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Recharting Histories: Cave_bureau and Firelei Baéz at Louisiana
Starting from their overlapping solo exhibitions at the Louisiana, KoozArch spoke with Kabage Karanja of Cave_bureau and with Firelei Baéz; their parallel answers expose synchronicities in the conversation below.

Starting from their overlapping solo exhibitions at the Louisiana, KoozArch spoke with Kabage Karanja of Cave_bureau and with Baéz; their parallel answers expose synchronicities in the conversation below. The unique research of Nairobi-based Cave_bureau is showcased as the last in The Architects Studio series of exhibitions at the Louisiana. Examining the origins of humanity while focussing on decolonisation as one of the most pressing challenges of our time, their approach looks at how architects might assist in remembering cultural inheritance while facing the future. Simultaneously, in Trust Memory Over History, Dominican-American artist Firelei Báez creates composite canvases that juxtapose inherited truths with concepts like history, and artworks which combine folktales, colonial occupation and sci-fi speculation.

KOOZ Firelei, many of the works presented in Trust Memory Over History take existing maps and blueprints as a point of departure. How does this speak of the inheritances that you bring with you into your practice, in terms of both content and approach?

FIRELEI BAÉZ Every archival canvas serves as a metaphysical map to which layers of history are added through each image, thereby recontextualizing them. I think they create a well-suited arena in which to juxtapose my more fantastical elements – by positioning traditional legends and folklore as producers of diasporic memory versus reinforcers of historical narration. My background stems from between the two countries on the island of Hispaniola, where there are fraught politics over place and heritage, so I do not only bring my own lived experience to my work in this way, but I bring with me all the history I grew up with.

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KOOZ Cave_bureau defines itself as a “bureau of architects and researchers charting explorations into architecture and urbanism within nature”, where the use of words as “charting” and “explorations” are a clear reference to both the 3D mapping tools and decolonial approach you deploy. Could you expand on these terms and how they have come to define your practice?

CAVE_BUREAU These terms stem from our focus on an ongoing practice of critical cartography. At Cave_bureau, we frequently start with a world map which we try to playback in reverse, since within our planet’s celestial context, it is well understood that there really is no up or down, and the present orientation of the world is in most part an imperial and colonial construct. We look at these tools of representation as past and present devices of power, of control, and of extraction deployed throughout history that we try to take control over in our own small but yet free radical way. This in turn becomes the means through which we set our agenda — an agenda which we believe is truly local, that touches the ground and the communities we work with. Communities who are in tune with the natural systems that are changing at an accelerated pace, and yet still keeps us all alive, but to which we have grown profoundly disconnected.

In a way, our practice is really about pursuing multiple acts of repair on multiple scales. From the scale of the continental and the global, in terms of our past, all the way down to granular and regional thinking about the Rift Valley context, the cradle of mankind where we find ourselves seated, even zooming in further to the city neighbourhoods that have transgressed over time, right down to the community level and the 1:1 scale. Architecture can only be made richer through a deep engagement with these multiple scalar sites at the same time — as opposed to being co-opted, unfortunately, in many respects, complicit with a lot of the challenges we face in this age of crisis. This idea of exploration to unpack this, is very important for us as we are able to use the practice of architecture as a tool for constant learning and creative reckoning; in a post-colonial context, architecture has such a vital and unbridled role to play within that process.

"We look at these tools of representation as past and present devices of power, of control, and of extraction deployed throughout history that we try to take control over in our own small but yet free radical way."

- Kabage Karanja, Cave_bureau.

In a way, our practice is really an act of repair on multiple scales. From the scale of the continental and the global, in terms of our past, all the way down to granular and regional thinking about the Rift Valley context, the cradle of mankind where we find ourselves seated, even zooming in further to the city neighbourhoods, right down to the community level and the 1:1 scale. I think that architecture can only be made richer through a deep engagement with these multiple scalar sites — as opposed to being co-opted, unfortunately, in many respects, complicit with a lot of the challenges we face in this age of crisis. This idea of exploration is very important for us as we are able to use the practice of architecture as a tool for constant learning; in a post-colonial context, architecture has such a vital role to play within that process.

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KOOZ The archival material used in your canvases primarily originates from the historical context of European and North American dominance, forged through colonisation, enslavement, and the exploitation of natural resources. Could you expand on the variety of drawings used, from architectural to cartographies and board games, and how this foundational framework influences the content layered atop?

FB A lot of the time, the content of the archival canvas interfaces with what I add on top of it. All my canvases — whether they are actual maps or diagrams or board games — are ultimately a representation of space. I feel that creating figures on top of these depictions of space gives them a new dimension — it allows me to play with the concepts that the original material embodies and to mould them: placing bodies that exist on boundaries between landscapes, for example, because that places them on more abstract boundaries as well. The boundaries that reinforce those constructs that are built on the history of the land. I think that subjectivity helps me blur those lines in my own work.

"All my canvases — whether they are actual maps or diagrams or board games — are ultimately a representation of space. I feel that creating figures on top of these depictions of space gives them a new dimension."

- Firelei Baéz.

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KOOZ Cave_bureau’s outlook on the built environment is defined through three categories, namely Origin, Void and Made. Could you expand on these categories further and how you deploy these to unpack the systems and structures that govern both human and non-human life within and without the decolonised African City?

CB This is a strategy we have been using to identify the abrasive and impacting effects of the colonial machinery and its operations on the city, which — amongst other effects — resulted in the partitioning of the city and the creation of both real and imaginary boundaries. What we try to highlight today is how these cities were segregated as sites of control, where the imperial or colonial heart was literally seated.

We start off with the (romanticised) idea of the “origin” as being this natural pre-colonial condition, one which crosses all territories and which wasn't defined as a rural realm, even within tribal communities. There was no such thing as the rural, and no such ideal or aspiration for an urban condition. It was almost everywhere and nowhere at the same time. With colonisation, the city began to be framed through boundaries, whereby one had to have permits to walk through different territories. We try to highlight this through the idea of the “made”. The “made” describes what the colonialists identified and designated their preferred parts of the land, where they settled and exerted maximum control and benefit. Through independence, this condition has obviously been transgressed over time. As Franz Fanon put it, the bourgeoisie and elites took over, inheriting these special territories from the colonialists and so the “made” remained the made.

The “voids” basically are those territories of the city that were neglected by the colonialists as they were low lying, swampy and problematic. Over time, these parts quite naturally became the primary spaces where people would reside within the fringes of the most fertile and elevated lands.

The aspiration with our practice is to almost dissolve if not dismantle these boundaries; to stand against the fact that the neglected neighbourhoods and slum territories should just remain as they are. Instead to read their unique architectural and social idiosyncrasies that is yet to be meaningfully mapped and registered for community-based transformation to not only improve the current conditions of sanitation, secure tenure, crime among other challenges, but read them as viable spaces of habitation that should not be erased but reimagined. Much unpacking of these spaces needs to happen and as architects, we are well equipped to frame this process.

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KOOZ Your works have a palimpsest-like quality and can be seen as powerful reminders of the inescapable circumstances that underline contemporary constructs, and creations that steadfastly resist attempts at erasure. What is the potential of exploring fiction as a potent tool for building counter histories, challenging notions of fact and truth in the process?

FB Traces of history always remain even if they are not always visible to us. Everything we have today carries those indelible marks, and all the constructs we rely on are built on centuries of history; their legacies can be challenged, but they can never be truly erased. Drexciya — the Afrofuturist music group to which my work contains references — built their mythos on the tragedy of the Middle Passage and transitioned it into a story of healing, power and self-reliance. This is a great example of how fictionality can be used to forge new paths and change the narratives that have been imposed upon us.

"Traces of history always remain even if they are not always visible to us. Everything we have today carries those indelible marks, and all the constructs we rely on are built on centuries of history; their legacies can be challenged, but they can never be truly erased."

- Firelei Baéz.

KOOZ In the catalogue for your exhibition at Louisiana, you mention that “the neurological reality of our capacity to imagine has been a major causal factor in making homo sapiens the dominant species on Earth.” Cave_ embraces imagination, crafting seductive and speculative images which counter our anthropocentric realities. To what extent is the agency of the architect grounded in their power to imagine?

CB It is inextricably linked; more often than not the imagination of the architect has been stifled, be it through pedagogical logics in academia, or in practice when acting both at a local and global scale of the crisis we face as a human species. At times, it seems that we are neglecting the space to allow for our imagination to tackle certain issues or venture into certain so-called no man’s lands. This has brought to the fore — especially when reflecting on the so called more than human, the non-human — the fact that we are, obviously, a small percentage of life on earth: it’s extremely important that we imagine alternative architectural conditions that exist outside our own anthropogenic framework. We need to open the practice to geologically reflect on the one hundred and thirty thousand years our existence and practice on the globe as being rich and yet extremely deficient and requiring a complete overhaul of the ways and modes we have operated and continue to work on the planet.

"At times, it seems that we are neglecting the space to allow for our imagination to tackle certain issues or venture into certain so-called no man’s lands."

- Kabage Karanja, Cave_bureau.

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KOOZ Beyond existing as unbuilt imaginaries, these images at times refer to architectural interventions in the landscape under the heading ‘The Anthropocene Museum.’ How do these interventions challenge the very foundations of the term museum and its relevance within the context of Africa?

CB We look at the “original” institution of the museum as being very foreign within our African and indeed global majority context. The Anthropocene museum is our way to grapple with that discomfort and more so pain, from an institution that was very oppressive in terms of how it extracted artefacts from our context and history, but more so that it became an institution to morally placate and culturally sanitize the broader imperial and colonial agenda to destroy worlds as Kathryn Yusoff would say. Starting from this critical base and foundation, we rethink the institution, challenging its logics, parameters and infrastructural modes to imagine new alternatives. In many respects, as in the case of our first Anthropocene Museum, we deal directly with the context of communities, whereby the museum humbles itself and engages with the cultural values of the sites and the people — which if you think about, should be the very essence of the museum. Next, we think of how this institution could become a roaming and subservient space, to which people are naturally drawn as opposed to being ushered towards. Hence, we don't believe in the museum as a static building, and to this end, architecture is often tonged tied. We believe the museum of the future should be built on ideas and discourses that come from the community, and which would not otherwise be shared as they might be lacking the resources. This again ties to a sort of colonial history of extraction, segregation, and isolation. But don't get us wrong: we love museums and we have visited so many around the world. Our museum thus borrows the term but reinterprets it in a completely different way, somewhat dismantling its past condition, its vast ways of operation to create a new paradigm, especially within the African continent. 

Bio

Cave_bureau is a Nairobi-based bureau of architects and researchers charting explorations into architecture and urbanism within nature. Their work addresses the anthropological and geological context of the postcolonial African city as a means to confront the challenges of our contemporary rural and urban lives. Kabage Karanja is a UK qualified architect since 2011; He has worked at Symbion in Kenya, 3DReid Architects in Central London, Quay-2Cs Architects, in, Peckham,London, and Bohn & Viljoen Architects, in Dulwich, London. Kabage studied at Loughborough University, Brighton University, Westminster University, and Kingston University where he completed his architectural education, qualifying as an Architect under the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He is also a member of the Architectural Association of Kenya. Kabage is a serial sketcher and story teller, driven to script and communicate cave thinking surrounding the built and natural environment.

Firelei Báez is an artist who was born in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic and lives and works in New York City. Through a convergence of interest in anthropology, science fiction, black female subjectivity and women's work, her art explores the humor and fantasy involved in self-making within diasporic societies, which have an ability to live with cultural ambiguities and use them to build psychological and even metaphysical defenses against cultural invasions. In 2016 and 2017 she participated in group and solo museum exhibitions at the Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, the Museum of Latin American Art, Los Angeles, CA as part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time's LA>LA exhibition, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA, and with the Pinchuk Art Foundation's Future Generation's Art Prize exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

Published
15 Jan 2024
Reading time
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