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18:00  SAST


Unsettling Ground: Beyond the Terra Nullius

It is always the same story.
Barren land. Undeveloped land. Terra nullius.
Barbaric, uncivilized inhabitants. Backward peoples. Jaahil log.
The colonial drive to occupy. The colonial drive to expel.
The colonial need for self-aggrandizement and dishonest justifications.
The myth of the greater god. The myth of knowing better.
La mission civilisatrice. “National development.”
It is always exactly the same story
(Anwar, 2021).

Unit 19 defines architecture as the production of substitute grounds that, in the context of settler-colonial states such as South Africa, operate as negating grounds. These grounds enable sustained practices of displacement (and dispossession1) and erasure of the myriad of meanings and corresponding futures originally rooted to them.

The Unsettling Ground studio works to unravel and disentangle the ongoing settler-colonial legacy of the captured grounds that the Architectural profession inscribes, and in that way, sustains its captivity. The first way that this unravelling occurs is by retiring approaches to ‘land’ – which delimit our spatial imaginings within the autopoietic confines of settler capitalist conceptions – and rather, adopting approaches to ‘grounds’, or the earth’s surface (and the first architectural plane), absent of its inscribed socio-economical conceptions. While the word ‘ground’ is defined as a natural condition (ground, 2021), ‘land’ is defined as an applied economic conception of the ground, a currency, embodying in its meaning notions of ownership, territory and marketized characterizations of productivity (land, 2021). The Unit approaches these and other such conceptions  of the ground as ‘substitute grounds’, and has students suspend those modi operandi, to conjure and catalyse old and new ground philosophies and their accompanying socio-spatial imaginaries.

The Urdu term Jaahil log in the epigraph means ‘ignorant people’ as its direct translation. Its etymology outlines its meaning as ‘barbaric’ or ‘un-civilized’ metaphorically, and ‘illiterate’ literally (jaahil, 2021). It is, in part, on the basis of this misdiagnosed illiteracy by European colonial settlers that psychiatrist Frantz Fanon claimed that separate notions of the ‘Human’ were founded upon i.e., the literate and superior humanitas2, and the wretched anthropos3 (Mignolo, 2015). This perception  of the native as illiterate and barbaric was fundamental to the conception of ground-as-land through philosophies of improvement and development by founder of the British modern political economy, William Petty. Petty conflated the value of land (measured on the basis of its productive capacity in that political economy) with the value of people, to create what Brenna Bhandar (2020) refers to as “‘racial regimes of ownership’” (Bhandar, 2020). These new regimes tied socialization, the practice of politics and definitions of the Human to the very definitions of the ground, where any  use of property that did not bare the hallmarks of individual ownership was deemed inferior, less valuable, and available for appropriation as a terra nullius4 (Bhandar, 2020).

In 2022, the Unit will delve into the empty land myth (or what is known in South Africa as the ‘second Hamite myth’) on a site of past and present contestations between the Xhosa and the British, namely Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. As cartographers, archaeologists and conjurers,students will propose revised possibilities for this terrain through the Unit’s primary methods and mediums of mapmaking. The Unit will conduct its research across four scales at different stages of the design research process and students will be required to produce work of a high resolution through skilled technification tools that include assembly, phasing, and simulation.

  1. The word dispossession means to “deprive (someone) of land, property, or other possessions” (dispossession, 2021). It is used tentatively in the framing text as it implies that those who have been dispossessed held the same marketized relationship to land, and on the basis of this shared notion of ownership was the land passed  from one hand to another. This negating misnomer suffocates the other notions ofmeaning that those who have been separated from land might have held, making the extent of loss inaccurately recorded as a loss of property only – or a possessable thing – while that loss embodies a much more expansive meaning. To frame it as dispossession is to negate other knowledge systems and indigenous ontologies.

  2. Humanitas is a term that signifies an exceptional kind of humanity capable of engaging in both empirical and transcendental knowledge production (Sakai, 2010:455). This referred to Europeans only as they were seen to be the only ones with this capacity.

  3. Anthropos is a term reserved for a lesser kind of humanity who participate only in empirical knowledge-production, i.e., although they are able to produce knowledge, they were deemed incapable of reflecting upon and criticizing their modus operandi (Sakai, 2010:455).

  4. Terra nullius is a Latin expression meaning “nobody’s land” (Terra nullius – Wikipedia, 2021). Note the use of the word ‘land’ in the translation of the expression Mirjana Ristic (2018:34-38) offers a practice-based vocabulary to this spatial classification, and refers to it as ‘spatiocide’, where entire landscapes are targeted with the aim of reverting it back to mere land by wiping out origin communities (Ristic, 2018:34-38).

Tuliza Sindi
Unit Leader
Tuliza Sindi is an architecture lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture and has been Unit 19 Leader since 2020. She approaches architecture as the programming and production of substitute grounds that, in the context of settler-colonial states such as South Africa, operate as negating sociopolitical grounds. Across four scales, she practices space-making through the lenses of sociology and cartography to disentangle the captured nature of territorialised grounds and to reposition the role of architectural practice from one of maintaining the status quo to projecting from liberated ground conditions.

Tshwanelo Kubayi
Unit Assistant
Tshwanelo Kubayi obtained her Masters in Architecture at the Graduate school of Architecture in 2021. Her work’s interests lie in the representation of and social constructs surrounding black women within present-day society. Her research seeks to deconstruct existing socio-political representations of black women within domestic spaces, currently focusing on the social violence that is maintained against domesticated black women through suburban domestic workers’ quarters. Her time at the GSA finessed her explorations of unconventional forms of design research practice through performative storytelling methods such as ‘narrative labour’ that embodies time and space, performer and audience.

Miliswa Ndziba
Unit Assistant
Miliswa Ndziba’s interests lie in historical South African space-making practices, while consumed with the desire to foster the human need for beauty and creativity. Her work approaches architecture as the practice of manifesting the fantasy of persons or people through space-making. Through Saidiya Hartman’s ‘Critical Fabulation’, as well as performance and play, she reimagines the utopic visions of reality wherein black South Africans were rendered invisible by the apartheid regime as they employed spatial segregation to produce their architecture of fantasy.


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