Drawing on data collected by the Wits-Oxford Mobility Governance Lab in 2021, Awo Tsegah designed three fabric panels which surface the challenges of being in a place while out of place. The visual idiom of African women’s fabrics – the East African Khanga, the Southern African Shewshwe, the Ghanaian
Kente – serves as decoration and medium. So often carried by women on the move, they convey both the continent’s diversity and the portability of domestic space, offering unsettled portraits of urban and family life to visitors who linger. They tell stories of a heterotopic city and the tensions of aspiration and absence, creation and deferral; connection and betrayal.
Kente: Family portraits
Women’s mobility transforms gender and generations. Urban life offers opportunities to evade elders’ eyes and find novel freedoms. Yet one never travels alone. Whether living by themselves or with others, family members exert a constant pull. From home villages, points along their journey or elsewhere in the world, kin make claims on women. As they move through Johannesburg, they remain enmeshed in the lives, values, and moral valences of far-flung geographies. Distance often brings obligation and loneliness as women. Yet the distance also offers opportunities for dissimulation and reinvention, to evade the control of parents and spouses. To learn, adapt, and become. (Data: Where respondents had family members).
Khanga: Welcome to Johannesburg
Migrants make Johannesburg. An urban estuary of over six million people, arrivals build lives alongside those passing through or packing to leave. These currents shape the city, linking it to distant places and processes. Multi-local moral and material exchange shapes interactions in the city’s markets, street corners, and kitchens. Pastors preach in unfamiliar tongues; buses come and go loaded with hopes and fears; residents find and lose themselves. The city marks them and their relations but they too wear paths others will tread. The city changes all who walk these routes but it too is altered, taking on lasting traces of communities in states of movement. (Data: Where respondents were born).
Background photos by Heather Mason
Shweshwe: Speaking in Tongues
Johannesburg’s twentieth-century economic boom attracted people from across Europe, Asia, and Africa to work its mines. They created a cosmopolitan city of mixity and hostility, repeatedly entrenching and eroding boundaries of race, religion, class, and gender. Those now coming to the City of Gold – eGoli –fill the streets with tongues familiar and foreign. Most residents speak three or more languages. Some nine or ten. Each becomes a marker of difference, a way of identifying or distancing oneself. Yet these are tools that can create communities, some enduring and some evanescent. In alleys; barrooms and bedrooms; in sites of punishment or prayer; languages bridge and build, creating dynamic soundscapes that are as much a part of the urban infrastructure as the buildings from which they echo. (Data: Languages spoken in Berea, Katlehong and Diepsloot by survey respondents)