The future of cities according to women : Interview with Michelle Mlati

“it would be essentialist to say women’s visions of cities cater for women only which is not the case”

In April and May 2017, the Constructing Future Cities project supported by the British Council engaged with 5 women artists on the topic of future cities. Read interviews with Michelle below, Thozama Mputa here and Counterspace here.What inspired you to integrate art and architecture in your approach?

What aspect of cities do you think impact women negatively the most?

Alleyways and construction sites dominated by men whistle blowing women!

Does the idea of a “women’s vision for a city” have more to do with process or outcome in your opinion? 

Both. The idea of women being centrally involved in the processes of ”envisioning the city” in itself recognises inclusivity of women in the male dominated field of the built environment, however, it may provide a more thoughtful process where the concerns of women that occupy a certain space in the city may be taken more seriously, so this implicates the outcome at the imagination of women. However, this is not to say that women leading the envisioning process do so solely for other women but everyone who occupies these spaces as it would be essentialist to say women’s visions of cities cater for women only which is not the case.

What inspired you to integrate art and architecture in your approach?

Public art or this notion of ”curating the city” was certainly an inspiring factor of exploring the co-productive role of the two. I’m really interested in art beyond the white cube and what Jane Rendell mentions that ”when art is located outside the gallery space, the parameters that define it (art) are called into question and all sorts of possibilities for thinking about the relationship between art & architecture open up”. Art now becomes subjected to the limitations of architecture where it possibly may have to take up functions or not. It is the interplay of overstepping the boundaries of the two which excites me. Yet, it is this critically engaged public art practise which I work with in relation to dominant ideologies, whilst questioning and exploring ”particular disciplinary procedures-art and architecture-while also drawing attention to wide social and political problems; it might then be best called ‘critical spatial practice’ ”.

How have the visits, meetings and exchanges during the Constructing Future Cities programme influenced and translated in your artworks?

Spotting solar panels in the various locations we visited certainly provided me with visual cues to work with, to deconstruct them and reconstruct them again. I’m trying to reimagine the aesthetics of renewable energy infrastructure specifically photovoltaic cells and it helped with my thinking of how to bring these technologies closer to people using photography, painting and sculpture as a medium to do this. It was about thinking how do we simply move beyond solar panels as infrastructure but an intersection of art and architecture.

What are you trying to communicate with your work for this project?

​I am trying to raise consciousness to the future sustainability of African cities through the theme of energy. Specifically the work is trying to demystify the materiality of renewable energy technologies by bringing them closer to the everyday person. So this project doesn’t stop at Constructing Future Cities but will move to the streets to really get people touching, thinking and asking questions about these objects that are still exploring what their function beyond the white cube is, whether they are artworks, elements of architecture or conscious raising artifacts that can be explored through engagement. One of the fascinating responses I received about the work was from a male Uber driver who remarked to the work with solar panels, ”This isn’t art, this is science! It’s interesting to see what women think about these days”. This kind of response gets the point across in an intersectional way that makes apparent that women’s visions in Constructing Future Cities come as a surprise to men and perhaps this is a step forward to this not being a surprise anymore. Women have concerns about the city, and to improve it we just need to be more included in the imaging processes before we move on to the next in order to create better cities.

What would a women-led vision for a city “feel like” upon completion? How would any individual experience that space differently?

Well, speaking for myself as a woman, I am uncertain what the implications of solar powered art may have for society or women as I am still exploring this in relation to Afrofuturism. Perhaps, the city will start to reflect cyborgs or womxn, those whose experiences of such spaces have flourished through alienation. Perhaps the elementary and abstract exploration of these technologies is a way to begin this conversation of humanism in a technological age.

About Michelle Mlati

Michelle Mlati is a critical spatial practitioner invested in the future sustainability of African cities. She was born in Tzaneen in 1993 and educated at the University of Cape Town. She holds a degree in Public Policy & Administration and Social Anthropology, as well as Honours in Curatorship. She is currently pursuing a Master of Architecture in Sustainable and Energy Efficient Cities at WITS University.

In her practise she experiments with light, time, sound and space (public and extra-terrestrial) as a fluid living artefact informed by Afrofuturism as the intersection of the imagination, technology, the future and liberation to address the sustainability of African cities. She employs curatorial and research architecture methods that oscillate between placemaking and inventing non-places to address the politics of space and consciousness to space.

Currently her research explores the intersection of art for renewable energy infrastructure as a model for sustainable cities that implicate a cosmological shift in human thinking emphasising the cosmos as vital to our planetary survival reliant on the sun as an energy source. In this way she wishes to advance a city-remaking process towards future art & architectural histories by conceptualising Afrofuturist Cities to address the epistemic gap of the built environment as the primacy of her interdisciplinary practise.