Co-Designing Indigenous Spaces: Xhosa Arts, Architecture and Wellbeing at the Black Power Station

Public Health; Systems Engineering; Modern Art and Architecture; Ethnomusicology

Co-design with indigenous Xhosa arts activists-academics to create a sustainable public venue promoting inter-generational arts curricula, health equity, and inclusive community thriving.

Research Interests
  • Art and society
  • Architectural theory
  • health equity
  • disability
  • Performance Studies
  • indigenous studies
  • Architecture
  • Systems Engineering
  • ethnomusicology
  • South Africa
  • african languages and societies
  • African History
  • Composition
  • Participatory Design

How can the arts imagine and enact a more healthy, hopeful, and sustainable shared future in this time of growing economic inequality, social and political intolerance, environmental degradation, and climate change on a global scale—all of which have widespread implications for health and wellbeing? This transdisciplinary research will investigate such questions through a design social justice project with indigenous Xhosa communities seeking to reclaim their culture, environment, and sovereignty in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

The Black Power Station (TBPS) project will be an innovative collaboration with a Xhosa community arts activist and academic collective to design a sustainable public arts, performance, and community healing space in an abandoned power station. Indigenous artists have informally occupied this ruined landscape of giant brick industrial buildings as a space for Black youth to produce music, praise poetry, theatre, ceremonial healing songs and ceremonies, and visual art that stimulate arts education and community thriving. In addition, the project will regenerate the degraded industrial landscape and ecosystem—addressing problems of water scarcity, non-renewable energy usage, and the loss of public space and collective identity in a post-colonial, post-apartheid environment. In these ways, TBPS will be reimagined as a community-led healing space.

The collaborative process will be highly iterative and emergent, treat all participants as socially and culturally situated, and attend to deep differences in ontological and epistemological views. We will build trusting relationships with TBPS organizers to understand their vision for the space, along with City economic development leaders and the Artistic Director of South Africa’s National Arts Festival, the biggest multi-arts festival on the African continent. The research will build on two previous UVA artist residencies by Xhosa hip-hop musician and community activist Xolile “X” Madinda. Our creative research seeks to help the community overcome the history of apartheid and its legacies—land colonization, radical economic and social inequality, high unemployment and poverty, violence, political alienation, environmental degradation, and poor health outcomes. By co-imagining, designing, and building a liberated performance space, studio, and gallery, The Black Power Station can begin to actualize and sustain its fiercely independent vision that has to date operated in more improvised and pop up style events, cyphers, street fora and youth festivals. The goal is to design a place where inhabitants not only see their needs represented, but their knowledge, histories, and culture as well. As a result, the research will produce shared understanding and empathy for ways of being in the world across cultures and geographies.

The project will extend Crisman’s research on situated socio-ecological systems with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota to a marginalized South African community within the Global South. More broadly, her design practice focuses on imagining and realizing sustainable architecture and landscapes with disenfranchised communities. Lobley’s research and artistic practice works across the disciplines of music, anthropology, sound art, and composition, and will explore ways to design “sonic architecture”, that is to imagine and deliver the modes for transmitting and receiving sound into the design of the new space itself. This builds on his ongoing practice developing international and cross-cultural collaborative curatorial residences for exploring immersive sound environments and “sister spaces.” Such practice-driven research enables the collaborative sharing of sound environments both in physical spaces and in experimental studio courses. Valdez’s research sits at the intersection of public health, engineering, cultural anthropology, and community engagement. This project extends her research on participatory and user-centered design methodologies with marginalized populations and communities. It will also expand her work on co-designing community-based initiatives that broadly address social determinants of health.

This initiative will bring together their ongoing research in architecture, music and public health sciences into a new research synthesis coupled with community-engaged research opportunities for students.

Desired outcomes

The process will develop new methods for collaborative design and engaged research between university and community partners. Specifically, the research will explore how arts practices and the physical and sociotechnical design of indigenous cultural spaces can promote indigenous spirituality, community thriving, and creative economies, while reducing resource use and uplifting a decaying industrial landscape environment.

Beyond the physical and sociotechnical design of The Black Power Station, the project intends to create translatable research from this innovative arts collaboration between an indigenous Xhosa community in South Africa and a transdisciplinary team of UVA faculty and student researchers. The research will produce specific strategies for putting indigenous artists at the center of social, political, economic and cultural transformation. It will also create an understanding of how reimagined, co-designed spaces can foster community health and wellbeing.