EXEGESIS // CORRUGATED IRON, TIMBER AND WIRE SCULPTURE
Slum and Poverty-Stricken Housing in Ziguinchor, Casamance Region of Senegal, West Africa
This abstract sculptural work is the result of an in-depth investigation into the slum and poverty-stricken housing typology in Ziguinchor, Senegal, West Africa. Few photos and very little visual/written documentation of the Ziguinchor-specific slum areas exist and subsequently the sculptural work is an extrapolation on the information available and was often reinforced during the research process by referencing similar areas within Senegal. There are, however, some very specific events that are pivotal to the creation and ongoing growth of these areas and it is these that the sculpture encapsulates, whilst simultaneously representing the architectural typology through material usage and the physical act of creating the piece.
Materiality is critical to an understanding of slum areas and as such is the central focus of the work; the limited materials available are salvaged (and sometimes stolen) to construct shanty-type housing. In this way, I underwent a similar process in order to find corrugated material and other supplies. Knowing that it needed to have a significant range of rust – from quite untarnished to heavily corroded – I surmised that a scrap metal yard would be the best option. I thought perhaps they may allow me to purchase some…how wrong I was. After the first 3 rejections and a noticeable amount of suspicion as to why I needed rusting iron, I realised suddenly that my approach was completely wrong. In order to gain a full and informed understanding of how ‘spontaneous urbanism’ unfolds within the Senegalese city, I – just like those affected by extreme poverty in Ziguinchor – would need to ‘salvage’ my own materials. I made contact with a friend in a rural area outside Brisbane who told me that we would have no problem commandeering some material… under the cover of darkness. Although it is illegal to steal from a refuse tip in Australia, necessity won out and the corrugated iron and steel flat bar was salvaged for reuse in my sculptural piece.
The sculpture serves as both an abstracted timeline and social comment on the dire circumstances in Ziguinchor slum areas within the context of a riparian-edged industrial city that also caters to a solid tourist industry. Primarly, the piece speaks of the desperate nature of the increasingly overcrowded slum areas through the noticeable gradation of rusting patina from left to right – the temporal aspect. The five (5) main elements are of mismatched and ill-fitting organic shapes, reminiscent of both the spontaneous, organic way the slums develop as economic and social conditions continue to worsen and of the way the rusting corrugated roofing of slum areas in Ziguinchor read when viewed in a satellite image. Overlapping, mismatched, roughly fixed and deteriorating; a true symbol of the desperation and necessity that drives their formation and the people who inhabit them.
The creation of the piece happened in a very organic, unplanned way, similar to the way in which the slum areas continue to grow in Ziguinchor. From the beginning, it was my intention to only use what I could find and manufacture as much as possible without proper tools, to use nothing new – in an attempt to create a level of authenticity in how the poverty-stricken people of Ziguinchor construct these residences that seem to embody so much hopelessness. As I worked, I did not measure a single thing. I did everything by eye and surrendered to the urgency of the process. In a way, this hammers the central message of the sculpture home; these typologies are the result of a disastrous political, socio-economic and cultural context that culminates in the overwhelming desperation and necessity-driven construction of the slum architecture. My group used a phrase within our previous presentation that was something along the lines of “Africans do not uphold the same values towards architecture (that it signifies a high level of cultural achievement and power) as Europeans do” and I vehemently disagreed with its use. In a city where the majority of housing sits in the low socio-economic bracket and the slum areas prevail, this is a given; they are trying to stay alive – the quality of the architecture does not even merit consideration in a situation as wretched as that.
Sculpturally, the piece aims to embody the directly proportional relationship between wealth inequality and living conditions, materiality and spatial ownership through the use of elements held in a desperate sort of tension and stitched together. Elements that are ‘tacked on’, stitched together, the way that overwhelmingly crowded spatial relationships take form with the ever-growing population rise within the slums. The way the pieces intersect and relate to one another is unplanned but interconnected, multilayered, overcrowded, tenuous. The piece has been left dirty, with metal shavings and dry leaves and spiderwebs, and the back of the sculpture has been left unfinished, with elements roughly fixed and fixings exposed and raw…because to present a polished sculpture would be the antithesis of the architecture of these slums. These areas lack sanitation, services and infrastructure. They are poorly constructed. They are the epitome of hopelessness and yet there is an inherent beauty in their urban landscape. In their connections to one another, in the relationship between people who are trying to manage at all costs with nothing and less than nothing. Part of me wonders if in fact they don’t present a stronger face to urbanism than their wealthier counterparts? Than we do here in Australia? They know their neighbours, they rely on each other, they interact with what little public space exists within the slums and they make do with what they are given. Their lives are incredibly hard. Unimaginably so. My life here seems so far removed from the lot that they have been given. It was said to me recently that sometimes the only luck we have in life is the socio-economic situation we are born into. After this experience, I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken.
The creation process was an emotional one, causing me to reflect constantly about the contrast between my somewhat privileged existence and the devastating life led by those entrenched in the slums of Ziguinchor. At one point, I nearly cut my hand on some of the burrs on the edge of the corrugated iron, which gave me pause. Should I have cut myself, I could quite easily gone to the doctor for a tetanus shot and been bulk-billed. They cannot. Medicine and medication is an unaffordable luxury for most. I could quite easily have walked over to the automatic sander to take the burrs off the cut edges of the iron. They cannot. The tools I had at my disposal to manufacture this piece are not available to the slum residents of Ziguinchor. They have to construct their architecture, their space, as best they can. Polythene sheet tacked over gaps in the roof and wall sheeting to block the heavy rains, sharp edged pieces of steel that could only be hammered over on the edges to make them slightly safer.
But the moment that really brought things home to me was at completion, when I sat back and looked at the work to see if it embodied everything I wanted to say. It did, in an uncomplicated, unrefined way. I was satisfied and I was emotionally drained. I walked to the sink to scrub off the rust and black residue that covered my arms up to my elbows. It was standing over the sink – my hands under the running water – that the true meaning of what I was doing hit me like a tonne of bricks and brought tears to my eyes.
I could wash my hands under clean, running water.
They have to run out with plastic buckets when it rains to collect water that often quickly becomes infested with mould and mildew because there is no way to cover it. To not have clean drinking water or the ability to regularly bathe or use a toilet. To not be able to do something as simple as washing one’s hands.