has been shortlisted in two national design competitions. She has curated several exhibitions, including the South Africa Pavilion at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale (2008), and she curates Studio-X Johannesburg, an experimental public platform on architecture and the city. Her research interests include globalization and urbanism in African cities, spatial justice, and culture, race, and representation. In 2016, Mpho was co-convener of the first “Other Desires: The African City” conference at Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. 

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MPHO MATSIPA: One of the things that I’m trying to understand or to explore is the possibility of new languages and different languages for speaking to African experiences of modernity. I think that there’s been a lot of work done by scholars like Edward Said and Valentin Mudimbe around the way in which Africa or ‘the Orient’ has been produced through colonial fantasy and colonial desires, but I think that there is scope, particularly in the field of architecture and planning, to think about the ways in which Africans have actually produced space in African cities, and the forms of desire and the desires that Africans have for themselves about these cities.

Mudimbe would say that when other people write about Africa, what they’re actually writing about is something else. So a lot of conceptual frameworks that emerge out of a kind of European epistemology then get transposed onto Africa, and that makes it difficult to make sense of African experiences, and so Africa and Africans become signs of something else.

What the conference is trying to do is to move beyond this kind of critique of the production of knowledge, and really think through and explore the ways in which Africans are producing space, and the ways that Africans are thinking about histories of modernity, and the role of Africans in actually co-producing the cities and finding ways to navigate the complexities, and the contradictions, and the paradoxes that modernity and modernization brought, including the complexities of the colonial project.

What I also find in my own reading is that very few scholars take radical African thinkers seriously when thinking about modernity in Africa, so we very quickly move from the period of colonization to a discourse of development that is sponsored by the IMF and the World Bank. There’s a whole set of African thinkers. You mentioned Senghor. There’s Julius Nyerere. There’s Kwame Nkrumah, who don’t feature strongly in thinking about modern African history from an architectural point of view, so I’m very interested in what a return to these kinds of desires could mean in the way that we think about the future.

“The future is not inevitably European or American. The future could be something else…”

MM: For me, it’s an evolving discourse as I think much more carefully about what a de-colonial curriculum would mean, not just in America but also in South Africa, where de-colonization is at the center of a lot of conversations that interesting people are having in my country. It really is about thinking about what de-colonial practice is, not just a critique of colonial epistemologies, but what does it mean to produce a different archive, and what conditions of possibilities can rethinking history, rethinking the city produce for an imagination for the future city?

The future is not inevitably European or American. The future could be something else, but then one has to take Africa, and African experiences, and African conditions seriously, and also creative possibilities seriously, in order to arrive at that. It’s a complete rejection of these kinds of authoritative texts of development, and something much more speculative and open-ended. It’s a conversation among spatial practitioners, philosophers, form-makers, artists around four basic themes. It’s wide, wide open at the moment.

MM: I studied in Cape Town in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I’m basically part of, I’m the first generation of people to go to university in post-apartheid South Africa. I started university as an undergrad in 1995. The early 90s were a period of immense optimism, and so our generation or my generation was far less politicized than the current generation, people who are in their early to mid-20s now.

Their calls around de-colonization are much more urgent, much more forceful than they were 20 years ago, and I think it’s done a lot to reanimate the intellectual space that we inhabit. But it also means that there’s a lot of resistance. There’s a lot of resistance to de-colonizing the syllabus, de-colonizing the curriculum, de-colonizing institutions.

…to unsettle those easy silences and to create openings, openings that really are not about inclusion, but actually shifting the terms of the conversation altogether.”

MM: We had a Studio-X pop-up in Johannesburg two weeks ago called Spatial Practices Liberation, and it was a book launch for Mario Gooden’s book, Dark Space. One of the things that happened in that conversation, and it was an incredible night, particularly the conversation, was a very public acknowledgement by young people, students, that the professionalization of architecture and education in architecture didn’t allow for the experience of the majority. There was a kind of turning around of this idea of black people and people of color as the problem, and rather thinking about the discipline as the problem that can’t accommodate the lived reality of pretty much everybody who was in the room on that night.

I think, returning to your question around curatorial practice, that this is where for me the challenge around meaningful curatorial work comes in, so to unsettle those easy silences and to create openings, create openings that really are not about inclusion, but actually shifting the terms of the conversation altogether.

I have no answers for it because I’m not trained as a curator, but I understand certain things around spatial cues, so maybe if you ask me about the people who I would be interested in working with.

I understand mapping, and I can think at multiple scales, but I think actually working with a curator and thinking about the city and relationships could be something that’s really, really interesting.

What is interesting would be to think about forms of exchange that animate spaces that are not considered valuable, spaces that are often devalued and overlooked as belonging to the public domain. There’s a huge difference, particularly this is probably true for cities everywhere, but I experience it quite acutely when I travel to different cities in Africa, that the physical form of the city and the cultural life of the city don’t map onto each other in ways that are immediately legible. I think that this kind of, I don’t know what the word…you might know what the word is. A disjuncture is not quite the right word, but they kind of slide past each other and they intersect in weird kinds of assemblages. I think that for me, this is the interesting condition, that the physical form which is the product of these kinds of weird, white epistemologies about civilization and modernity, and the actual, everyday spatial practices have different topologies, and so the curatorial work is like thinking about what a new configuration or a new spatial condition could be where people actually feel welcome.

ASHA: That was perfect. You nailed it.

MM: What?

AVB: You wrapped up everything we’ve just chatted about for the past hour and brought it together, and then at the end there was this ‘welcome.’

MM: I’m just riffing off also what you were saying, about the kind of unease that one feels. Maybe it has different registers for you as a woman, as a black person in America than it does for me as an African and a woman in a colonial city. I think that there’s always for me a very pronounced sense of dis-ease, and it’s ingrained.

It’s one of the first things that I remember in moving across different conditions in Johannesburg as a child. Moving from the township to school in the suburbs, there was always this aesthetic violence that happens and that marks you in a number of different ways. I think that all of these things, thinking about the languages of art and the languages of physical space and planning, is really about trying to find this other space that we can’t fully describe yet.

“I’m not trained as a curator, but I understand certain things around spatial cues…”

MM: Last week I was in Johannesburg, and I had the privilege of spending two days with a performance artist and a visual artist called Senzeni Marasela. She has basically been in character for the last three years as this figure, persona called Theodora, who ostensibly is a rural black woman who has been walking around the streets of Johannesburg looking for her migrant laborer husband.

She and I … and she is in full character all the time. We go out to some restaurant in the north of Johannesburg, and we’re with two of her children, but when we arrive at the restaurant, the staff all assume that she works for me, and all questions around menu, around childcare, around seating arrangements are addressed exclusively to me. That was one of my most acute experiences of how … no, it wasn’t my experience, but it brought an acute awareness to the ways in which certain kinds of black women are invisible-ized in the city, in a very sort of everyday way, and my own complicity in this, because I was read as a madam, so it was assumed that she works for me and the children are mine, and her job is pretty much to help me in all my reproductive labor stuff.

That encounter was actually quite strange, because it’s also not an encounter that I would have anticipated between two black women. There’s class politics. There’s the spatial politics of the city. There’s gender politics that get played out in that one moment or in that one encounter.

I think that performance art is really, really interesting. I find that people who do performance art have quite a keen awareness of space, and spatial conditions, and different locations, and transfer points, and pressure points in the city.

  • with Asha Veal Brisebois

    Mpho Matsipa:

    Asha Veal Brisebois: