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Bodies in Motion, Dust as Trace: Sandra Poulson at Sharjah Architecture Triennial
Starting from her installation currently on view at the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, artist Sandra Poulson gets deep about dust and its disruptive potentials.

Splitting her time between the capital cities of London in the UK and Luanda in Angola, artist Sandra Poulson has exhibited within several international showcases in the last year; in Dancing Before the Moon, the British Pavilion at the 2023 Venice Biennale, and more recently, with her installation at the Sharjah Architecture Triennale, directed by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo. Her work deals with particular cultural, political, societal and economic landscapes of Angola and beyond; in this interview, KoozArch’s own Federica Zambeletti and Poulson get deep about dust and its disruptive potentials.

KOOZ Dust as an Accidental Gift, your installation at the current Sharjah Architecture Triennial (SAT), looks forensically at Luanda’s omnipresent dustto reflect on the city’s socio-economic, political, cultural, and built landscape. Could you start by telling us a little bit more about the work and how it is rooted in Angola’s colonial past?

SANDRA POULSON I have been forensically looking into dust for a few years now, particularly mapping the built environment and the city of Luanda, analysing the pavement and its asymmetries as well as the relationship between the latter and people's activities. One of the things that I was able to observe and started recording, was the variety of economic activities that result from the urgency to remove dust, both from people's bodies and belongings as well as car tires and so on. There are so many economic activities, both informal and formal, which pledge to renew our corpses as we move from soft surfaces to paved environments.

One of the important observations recorded is that five hundred years ago, when Luanda was under the Portuguese colonial rule, the city grew from the port to the inland. During those years, the city centre was formally built; this was where the white Portuguese settlers lived, while the native Angolan black people inhabited the inland areas. This threshold between inland and the central “cement city”, which still prevails today, defined a space where native Angolan bodies needed to renew themselves to be able to enter Portuguese society.

Lately I have started thinking about looking down as something progressive, challenging the idea that when one looks up, he is looking to a “superior” north — rather, reframing what looking down could mean.

So actually the work is very much rooted, it is in this kind of continuation of this relationship between the near-North — that is, what I understand as the cement city — and the near-South, which is really the mainland in a way, and recognising this analysis of the relationship as a contemporary version of the colonial one. Lately I have started thinking about looking down as something progressive, challenging the idea that when one looks up, he is looking to a “superior” north — rather, reframing what looking down could mean.

Sandra Poulson, Dust as an Accidental Gift, 2023. Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023, Intangible Bodies. Photo Danko Stjepanovic

FSZ When looking at the notions of labour and maintenance involved in the care of a building, dust can be deployed as a means of rethinking and reframing the architectural practice, as well as a register of extreme climatic events. By framing dust as an accidental gift for the city, your project asks us to think about how something seemingly unwanted shapes continual urban and socio-economic rituals. From undesirable to essential, how does the project reframe dust as a disruptive element in our society — one that alerts us to the need for change?

SP The more I observed dust, the more I realised that this highly undesirable form of matter is our primal element, earth. It is what lies underneath construction, underneath modernity, underneath the colonial city; ultimately what is underneath, you know, everything. Sometimes, almost as a joke, I say that as our relationship with dust is so intimate and productive, that we ought to be exporting it.

The more I observed dust, the more I realised that this highly undesirable form of matter is our primal element, earth. It is what lies underneath construction, underneath modernity, underneath the colonial city; ultimately what is underneath, you know, everything.

Thinking about this as a way of framing the city — as a way of framing life in this geopolitical location — really questions the idea of understanding the constructed city as what frames and actually embraces what is the most original to this space, which is the land itself. What potentially is framing our way of responding? The work reflects on the idea of dust as an unexpected gift, as something that is unexpected to us, but what happens is that the gift is really the ability torespond to it. That ability comes from people.

I really believe — and if it wasn't dust, there are so many other examples of things that we think of as undesirable — that through the response, the framing starts really happening. Maybe for me, there is a sort of rejection of the framework as something formal, seeing the framework as something arriving from the Global North, something that comes from the outside. But actually we could recognise the framework perhaps being something a lot more complex — behaviour-led, perspective-led and action-led, really.

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FSZ Talking about assigned frameworks, in a conversation during the opening days of the SAT, you mentioned an exchange with a shoe polisher: could you tell us that story?

SP Firstly, there is an understanding that different bodies within the city are assigned to particular places — and that we carry these traces on our feet, or within our shoes. Throughout the city to enter formal and public institutions, people are constantly renewing their shoes: there is this rejection of the fact that I might have walked through a road that is really muddy or informal, the dirt on my shoes being evidence that I have passed through something that is really rejected.

So this guy, who engages informally in shoe-polishing and washing sneakers, saw the need to reassign my body to where it should have belonged, by the act of cleaning my shoes. He starts cleaning my sneakers with water and I ask him not to get my socks wet; he replies “You know, I've been doing this for long enough that I know what I'm doing.” So I ask him “How long have you been a shoe polisher?” He stops and takes this question very seriously. He looks at me and says “I'm not a shoe polisher, I'm shoe polishing.” He continues, “You walk in the street, you see the lady selling mangoes and you think that she's a mango seller; every time you see somebody doing something you immediately assign that activity to their identity, constructing the idea of a person based on what you see. But realistically, we're all in motion.” He goes on, sharing that he is polishing shoes to save up to study to be an eye doctor at the hospital of Bengo. At that point our conversation really shifted; he reminded me that we are all in motion across different thresholds, and that those undesired yet also pragmatic and attainable activities allow for something else. And that was, I guess, one of the ways in which I started seeing the dust: as something so prolific and undesired yet so primal to the space — which, through its movement and through the way that it sur-veils bodies and the geopolitical location of bodies within the city, even becomes an enabler.

“You walk in the street, you see the lady selling mangoes and you think that she's a mango seller; every time you see somebody doing something you immediately assign that activity to their identity, constructing the idea of a person based on what you see. But realistically, we're all in motion.”

FSZ In an attempt to recreate Luanda’s Kikolo market entrance, the work features both an assemblage of ephemeral objects, made from discarded cardboard and starch, as well as a video. Beyond the visual, the work relies heavily on the sense of smell, with which one is overwhelmed upon entering the space. In addition to the removal of dust, one could also look to modernity as the progressive removal of odour. How does this layer reclaim a different reading of space?

SP Indeed, it does appear as though modernity has progressively cancelled our ability to rely on our senses as we navigate our cities. This is something which I tried to challenge through the work at SAT which contrarily requires that visitors remain hyper aware of the space so as to avoid stepping on or dropping something which could very easily damage the paper pulp. The work is thus an invitation to go back to our heightened senses and in turn is an invitation to a nearer south

I like to think that in the Kikolo Market, one has to think every forty centimetres, meaning that we don't really take big steps but rather we move through small steps, constantly mapping the urban environment to see the hidden pothole, or to spot the speedy motorbike routes tracing these soft, unstable pathways.

I like to think that, for instance, in Luanda and in particular in the Kikolo Market, one has to think every forty centimetres, meaning that we don't really take big steps but rather we move through small steps, constantly mapping the urban environment to see the hidden pothole, or to spot the speedy motorbike routes tracing these soft, unstable pathways. In this sense Luanda invites a different sense of awareness that other cities,like London with its hard pavements, deny. Whilst in the near South, the pavement constantly shifts from soft to hard and vice versa, in the near North, the pavement tends to be a lot harder; we can confidently know what comes next. I felt that it was important to actually have a space where navigation is very tricky and requires labour.

Sandra Poulson, Dust as an Accidental Gift, 2023. Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023, Intangible Bodies. Photo Danko Stjepanovic

FSZ I like this idea of having to slow down. What opportunities arise when slowing down and rethinking time?

SP I feel that slowing down is extremely important. The work at SAT with its soft pavement and strong smell is an invitation to slow down. I have been invited to slow down my whole life, specifically when arriving in Luanda from London, where the pace at which I walk almost invites people to physically interfere and stop me. Slowing down also means allowing accidents and interruptions to happen. By slowing down, I started spending time and engaging in conversations with random people, from which I have really learned a lot about where I am, what people are living through and what they think.

More often than not, I really want these conversations to continue and this is something seminal within my practice, through which I try to nurture uncalculated relationships. I trust in the opportunities which can arise when we find ourselves somewhere that we didn't plan to be and when we break different kinds of socially constructed bubbles which define where one should be. The moments when I have found myself in the wrong place are the moments when I have learned the most.

FSZ Is this something you are able to preserve when going back to London?

SP I think it's something that is really inside me and I would almost argue that it is indeed a very Angolan thing, to overly invest in these small things and the small moments of exchange. I feel that in London my methodology is completely different and I kind of end up dealing with the kind of grey areas between existing in Angola and existing in London. But it's definitely something that I need to think more about, as lately I have started to understand how much London affects me. This has to do with more than my laboratory and the sort of a comfortable place, or pace of movement. It's definitely something that I need to think more about. It's only recently that I have accepted how much London has changed me.

Sandra Poulson, Dust as an Accidental Gift, 2023. Sharjah Architecture Triennial 2023, Intangible Bodies. Photo Danko Stjepanovic

FSZ At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned how you are trying to challenge the idea that when we look North we look up to something, whilst when we look South we look down on something. The idea follows up from a project you developed for Acne a year ago, and directly stems from relatable to ‘near-south’ geographies as defined by urbanist Abdoumaliq Simone. How do you seek to continue to investigate this condition in your work, or in your methodology?

SP I would say it’s in both. For instance, the project at SAT is really a continuous project that I have been working on for a few years and which has materialised in different ways — for instance,in the case of my participation to this year’s British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale which also looks to removal and renewal, but instead of dust I was interested in the blue soap called sabão azul.

At the moment I am very focused on exploring the near-selfhood, in relation to the uninhabitable and the pavement. A few days ago, for example, I went for a drive with my family and realised that they all knew — by heart — exactly where the potholes were in a five-mile road, from the city to the periphery. They knew exactly how big they were and how they had changed in the last week with the heavy rains. I have been quite interested in documenting those relationships both in terms of interest and as methodology. And this seems to be the beginning of a body of work which is removed from the pedestal but is rather truly inhabited.

Bio

Sandra Poulson is an Angolan interdisciplinary artist based between London and Luanda. Her work discusses the political, cultural, and socio-economic landscape of Angola to analyse the relationship between history, oral tradition, and global political structures. Working across genres such as documentation, collage, performance, and printmaking, she recurrently revisits the body as a liminal space for discussion, incorporating materials such as fabric, concrete, wood, and film. She is the recipient of the MullenLowe NOVA Award (2020) and the Central Saint Martins Dean’s Award (2020). Poulson’s work has been exhibited internationally, including the Lagos Biennial (2019), Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the South London Gallery (2021), ARCO Madrid (2021), and V.O Curations, London (2022). She was commissioned to show at the British Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (2023), and at Bold Tendencies in London (2023).

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

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Published
22 Jan 2024
Reading time
10 minutes
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