Collective imaginations to rethink ourselves
Called on to tackle the challenge “Africa, a laboratory of futures” with a desire to discuss the challenges the world shares, from Africa, this project aims to test ways of working together. With the complicit desire to bring to light possible spaces of African realities in our territory, Catalan and Balearic architecture is interested in the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes, a Barcelona-based community from Senegal. In their uniqueness, through their political and creative struggles, they are the expression of shared battles that we can all relate to. The alternative strategies they have used to re-define themselves, seek ways to remain in the country legally, build counter-hegemonic visions, create an effective mutual-aid system or anticipate more sustainable futures, call on architecture to come up with other ways to address social challenges.
“Wisdom comes out of an ant heap”
When Ngūgī wa Thiong’o (1992) proposed shifting focus from specificity to a plurality of centres, he drew on this African proverb. Humanity does not manifest itself in abstractions, but in the specifics of our lives. Specifics that are, in turn, the origin and the field of verification of our worldview. In this search for new African realities proposed by the Architecture Biennale, we believe that from its specificity, the Syndicate is one of the possible spaces. An Africa made from afar that has a lot to say.
Fish represent everything
In African tales, an animal tells the story of life, and here fish represent the plundering of the continent’s natural resources and the diaspora. The sardines given by a generous Atlantic that these Senegalese used to roast as children are now sold in tins at European supermarkets. EU industrial ships take the fish away and the locals have no choice but to follow in the dugout canoes they used to fish with. A dangerous journey to European lands where, if they make it, they are locked up in immigrant internment centres: prisons for people who have committed no crime. When they leave, the vicious circle of our legislative system prevents them from joining the work force. They are forced to work in the informal economy. The only possible option is the blanket they unfurl on the city’s pavements to sell goods from. In solidarity and comradeship, their fellow Senegalese give newcomers a blanket to get them started. But in a split second, they can lose everything. A climate of imposed criminalisation that also has severe psychological repercussions. A situation that reveals the ideological and exclusionary nature of public space.
Challenging the migrant community
They are allowed to coexist in our community, but they are subjected to a very harsh branding policy. They are discredited, generating social rejection and condemning them to use non-legitimate channels, thus increasing their social marginalisation. The creation of the Syndicate, and subsequently the Top-Manta brand, uses this conflict to reverse the situation and restructure itself in order to rediscover its identity as a minority. Collective self-help strategies, as well as spirituality, have given them profound tools of resistance. A substratum that takes the form of struggle when they encounter the Zapatista and Black Panther Party movements, highlighting the power of connection and collaboration between struggles. Black, illegal and with few resources, they enter the public arena without waiting for someone to give them a voice. And not by claiming the right to aide, but as subjects with the right to have rights. In fact, with the Syndicate, they are presented as workers, standing up. The Venice Pavilion wants to share these ways of positively redefining a stigmatised identity. But it also seeks to incorporate actions, both denouncing and proposing regularisation policies. The current Spanish legal framework denies the administrative and statistical existence of migrants, making it difficult for their voices to be heard.
In this redefinition, they have opted for fashion design, with along with music, the visual arts and architecture, as a place where the shape of what is to come is established. It is at this point that union and creative struggles meet through the culture of the project, the latter being the raison d’être of the Architecture Biennale. In the various sessions of the Top-Manta workshop at Can Batlló, where the objectives and motives of the projects carried out by the Syndicate were analysed in depth, in each of the cases we have seen that the end goal was to create alternative systems of struggle and support to the officially established ones. And they have done so based on their ability to think from instability, the capacity for struggle and resistance, the capacity to transgress certain urban roles in order to insert themselves into the city in an agile way.
The exhibition project will be structured around these struggles, anti-racist, non-exploitation, the right to the city, food sustainability and feminist struggles. Each struggle will be an exhibition space and will bring together sister voices and experts on the subject. The conceptualisation, design and production of each of these devices will be carried out jointly by Top-Manta and Leve.
A collaboration that will put us to work on the architectural challenges of today. About the right to the city from a migrant perspective. About the need to detect new voices taking part in creating and managing the city of care. About the need to establish organic links with social movements. On the idea of architecture that shelters, that is not hostile. On proximity, on the ladder that neighbourhood facilities, small-scale solutions and wide-reaching facilities must have. On ways of co-existing from other perspectives, on how to deal with the difficulties of housing. On the social and environmental impact of the way we eat. On the role of architects’ cooperatives as an alternative to the authorship paradigm. On the multitude of other, related topics that emerge in this debate.
In short, when a community begins to organise a project in the face of a problem that neither the system nor the market is providing a solution for, it is beginning to design, even if there aren’t any architects taking part. Circumstances like these show that transformations come from society. And how can it do this? By putting itself at the service of those who are making the changes. By providing project methodologies that specialise in making ideas into reality; by sharing the processes and strategies that could contribute to the more successful completion of these projects. That is why it is necessary for architecture, from the point of view of involvement, to ask itself about these new practices.