Soft power is often felt and almost always unseen. As a concept introduced by Joseph Nye in the early 1980s, soft power is thought of as a specific ability to get what you want. The ability to get what you want can be facilitated through coercion and payment (hard power) or attraction and persuasion (soft power). Although soft power is non-coercive, it remains complex and can retain its ability to corrupt and manipulate (much like all power). It is through this framework of soft power that I’m thinking through the Goodman Gallery’s exhibition; Soft Architectures staged in Cape Town over the summer.
Within this framework, the idea of architecture is expansive, instead of having a clear definition it functions as a series of propositions and inquiries into the intersections between space and structures of power and resistance. Engaging with the exhibition is an act of decoding and encoding inquiries by seven artists; Yto Barrada (New York, USA), Kapwani Kiwanga (Paris, France), Simone Leigh (New York, USA), Mateo López (New York, USA), Paul Maheke (London, UK), Naama Tsabar (New York, USA) and Jeremy Wafer (Johannesburg, South Africa), each of whom critically engages and exposes different interpretations of resistance against power.
The exhibition is a configuration of marks, shapes, sights and sounds that challenge sculptural space and its associations with volume; we see this, for instance, in Wafer’s drawing, Billboard (2019), Maheke’s digitally printed curtains, The River Asked for a Kiss (2017), and Barrada’s collage film Anagramme Agadir (2018).
Within this exhibition, we see varying elements and engagements with architecture. Kiwanga’s engagement with architecture is through movement where the artist questions freedom and mobility for the black body— Kiwanga presents fragments selected from the 1961 edition of the Greenbook (Alabama, California, Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi and so forth) which are then printed on archival paper and framed. Although the Greenbook has in recent years been popularised by Peter Farrelly’s 2018 movie by the same name, it has a longer historical rooting.
Initially called The Negro Motorist Green Book, it was originally compiled and published by Victor Hugo Green and served as a motorist guide detailing safe spaces where African-Americans could sleep, eat, refresh and entertain themselves while on long road trips across the country. This was in the mid-twentieth century when most Americans were enjoying the freedom of road travel due to the development of the interstate highway system (a high capacity system of highways) and the general affordability of the car. This newfound freedom was curbed for African-Americans whose ability to move freely, efficiently and safely was made difficult by legal and illegal racist rules at motels, service stations, restaurants etc.
Victor Green’s directory became an anarchic undoing of constraining systems against black bodies; a small gesture with emancipatory potential. But of course, safety continues to be a critical issue for black drivers in the United States where travelling while black remains dangerous (potentially fatal). In Kiwanga’s work, there is a tension between visibility and invisibility as strategies for both oppression and survival for marginalised bodies. Invisibility — staying in one’s car until it is safe to step into a non-racist establishment — can be read as an efficient strategy for survival, but of course, the very idea of invisibility can be oppressive. This tension is further underlined by Kiwanga’s Tripartite installations which are made with shade cloth, steel and wood; the shade cloth suggests revelation and concealment and by extension exposure and protection.
Simone Leigh’s Las Meninas (2019) helps us think through resistance in a different light; we have an urge to look in and look through the raffia structure of Las Meninas, but of course, we won’t find anything inside. Leigh’s sculpture not only undermines architectural associations of space’s relationship with enclosure it also questions the logic of architecture as “for a purpose”; to walk into, to protect from the elements of the weather, to sit on etc. Las Meninas is retreating into itself (there is no entryway) while accentuating hidden subtleties of safety and containment.
Architecture is constructed and has the power to manipulate, discipline, control and influence. It also has a tendency to persist and live on (especially if it remains unchallenged) —a key example is the resilience of a segregationist mentality through the architecture of apartheid (townships, neglected cities, prisons and abandoned government buildings). This exhibition reminds us that while it is true that architecture is powerful, human beings are ever more so resilient and continue to find methods to resist and refuse oppression. This resilience is evident in Barrada’s film, Anagramme Agadir (2018). The film revisits the life events following the disastrous 1960 earthquake in Agadir, Morocco, where the death toll is estimated to be between 12 000 and 15 000. In the face of such force and a struggle for and against the land, buildings, structures the environment, people pick themselves up and begin to rebuild.
Soft Architectures is also built on the interplay between the presence and absence of light and sound; how each of these elements play a critical role in creating certain effects and affects on the body — the sound of voices narrating tragedy (Anagramme Agadir, 2018)) against the absence of sound from Tsabar’s microphones stands and guitar strings (Closer, 2014), the deafening silence of a dead and non-existent archive in Mateo Lopez’ Archivo (archive, 2012) against the glistening reflection of Maheke’s fish tanks. We see something, hear something and ultimately feel something.
Soft Architectures is rooted in a strong conceptual framework, however, what is truly exciting is its potential to initiate a dialogue about curatorial practices (particularly within the context of a commercial gallery). As a curated project, it succeeds in generating astonishing and enriching associations between artist’s practices whose modes of creation are concerned with space and the body. It boldly fuses the political with the personal and leaps between mediums and modes ununified by a strong curatorial vision while exploring multiple topologies of various forms of resistance.
Soft Architectures runs at the Goodman Gallery Cape Town until January 17