Mabel O. Wilson reflects on 30 years of breaking borders

On April 5, 2021, Mabel O. Wilson (GSAPP’91), professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies, gave a talk on the beginnings of her practice . Covering architectural projects, publications, installations, performances and exhibitions, Wilson explained how she developed her working methods to situate race and darkness in the built environment. GSAPP Dean Amale Andraos made the opening remarks.

“Wilson’s Path in itself is a radical design project for our time,” said Andraos, “in which unlearning and indiscipline, as she put it, are essential to the crucial progress and expansions that ‘she brought to our domain.

Embark on a black study

As a student at the University of Virginia and later at Columbia, Wilson realized that it was necessary to break down boundaries to bring black into architectural discourse and make anti-black racism visible on the ground. . She turned to critical race theory, black studies, poetry, and literature to inform her work.

“For the past 30 years, I have been engaged in a study of blacks, a study that allows me to make my own history visible and to integrate black cultural practices and sensitivities into the creation of the constructed world”, Wilson said.

She recalled a mission during her last GSAPP studio class led by architect and theorist Stan Allen, where students were asked to use bonding methods to unpack the American single-family home. Wilson exposed the latent anti-Black racism in the typical Levittown-style house and its suburban development.

“The Levittown house became the site of operation, a long history of white settler colonialism, which forged whiteness as property, as scholar Cheryl Harris writes,” Wilson said. “Covenants and bank lending practices kept post-war US suburbs funded by the federal government to remain white and heteronormative.

Wilson’s drawings dissected each room to uncover hidden representations of darkness. Toni Morrison’s essay “Black Matters,” as well as black artists who used found objects such as Betye Saar and John Outterbridge, inspired this research and her subsequent work.

Spatialization migration

After graduating from GSAPP, Wilson founded the KW: a studio with Paul Kariouk. In 1999, they launched the traveling exhibition (a) way station: architectural spaces of migration at the showcase of art and architecture in New York. The installation included plywood towers housing molded resin household items such as furniture and clothing, as well as recordings of migrant stories. The show was designed to adapt to the spatial requirements of each location, drawing inspiration from the flexibility of migrants to unpredictable circumstances.

“We were interested in how migration as a force does not change urban space in ways that are immediately apparent,” Wilson said. “Instead, these transformations occur over time and begin within the confines of domestic spaces. We wanted to trace how these communities appear and disappear, and therefore fail to be recorded as urban traces. “

This collaboration was followed by another between Wilson, Kariouk and landscape architect Walter Hood to develop a proposal for the African Burial Ground Memorial in Lower Manhattan, as part of a competition organized by the US General Services Administration. . Their design, which received a finalist placement, envisioned the site as a garden of native and medicinal plants with a spirit catcher – a corten steel frame filled with cast glass bricks that was designed as a threshold between descendants. and ancestors.

“The enslaved Africans were only allowed to bury after dark, so they lit fires to light up their burial rituals which took place outside the city walls,” Wilson said. “For the memorial, we wanted to shape a space reminiscent of these bonfires, whose nocturnal illuminations would form an ephemeral meeting place for the living and the dead.

Perform resistance

In 2017, Wilson collaborated with Bryony Roberts, architect and assistant professor at GSAPP, and the New York Marching Cobras, an after-school dance team and drums, to produce “Marching On”. Presented as part of the Performa 17 Biennale and commissioned by the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the first live performance took place in and around Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. The event was followed by the exhibition Marching On: the performance policy at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2018.

“We showed the Cobras how and why black people took to the streets to be in public and implicitly protest against white supremacy and anti-black racism, ”Wilson said. “We discussed how the Marching Cobras paid homage to the exuberance of the drum lines of the time and the marching bands of historically black colleges and universities.

“The rapid gentrification in Harlem has prompted complaints from new residents about noise, especially about the Drum Circle in Marcus Garvey Park,” Wilson continued. “We wanted to draw attention to the history of this community and the importance of performance as a way to claim public space. in this site in transition and controversial. “

Liberation as a spatial practice

More recently, Wilson co-designed the Memorial to Bonded Workers at the University of Virginia, co-edited the book Race and modern architecture, and co-curator of the exhibition Reconstructions: architecture and darkness in America at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“By definition, the studio is a place of study. In that sense, my practice has been devoted to what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney called ‘elusive planning and black study,'” Wilson said. which is known, but rather, as a speculative practice, it engages the unknown and allies itself with liberation as a spatial practice.

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