Thulani Rachia (b. 1988, South Africa) is a Glasgow-based artist, educator, and director whose work carefully documents, maps, and generously unpacks (hi)stories within his surroundings, emphasized through lived experience, discovery, research and repetition. Transcending space, circumstance, and existences, the acknowledgment of time is vibrantly alive in Rachia’s practice. Time, in the way we spoke of it, can be heavy, charged and non-linear. His initial training in architecture continues to influence his practice through his recurring use of urban environments as material in his choreography, performances, and installations. His ongoing investment in highlighting the racism built into these spaces offers a careful insight into his lived experiences, ancestry, and how markings of colonialism and the slave trade continue to be very much alive and present in our everyday.
Thinking about support often leads me to look onto surrounding buildings and construction sites as a reference point. Studs provide consistent maintenance to a wall frame, while headers, cripples, and trimmers provide reinforcement for the doors and windows along the way. In this sense, support is often seen as an ongoing action of building up. As I grow to understand the vast potentials of support, I also move deeper into understanding its limits in relation to the labour of constant care, and what it truly means to support through undoing.
It’s often said that time heals all wounds, but Thulani’s work sharply proves otherwise. While duration may offer the opportunity for education and reflection, it can also foster passivity, neutrality and numbness. Through his bold yet sensitive approach to confronting the realities of his past, present and future, it’s evident that Thulani’s work is a practice of undoing as a form of radical care.
I think urban designers and architects have a massive role to play in society. If we’re supposed to be living in a democratic state, I think that they have a massive responsibility in contributing to that because we experience the built environment every second of every day.
I came to know about your work from your show, of sugar and Bones, at Civic Room last year. It’s a work that’s based off of methods of remembering, and you showed this through the architecture in Glasgow and its connection to the slave trade. I want to hear a bit more about it, and what prompted the installation.
I think it was maybe a year after moving to Glasgow when I unexpectedly encountered this history and Glasgow's connection to the slave trade. I was working during a performance for Black History Month for this organization called Ankur Productions. They were a theatre company which prioritized people of colour. We were doing the performance outside of the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow, which was formerly a mansion belonging to a merchant who was involved in and benefited from the slave trade. Through conversations with the other performers, I learned more about the problematic history of the city. One of the performers took me around to the different streets which were named after a merchant, a colony, or a place where these merchants had a lot of plantations—like Jamaica Street, for example. It was in that moment of cognitive dissonance that I learned about Glasgow’s history. That was the moment where I felt that this was something I really wanted to try and excavate and understand more for myself.
Living in Glasgow for what was maybe a five year period at the time, and witnessing the urban renewal happening, I realized that there were a lot of buildings where there was significant history, and I realized how this history is slowly being erased through demolition. One of the biggest issues for me is that there’s no built structure, like a museum or memorial, which is dedicated to educating people about this history.
Then you have the branding of the city, you know, People Make Glasgow. There are two things happening here for me. There’s the aesthetic and connotations around pink - pink being a friendly colour, apparently, marketing Glasgow as a friendly city. Also, Glasgow predominantly being a city of working class people who work really hard, which it is. It was all these things, I felt, were building a very specific narrative around Glasgow and prioritizing a very specific history. In my experience of the city, its entire history wasn't really represented in a very direct way, so this project was really trying to think about ways of remembering histories.
This led to me documenting a building that was being demolished. I kind of stumbled upon this building because it sat opposite the City Chambers. I later learned that all of the wealth that was used to create the City Chambers building was from the slave trade. It felt like this building had a very direct physical relationship to the slave trade and I wanted to excavate that through this film, which was based on documentation of this demolition. I wanted to bring attention to it, but to also really have people spend time with it. The exhibition was in Civic Room, which is a building that was formerly a lending bank for merchants during that era. I think all these things were sort of pointing towards the question of how we can somehow commemorate these histories today.
I think anyone who's been to Glasgow over the last few years knows that vibrant pink People Make Glasgow branding. I’ve always thought that it was an interesting slogan for the city.
Yes, absolutely! That was what I was really trying to play with. I was using the aesthetics of the marketing and branding of the city, the pink with that typeface to really draw attention to this. It's a very specific branding, and I wanted to take that apart to create something new, to have people question it, or rather even just create an alternative narrative using that branding. Even this idea of people making is really linked to labour. Glasgow has always been known as this working class city, but I think for me I was trying to point to the labour that created Glasgow: the labour that created the wealth that Glasgow still benefits from and is built on.
I was really trying to connect this labour to people because I think essentially, that's the biggest thing for me when we're having these conversations around slavery; the human that was oppressed. I think there is a disconnect that happens when we have these conversations. The name of the exhibition, “of sugar and Bones”, was me really wanting to think about the materiality of the slave trade, and the materials that were being bought and traded. Sugar was a massive commodity; there are the plantations in Jamaica and America, but also bodies. Bodies were bought. I think about it in a very expanded way: these buildings are actually built from these materials—they are built off of sugar and bones. Glasgow was built off of sugar and bones.
Speaking of architecture and this notion of building, I want to hear a bit about your background in architecture and how that influences your practice.
Architecture was my first training. When I left high school, I was looking for something that held my interests in art at the time, but with a pragmatic approach to things. During architecture school, there was always a struggle because I was constantly taking such a long time in what they call “the research stage”, where you’re doing mappings of the sites, trying to understand who would use the site, who uses the sites now or historically, and what its surroundings are. I felt like that was such an important part of the process, and it wasn't something that was embraced or focused on in my undergrad.
I think it's how I see the world and understand the world from a very analytical place, it informs everything I do as it was my first training. My process is grounded by mappings as a desire to understand my surroundings. I work a lot with sites and mappings, and my mappings take different forms such as video, drawing or sound recordings. My process usually starts off by using a number of different mediums, and through a process of distillation and research, I become more specific and detailed about what I'm prioritizing.
I think when I look back on my experience of architecture, the things that I was always really interested in was trying to understand what is there, existing already, and working with sites. That’s a really important part of my process. So when I’m working with sites now, living in and being in cities, it's always important for me to understand the architecture of the space and the urban design, and how that plays a large role in how we experience space. It has a massive effect on how we think about the city, and whether we think about ideas regarding accessibility as well.
I think there is a lack of understanding about how these spaces affect our psyches and ultimately affect how we think about ourselves in the world. You have these monumental buildings, and whether people think that they're for them or whether they think those buildings are accessible, institutional buildings are often designed in a very specific way which is not inviting. In South Africa, we understand that as a colonized nation, architecture preserves the ideas of those who built the architecture—whatever they prioritized is held in the architecture of the built environment.
Do you think that it’s architecture's role to make these spaces accessible or rather is it our responsibility to make these environments that were given to, or handed down, or forced upon us, more accessible? Whose responsibility do you think it is to shelter, care, use, or demolish these spaces?
It's tricky. I’m constantly thinking about my niece, who's seven now, and how she experiences the world and the city. I’m thinking about her surrounding architecture, and how there are so many monuments of mostly white men. What is that saying to her? What sort of education is she getting from experiencing these buildings and memorials? For me, it feels like she's seeing that, and she's not seeing anyone who looks like her, and these spaces are not welcoming her. These very monolithic buildings are very closed off.
There is a narrative which is built into these spaces that they are not for me, and not for people who look like me. I think that narrative affects how people think about themselves. It affects people's confidence and affects what people think is possible. When thinking about psychological effects of architecture and monuments and the built environment, for me it's clear that there is an implicit education when you experience the built environment or the urban landscape.
It’s an education around what is important, what the city thinks is important, what the city is prioritizing, and who the city is prioritizing. I think urban designers and architects have a massive role to play in society. If we’re supposed to be living in a democratic state, I think that they have a massive responsibility in contributing to that because we experience the built environment every second of every day. I’m against this idea that architects and urban designers can create in a vacuum without actually understanding, or trying to understand the effects that the spaces they create have on society.
I guess this also questions the notion of traces in architecture, what’s left behind, and how the things that you see everyday register onto you and your subconscious.
Yeah. In South Africa, because we had the apartheid regime, a lot of people take issue with this idea of talking about it as being part of the past, because the built environment that was built up by the regime still exists. Those ideologies are still permitted, essentially. What they were prioritizing was separation—separating people into different places in the country, according to what race they were. The city was literally designed to have white people in the centre and the suburbs, and people of colour were put on the outskirts. The city was the economic centre and people of colour didn't have direct access to that. There was also a curfew. Black people were only allowed to be in the city until a certain time and had to carry around a document called a dompas (Afrikaans for a “dumb pass”) whenever they were travelling outside the confines of their government designated areas. That urban design is still in place, it’s still alive. The legacy of the built environment perpetuates these ideologies. It is still very present. So, when we talk about these traces, I feel like it's something that has a transience to it, it feels like something that's very light. Maybe the idea of traces isn’t really fitting when we're talking about these things that are very built and present.
When you employ something from your surroundings in your work, whether a building being demolished, or a piece of fabric, do you consider these things perhaps more like characters performing for or with you, or are they considered more like research material that you step off of? There’s a nearly anthropomorphic nature to them.
I think I see them as materials. Perhaps a hierarchy is created through witnessing as an audience member, but I certainly don't feel like I'm higher than them. I feel that my body is also a material in the work. I feel like these objects have their own presence as well. A lot of the time my research jumps off from these materials, and being led by them through the process of excavating, and how I relate to them.
I've realized that a thread that holds a lot of my inquiries together is that there's always this thinking around human hands and ideas around labour. I think in working with the materials, and then these objects and these spaces, I'm always connecting them to human hands, whether it's these buildings that were built by hands, or the fabric that's been on a number of journeys and been passed through different hands.
I’m quite interested in the perspectives that you use when you film. I think a lot about your video, KING SHWESHWE. There’s a moment in it—I believe you're on a train in The Netherlands, and you see a glimpse of yourself filming reflected in the window, and you reveal yourself to the audience for just a second and make it clear this is from your perspective. Are you always the one filming your videos?
I really like thinking about this idea that we honour who we are through how we use our hands, and I feel like it's something that comes out in my work and processes in different ways. I guess the presence of my hands is a way firstly to assert my presence, and I think that’s important in film. I also think a lot of the time that it's important that I am the one filming when we’re thinking about the gaze and whose gaze it is. It’s important that it’s my perspective that you’re seeing, and that's a conscious decision that I make. I think a lot about those who came before me when creating my work, and I think immediately to my parents and where they were able to go, and which spaces they were able to access, through the apartheid regime. Black people and people of colour had a very restricted experience of the city and weren't allowed to travel freely.
I don't take it lightly that I'm able to cross borders. I’m able to film in a number of different countries. This idea of transgression, it's almost feeling like making amends for that time that my parents weren't able to do that. It's really important that I am the person going to and experiencing the sites. I think something almost like a double presence occurs: I am there as the filmmaker and you're experiencing that perspective, but also that my body is actually present in the sites, and that's another experience. The next film that I'm working on is trying to bring those two experiences together in a more conscious way.
walking in these spaces feel like quite radical acts because my ancestors and my parents weren't able to do that
I also want to speak about your relationship to duration and time passing — I see it a lot in your work through walking. I'm curious about this as a means of physically tracing your surroundings and as a form of remembering.
I think it's something that I'm still understanding as well, this idea that you understand something through doing it. I think definitely with TEXT_ILE and that being a durational piece, taking that fabric apart, is this idea that to understand something, you have to be with it. So with that piece, it's literally being with this fabric and taking it apart. One of the questions that holds that film together, (because that performance installation sits alongside a film) is, “what lies between these fibres?”, and it’s essentially asking: What is the legacy of these histories? How do these legacies affect me today and how do these materials hold these legacies? I feel like I'm still answering and questioning that through doing, and taking the fabric apart. I feel like that's going to be a piece that I do the rest of my life, possibly.
I think, again, about walking and documenting myself in these landscapes— this idea that walking, crossing these borders, walking in these spaces feel like quite radical acts because my ancestors and my parents weren't able to do that. Documenting that feels like a very important thing. I think duration is just this idea of taking time to understand something. I think there’s an epic scale. A lot of these pieces have an epic nature to them in terms of how massive the history is. I think duration is appropriate for dealing with these histories, trying to access them and understand them, and somehow try to take them apart in some way. It’s a long process, so I think duration is appropriate.
Text is woven into your work in different ways, and I find it quite interesting how you move between using subtitles (in your videos), to how you employ poetry and language as a means of research or knowledge sharing.
If I'm thinking about something that holds all of that together, it's definitely ways of remembering. I think for me, language is a really massive part of my process and my work, because I'm constantly feeling like I'm trying to really prioritize these languages that feel like they are still being erased. I think also that when we talk about colonialism, it is often spoken about as this idea of this thing that has passed, but when we're thinking about the sociopolitical implications of colonization, I feel like that is still something that is very present, this idea of a country or people being colonized.
Something that I've experienced because South Africa was colonized twice, is that when you are from a colonized nation, throughout your life, you continually have these moments of learning and understanding how deeply the colonization occurred. So that makes sense how language is used to assert the presence of an ideology, or of the colonizer. For me, bringing my mother tongue into my work is a way that I get in a sense, my presence, but also assert the presence of my ancestors whose knowledge was erased and oppressed.
I think a lot about the presence of language. I know that from my experience, seeing a language that is Other in that context, is definitely this way of connecting. I recently did a public art piece in the city centre in Glasgow, which was a development from the exhibition in Civic Room. I took some text from the film and used them on posters that were installed around the city. This line ”Sighuba kanjani amaphupho ethu agqittjwe kulezindonga?". So I guess it was me trying to work through my own process of cognitive dissonance and confusion, but I think there was something quite important for me to be able to assert myself on that land and space as well.
For me, bringing my mother tongue into my work is a way that I get in a sense, my presence, but also assert the presence of my ancestors whose knowledge was erased and oppressed.
You’re also an educator by profession. I want to talk a bit about how you approach that role, and how your background and your practice influence the work and responsibilities that you take on as an educator.
My work as an educator has definitely been informed by my own experience with education and experiencing an educational system. I became very aware of how I felt not seen or like my experience of the world was not prioritized. In many ways, I didn't feel validated as a human being in the world by the education that I was receiving, so a lot of the work that I'm doing now in teaching is trying to offer students from different backgrounds an avenue or way to be seen through what they're engaging in, in their curriculum.
Today, many institutions are looking at this idea of decolonizing the curriculum, and I may shy away from that term because I think it’s really complex when we’re in the United Kingdom where many institutions benefit from that very colonial system, which in turn perpetuates it. I think it’s tricky to think about decolonizing the curriculum. I’m more energized by the idea of an anti-racist curriculum though, and a curriculum which prioritizes different knowledge systems; this idea of expanding the idea of education, what knowledge is and where we get our education from, because I think historically for the Western and British Victorian system, it comes from a central source, as in the teacher being the one dispersing knowledge.
The staff team of the programme I'm currently teaching on are really trying to think about a different way, firstly, of looking at what knowledge is, and then also thinking about the different sources we get our knowledge from. Then thirdly, we are looking at how we access that knowledge. For me, our work as educators is trying to bring awareness to that for ourselves; that actually, there are multiple sources of education, and somehow trying to bring them together in a way. The education that I’m dispersing or offering is not in isolation to the other educators, or the other learning that the students are engaging in.
I've worked as an educator for a year now, and I made the decision to accept that I may never feel comfortable in this role, because I think I'm constantly learning, and learning can be difficult. I’m constantly questioning myself because as an educator, you’re not working alone; you’re working with students - other human beings who have life experiences, histories, all of that. They come with that. So in the classroom, you have to be so sensitive to that. This notion of where knowledge comes from and what knowledge is prioritized is something that I’m constantly trying to get the students to think about. We’re currently undergoing a curriculum audit at my place of work which is raising so many important questions around how we teach so it’s been energizing to be on this process with others.
You also have a background in choreography, arts working, and facilitating in general. How do these projects and platforms inform your practice?
Choreography feels like something I’ve always just done, and I connect with it as a way to communicate ideas. My studies in performance art made me consider my body being a tool; it was very body based, and there wasn’t a lot of spoken text in my work. In my 2nd or 3rd year, I began working with young people with Ignite Theatre - a theatre company founded in Knightswood Glasgow by young refugees and asylum seekers in 2006. I was also on a placement in my 2rd year at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Glasgow. At the time, I was interested in curating performance and site specific practices. Working within the confines or opportunities of the site, I thought about what it means to bring a body into a space and curate body based practices.
After graduating, I was offered the opportunity to join the Transmission committee, which is an artist led space in Glasgow run entirely by people of colour. Alongside it being a gallery, it’s a community space as well. This initiative came from a need to respond to this artist landscape in Scotland, which at the time felt violently white. This was exciting for me as it seemed to align with a lot of what I was thinking about at the time, but the greatest challenge was that it was voluntary, and that model excludes a large group of people who are not able to work for free. From working at Transmission, I learned that space is the most important resource. Space in Glasgow at that time felt like such an important thing to have.
Now five years into working with Ignite Theatre, facilitating and directing performance work with young people there, it’s incredibly experimental, and has been a wonderful opportunity for me. Youth theatre is often seen as “less than”, as amateur theatre, and I have been really excited to work with young people in a professional way, but also I feel like I am inspired and that my arts practice is benefitting from this as well.
I initially felt like quite an outsider in this context of arts working and facilitating; I felt out of my depth. I didn't feel like I fit in because I was not exactly a visual artist. I felt like I did performance, but I wasn’t necessarily a performance artist. These feelings led to an interesting talk with a friend and collaborator, Maria Braender, and I was thinking about what the threadline was between all these avenues that I was moving into, as I was unable to see the connection. She told me not to worry about connecting the dots because I was the connection. That realization was so liberating: that the fact that I’ve chosen to do what I’m doing means there is an inherent connection there even if I’m not conscious of it. I realized that I just need to continue doing what feels most alive and most present for me.