decolonising design in the built environment

Black Feminism & the Archi-Sphere

In the wake of International Women's Day 2015, Black Feminism has (appropriately and fiercely) infiltrated the broader discussion of women's issues in Australia. At the NSW Greens IWD Breakfast, Amy McQuire, a Darumbul woman, raised questions about the privileges of white feminists in her speech: All Feminists Are Created Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others. << Take the time to read it.

With reference to previous black critiques of white-feminism, Amy highlights the discontent among Aboriginal feminists:

"Our voices are continually derided, placed to the sidelines, lost in the chorus of mainstream feminism, who perhaps unintentionally, do not realise that the fights for gender equality have always been within white structures, and have alienated many Aboriginal women, who are often fighting alongside Aboriginal men against the oppressive colonial settler state"

Reading through Amy's speech, I questioned my own avoidance of discussing gender in my first blog post: A Determination of One's Own. In appropriating the work of a primary white-feminist text (Virginia Woolf), I noted that I wouldn't know where to begin when approaching the topics of Aboriginality and architecture AND women.

Well, this is me attempting to find a "beginning" to the discussion of women/blackness/architecture. Don’t expect a defiant resolution.

Recently my uncertainty/discontent was prompted by the announcement of shortlisted applicants for Creative Directors for the Australian Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. Held every two years, the Venice Biennale is a contemporary art exhibition held in Italy. Countries from across the world contribute art for exhibition -  it's kind of a big deal. The Architecture Biennale is a sub-set, and many of the participating nations have contributed a pavilion designed by a "big-name architect" (Wikipedia). Within the archi-Biennale, academic and design work from the built environment in Australia will be exhibited - and the 2016 Creative Directors shortlist was announced in February.

Two of the five shortlisted applicants were all-female collaborations: Parlour LIVE! (Justine Clark, Naomi Stead, Karen Burns, Maryam Gusheh, Catherine Griffiths, Fiona Young) and The Pool (Isabelle Toland, Amelia Holliday, Michelle Tabet). My first thought: it’s great to see female representation in the shortlist! My second thought: but when will we see an all Aboriginal team in the list? And beyond Creative Directors, when will we see an Aboriginal architect, man/woman/other, designing the Australian pavilion?

It highlighted for me that although the under-representation of women in the architecture profession is a reality  – there is such low representation of Aboriginal people (of any gender) in architecture that the concerning issues are not even forming an agenda within the profession – not for practice, not for education/academia, not for critique and not for the Institute.

After seeing the shortlist for Creative Directors, I had a flick through Parlour’s website. For any non-Aus/archi readers, Parlour "brings together research, informed opinion and resources on women, equity and architecture in Australia" (as noted on their website). So, naturally, I clicked through their site to see if there was anything inclusive of Aboriginal women in the archi-sphere. Using the word search bar, the website offered two pages containing “Indigenous”, neither of which included substantial engagement with issues faced by Aboriginal women. I wondered if Parlour’s representation is mostly targeting white, middle-class women? I am not overly concerned by this – it is merely a question/observation.

Reading back through Amy's speech, I wondered if my lack of concern is due to the role that white women have played in the oppression of Aboriginal people in and through the archi-sphere.

In Amy’s words:

"This is why I consider myself an Aboriginal feminist. The fights of black women are still fundamentally different from the fights of white women. I don’t care if Prime Minister Julia Gillard gets up in Parliament and calls out Tony Abbott for misogyny. This same Prime Minister – Julia Gillard - continued the NT intervention, which severely hurt Aboriginal women, and did nothing about the rising tide of Aboriginal child removals, while Labor continued to ride on the kudos of an apology that came too late and delivered too little."

I share the same sentiment regarding the role that white women in architecture have played in the assimilation of Aboriginal people, whether it be through housing or institutions, or through the oppression of Aboriginal people via the outright ignorance and dismissal of Indigenous issues being faced as a result of designed and built environments.

And here I reach my unconclusion: at this stage in my life and learning, I am stronger and more proud as a black woman as I stand by the side of other Aboriginal people in the archi-sphere, regardless of gender, than I am if I stand by other women or men who are ignorant to the issues faced by Aboriginal people on our own lands. And in the path of such ignorance and arrogance, my challenge, at least for now: to remain a proud black woman while skirting around the colonial, patriarchal, privileged structures of architecture in Australia.