“Trust me… I know…” Personal reflections on the decolonisation debate

Prof. Amira Osman, Associate Professor, Architecture, FADA, UJ, Johannesburg, amirao@uj.ac.za
FADA Decolonisation Conversation, 9th June 2016, UJ Arts Centre Theatre; Panel 1: What does decolonisation and decoloniality mean in the context of art, architecture and design education and in terms of knowledge production?

I will start by giving you long and short versions of my life story.

I am a Sudanese/South African architect with a 28-year career. I followed in the footsteps of my architect father. I spent my university holidays working in my father’s practice and visiting building sites. I had access to a large architectural library at home. I did my primary schooling in Bristol when my father was working on his masters and PhD degrees. I visited his office and the laboratory he worked in. He was studying “noise in domestic water systems”. He would flush toilets and record the sound – how utterly boring!

I remember playing “catch” as a child amongst old architectural structures as we would sometimes stop over in Rome on our yearly trips back home. I spent a large part of my childhood in a beautiful example of African modernist residential architecture at the staff housing of the Khartoum Polytechnic – we also rode our bicycles around the many other examples of excellent Khartoum modernism on that campus. I had access to workshops where I could see, first hand, plumbing connections and students working on bricklaying.

I studied architecture at the old University of Khartoum campus on the Blue Nile Avenue and once I graduated, I did two years of art and graphic design at another old campus in the Mughran – the meeting place of the Blue and White Niles. I also spent time at the Archaeology Department trying to fill in gaps in my education and visited Old Meroe and its surrounds several times. I “wasted” many hours in conversation at the Khartoum Press and the Centre for Afro-Asian studies. I spent some months studying housing in Rotterdam and I obtained a PhD from Pretoria. I worked for a year as a United Nations Volunteer and Housing Expert at the Department of public works in Maseru, Lesotho.

That is the long version. The short version is: I have been immersed in architecture and architectural education all of my life.

Yet, what I teach has many times been labeled as non-architectural. Indeed, some at the University of Pretoria, where I taught for almost 12 years, were concerned that it is not in line with the image of the university – that was before community engagement became popular. External reviewer/examiner have written in formal reports that what I teach is not suitable for masters level – really?! How these reviewers are re-invited and how their opinion can be considered as valid – dismissing other opinions – should be a matter for serious debate.

I have often found that (some of) my colleagues would saunter in, unprepared and speak the obvious – yet be treated with the utmost respect and reverence. I constantly have to prove myself as I am first met with suspicion. And when I do speak some sense, I sometimes get praised in a rather exaggerated manner because not much was expected from me in the first place.

I would like to share with you three personal stories:

My first story: As General Reporter of the International Union of Architects Congress in 2014 – simply meaning the head of the scientific committee tasked with the content, themes and keynotes of a major international architectural event, I aimed to facilitate for multiple voices to emerge. It was an opportunity to synthesise all of my conference expertise and to showcase concepts I believed in. Yet, I learnt to moderate my own voice; that was a life lesson! Perhaps it was a “step back and offer others a platform” attitude that only a women could bring. Some who couldn’t understand this would come up to me and say “you are too modest”. Yet, it was a deliberate strategy.

I also learnt the discretion of knowing when compromise was NOT an option! I offered equal participation opportunities through presentation slots or a paper process; the papers were selected through strict double blind peer review ensuring anonymity and fairness. Some who previously avoided UIA congresses, believing it was a celebration of star architects, became integral to UIA 2014 because of the shift it offered – under the overall theme of ARCHITECTURE OTHERWHERE, the Congress content focused on other THINKING, other PRACTICE and other COMMUNITIES. We – I worked with a large team – took the UIA from “old boys’ club” mode into something inclusive, rigorous and academically sound.

It could not be only a “fun” event – though fun activities were welcome to happen on its peripheries. It could not be allowed to portray a negative image of Africa, perceived as not having much to offer serious architectural debate or humanity. I witness current debates about blacks portrayed as monkeys with interest; the Congress was under constant threat of representing Africans as dancing, singing animated figures. We even have an image of an ape (representing Africa?) asking a high rise building (representing the west?) “shall we dance?” as a proposed newsletter cover. What fuel this would add to current “simianization” anger! It was a battle to defend the integrity of the event.

My second story: I was a member of a panel debating housing and Open Building at a recent conference. I made a strong argument for a particular way of approaching the housing crisis and presented a criticism on current approaches in terms of financing, subsidies, technology and delivery mechanisms. There was a single profile of people who almost seemed offended by my position. White-haired, middle aged to elderly, white men came up to me and the content of what they said could be summarized into three points: 1. I know because of my years of experience; 2. I have been to many places that you have not been to; 3. How many building sites have you supervised?

Instead of engaging with the issues being presented, I was constantly being told that I did not have the experience, that I have not been exposed to enough and I have not built enough to even contribute to this conversation. In other words, without really knowing anything about my career, my background, or my experience, my contribution was constantly being dismissed. This is possibly a reason why we seem to be unable to achieve any progress in the housing field. As these voices keep telling us, “trust me… I know”, they have been unable to listen to any other voice of reason. And through recent experiences, it is very clear that the loudest voices are rarely the voices of reason.

Practice in the Built Environment is difficult to change because it is culturally rooted and technology cannot solve the housing problem – unless the technology emerges from some social understanding that is collectively shared. But who is listening? Our contributions to the field are constantly dismissed. Our writing and knowledge contributions considered irrelevant. Is this selective memory, deliberate obliteration or innocence? I doubt that it is innocence!

Which leads to my third story: It was a surprise to find that we had been “written out” of the history of a department where we worked for many years. It was suspicious that it was the few black people that had worked there that were nowhere to be seen in the timeline! Innocence? We are currently witnessing a similar re-writing of the history of our own department at FADA. In architecture, obliteration takes many forms. There are many forms of exclusion that we have to contend with in a highly elitist profession. In academia, the exclusion is evident in attempts to “silence” difference; dismiss as “non-professional” any alternative forms of design, thinking or practice and a “standardising” of “other” voices and forms of expression. In many cases, we carry out that censorship ourselves: through self-doubt, lack of confidence and years of systematic conditioning.

Having studied at the University of Khartoum in the 80’s, we were presented with Roman and Greek architecture as the pinnacles of ancient civilization. A few kilometers up the Nile was ancient Meroe, which received only a cursory introduction. It was after all not in Europe, why should it warrant more attention? This, having been in the 80’s might be forgiven. Since then, there has been much more awareness of euro-centric approaches and the younger generation are starting to question this approach and seek to understand their own heritage and culture. This is most evident in the recent Khartoum student protests against the privatization of public land and the sale of the heritage campus of the university. It took a built environment issue to galvanize different political voices – this is a far cry from they 80’s.

Yet, do not be deceived! We still have a long way to go. In FADA as recent as 2015, we were reprimanded that we are 20 years behind Europe and need to catch up. I had thought that outdated “trickling down” development theories were far behind us? We have also been advised to focus mostly on the stronger students. Why? And where does that leave the many students we have that come from highly disadvantaged conditions and need additional support and easier access to the discipline?

The decolonisation debate emerged out of the student protests on 2015 – yet, it has been taken over by authority – appropriated to serve their own needs to pacify and silence voices of dissent. This has led one colleague to lament, “decolonisation has been colonised”. It has also led to some very naïve interpretations of what is African or regional. This superficial trend has been quite alarming, stripping away content and contextual relevance. What is presented as innovation is sometimes regressive rather than progressive.

I would like to invite those who often say, “trust me, I know” to a conversation. I hope we are able to engage and to share knowledge with an open mind, with generosity, integrity and above all, with humility.