Quiet Conversations: August 7-18, 2023

Russel Hlongwane speaks to the ‘Black interior’ as a practice of negotiating comfort and home in post-Apartheid suburban South Africa.

Quiet Conversations: August 7-18, 2023


Quiet Conversations are a series of conversations with artists, architects, researchers and thinkers working in and with the south, as a conceptual site and geography. Curated by Catalina Mejía Moreno and Huda Tayob, editors of this issue of Ellipses, the conversations work towards a methodology of shared sites, sounds, objects and practices through a turn to acts of remembrance, recall and repair. In this series we invite a close and intimate listening of meandering conversations; to stay with the words, silences and utterances that through conversation share entangled and implicated relationships of site, objects, people and places. Drawing upon sound and the act of speaking and listening as affective and political, together we ask, how might located and grounded practices enable us to draw out relational histories? How might creative research and associated methodologies of critique generate ways of listening, speaking to and engaging with the built environment, architectures, land and violence beyond extraction? And how might we share and build collective methodologies for working and thinking together? 

In the series of 6 excerpts shared here, we invited each conversant to share an object as a prompt for a wider conversation around methods, materials, and practices.

Jumoke Sanwo speaks to the mirror as entangled with the trans-atlantic slave trade, and her work as curator of Dúna Dúrà - A Portal of Reimagination; 

Felipe Arturo shares an Iraca palm fan, as a form of technology that exists within and outside of colonial and neo-colonial economies, material and embodied practices; 

Marcelo Ferraz shares the throne of Òsùmàrè as an entry point into a wider conversation around his immersive experience of designing with the Terreiro de Òsùmàrè, in Salvador, Bahía;  

Zara Julius speaks to the entangled geographies and soundscapes of the machete as an object that speaks to entangled layers of labour, oppression, violence, resistance and liberation. 

Sibonelo Gumede speaks to the temporalities and cartographies of Black sonic geographies in Southern Africa and beyond.

Russel Hlongwane speaks to the ‘Black interior’ as a practice of negotiating comfort and home in post-Apartheid suburban South Africa.

Ana Luisa Ramírez Flórez, Jenry Serna Córdoba, Daniel Ruiz-Serna and Catalina Muñoz Rojas speak to sound, listening and collaboration as reparative practices in the lower Atrato region in Chocó, Colombia; a region wounded by multiple forms of violence more recently affected by paramilitary violence and other extractive practices.

As Françcoise Verges writes, ‘To dare to imagine is to reject time’s opposition of past, present, and future’ [1] in the search for an alternative temporality of repair. Across sites and methods, these conversations recall extreme violence and “quieter forms of abjection” [2] alongside numerous seemingly “small” acts of making and re-making place and space. For as Tina Campt argues in her framing of ‘quiet photography’, the possibilities of other futures are ever–present, yet “we must not only look but also listen for it in other, less likely places.” [3] In each of these four conversations, there is the consistent awareness of ongoing and ever-present violence, an engagement with structures of complicity, and an expansive generosity and commitment to sharing ways of being, voices, stories, knowledge and time.

[1] Françoise Vergès, 2022. A Feminist Theory of Violence, London: Pluto Press, p. 98
[2] Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment, Durham: Duke University Press
[3] Tina Campt, Listening to Images, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 17 

Launch Project


Russel Hlongwane speaks to THE ‘Black interior’ as a practice of negotiating comfort and home in post-Apartheid suburban South Africa, 7-18 August 2023

Russel Hlongwane is a cultural producer based in Durban, South Africa. His work is located at the intersection of Heritage/ Modernity and Culture/ Tradition as it applies to black life. His practice includes artistic research, creative producing, design, curatorship and the creative economy. Hlongwane is part of a number of collectives, working groups and programmes spread across the SADC region, the continent and internationally; and is on the International Advisory Board for the Prince Claus Fund. He is currently (2023-2024) engaged in the Southern Urbanism MPhil at the African Centre for Cities (University of Cape Town).

Cape Town

In this conversation cultural producer Russel Hlongwane speaks to grounding, finding and making home in a post-Apartheid South African suburb. This is the beginning of a conversation, questioning how we might attempt to craft a space of belonging in suburbs designed and made for very different bodies, subject-hood, and ways of inhabiting. Hlongwane asks us to think with the history of Durban planned as a settler colonial city, and the White suburban houses built in the 70’s and 80’s during the emergency years of Apartheid South Africa as a site made for extraction and exploitation. The conversation offers the ‘Black interior’ as a potential counterpoint to these infrastructures of power. For Hlongwane ‘Black interiors’ are constituted by small acts of refusal, or practices and objects which allow for working through belonging on one’s own terms – through the mass-produced blue steel chair as companion, or understanding plants and gardens as part of expanded spiritual ecologies of personhood. As Hlongwane notes, this is a ‘way of trying to make sense of it, and think about what’s at stake’ in the suburbs, and a ‘mediation of how we come to be there’.

00:00 Okay, so, so let's hold this conversation, say, within the frame of, of black interiors, which is, is something I'm trying to develop as an inquiry. And at its essence, what I'm trying to establish through this black interior is to ask how black and brown folk make home in South African suburbia.

And I can be specific here, I'm particularly referring to black and brown folk who have taken up certain political and aesthetic sensibilities or positions, in how they want to make home or lead family life, right?

And I'm quite, I'm still early in thinking about this idea. But I can say that this notion or this theme is meant as an expansive frame that say, looks at our relationship to the objects that we bring into our company. It looks at the relationship established between ourselves, and those (domestic and garden workers) who tend to those objects. And our domestic spaces, and still within the frames, also like considering items concealed in our cupboards, in our pantries and refrigerators? … broadly speaking, I'm trying to [00:02] figure out, how, a range of these things, help us make sense, of, of the nuances, that people like you and me, bring to a place like the suburb, you know. Why the suburb?

The burbs are a place that were essentially made to cultivate and house a particular kind of subject. And that subject was not us. But we are here, we occupy the space and more of us are to come, right? And so, I think it's worth paying attention to what happens when, I guess what happens to us and what we do to places that are suburbia.

03:00 And lastly, I wonder what we can draw in the relationship between black interiors and black interiority, the relationship between the object and the subject.


04:00 But before we speak, about an object I'd like to set up a relationship between blackness and a particular set of design objects. And I want us to keep desire and aspiration somewhere in this matrix. Let's call it reflexive aspiration or critical desire, I'm not sure. But I'd like us to keep desire and aspiration in mind, as we talk about the relationship between blackness and these design objects.


09:00 The act of making home, in my view, it runs tandem with the act of making community. You're making a home, you're kind of trying to find yourself in that community and belong to it in some way. Yet we've heard so many stories of the various policing tactics that black families go through in suburbs. And if, if one cannot find a sense of place out there, can we use one's yard, like, one's property? one's yard to construct a familiar universe? If one can't, if your home or your house or your being cannot be accommodated in the broader context (of neighbourliness or community), how can you then use the place that you can call yours to build a sense of belonging?


10:00 And, and I've been thinking about the possibility of doing that through a series of small acts, like, so like these acts can, you can read them as vignettes, or you can call them rituals if you want. Essentially, they are small acts of stamping one's ontology onto space or suburbia, right? The small acts of trying to figure out what do we as black and brown folk bring to suburbia?

So if suburbia is understood to have a set of postures or codes or behaviours, what is it that we bring of ourselves when we refuse to assimilate and we decide to occupy? … I don't think we can take on suburban living as it's given, you know? And I'm also not talking about dramatic or radical acts of occupation. Rather, like, durational, reflexive acts of homing, as a term I took from Nolan Oswald Dennis, an artist.


00:15 So, a few months after moving into, into my crib, I, I came across the original plans, of the house, dated 1973.

And I kind of sat with these, with these plans, just as I was going through the detail. you know, you have all the details of who made the plans and the clients, et cetera, et cetera, and you had the Durban Corporation stamp of approval. I wondered about the first owners of this house.

And I wondered what did these walls witness? If they could speak, what would they say? who was this architect? What kind of person was he? Most likely a male, at the time, right? What conversations took place in the living room? Say, between 1989 and 1993, which were these tumultuous years during South Africa's transition, what were, what were the nightly conversations over dinner?

And who are the people who live down there, you know, there in, in what is called the ‘servant's quarters’? Partly because I was, I was raised in one, you know, so one can't only think of the main house.

I mean, I'm kind of going off on a tangent here, but to come back to these house plans of 1973, I thought, my, my grandmother would have been 31. 31 years of age in the year that those plans were passed. And I wondered if she might have walked past this house on her way to work, you know, partly because the (her) last place of occupation is not too far from this house.


00:18 Yeah, you know, one can think of the decades of, of built-up energies that I, walked into when I moved into that house. And how would I confront this?

So this sat with me, this sat with me for a few months. And it wasn't in any serious or heavy way, but it's something that kind of floats in, and comes in and out of my mind. And the question led me to think about how people in rural areas and specifically Msinga, Greytown which is where my, my family's from inhabit space.

I was recounting, how people make place of space. And two particular ways that, that, that I was able to, to, to conjure, to kind of bring up was the use of plant life and animal life, like these material objects that operates in, in say other like subtle, realms. And if we zone in on plant life and its role in the making of a particular kind, a particular kind of Zulu homestead, so like a herbalist, for example, would tell you that, that plants make, or they ground a home, if not complete it, yeah. But here, of course, I'm not talking about the 'Jardin' as conceptualized, say, by the French and botanical societies.


So I'm not talking, when I, when I talk about, about the, the use of plant life, as a way to complete or ground a home. I'm not talking about the, the jardin or the, the garden as conceptualized and, uh, and theorized by the French or botanical societies.

00:21 Rather, I'm talking about, that which has been designated as indigenous plants. Or indigenous garden. And these plants that, that I'm interested in, that I'm speaking about, they, they serve different functions, you know, so some would speak to spiritual agents. They are able to kind of contend and cleanse and work with energies. Some speak to supernatural forces and natural elements like inclement weather, while some can reduce or diffuse catastrophes that we as humans or materials are susceptible to, you know.

And so in Zulu cosmology, you can't refer to these objects. You can't refer to them as ‘objects’. Right? They are understood as entities in and of themselves. And these plants, like some of them you, you can't point to, or you can't point at using your index finger, because that, you know, that objectifies them, or you cannot approach them in particular states, you know?


00:27 So, yeah. So I, I'm finally talking about a very, very tangible, object here. And it's a blue chair. Yeah, so there's this blue chair that has been, that has been with us, in our family for at least, at least 32 years. Or for as long as I can hold a memory, this, this chair has, has been around. And so it's this blue plastic seat, backrest, uh, solid, with, uh, these thin black iron legs, uh, so it's like one of those old school, like, super sturdy and strong, um, products, you know?


And I wasn't quite sure why or where the sudden need or, or... loneliness? Um, maybe not loneliness, but like the sudden need to have and be in the company of this chair, or this chair to be in my company. I mean, I don't know where it came from, but yeah, I mean, I haven't gotten around to asking her. But when you asked, when you invited me to [00:29] think, with a set of objects, It suddenly came back to me that actually there's, there's something there, like there's something that this conversation has revealed and surfaced and, and kind of, yeah, helped me distill.


00:31 Or maybe more than that, maybe I needed (it) to help, help me recover memories suppressed or moments forgotten. And maybe I needed to, maybe I needed (it) to bear witness to the present, to the now. And if you think of it, like if you think about it, what do you really ask of a chair if not to sit on it, right?

In this case, like in this particular case, the utility of a chair is done. I mean, it can't perform that duty, but still I need it, right? So to ask of, of, of a new utility, um, Um, and this new, this new utility, um, has something to do with, um, with, with using it as a way to unlock something in my brain, to alter my mood, to do something to the interiority. Maybe I'm using it as a way to, to better occupy the now, to make sense of the now.

This is an excerpt of the longer conversation, where the imagination is site to think through different potential relationships between humans, desire, aspiration, and design. This is an invitation that in a similar manner to Katherine McKittrick, invites an arena ‘through which more humanly workable geographies can be and are imagined’; a way of understanding ‘Black geographies’ that are always ‘lived, possible and imaginable.’

Excerpt from a Quiet Conversation with Russel Hlongwane

Ekhaya, credit Mandisa Buthelezi
Mkabayi, credit Mandisa Buthelezi


This conversation series is supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, The Space for Creative Black Imagination and a University of Cape Town URC grant. It was developed in conversation with Raél Jero Salley at The Space for Creative Black Imagination, based at MICA in Baltimore, and James MacDonald. 

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