Students: Abyssinian Cyber-Vernaculus


California College of the Arts / Supervisors: Randy Nakamura, Brett Macfadden & Jason T. Anderson (2019)

“I stood on the border, stood on the edge and claimed it as central and let the rest of the world moves over to where I was.” Toni Morrison (1993)

Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus is an evolving body of work that seeks to fracture the dangerous hegemonic narratives that have been placed over historical accounts and “vernacular” architectures of Ethiopia. Hegemonic narratives may be deployed in many forms however, this project deals with the following three. First, as lore to uphold patriarchy through coptic monotheism (the figure of the conservative Orthodox Christian Ethiopian male). Second, as doctrines of Hegelian racist determinism to maintain the presumed authority of colonial powers over the artefacts and knowledge of Black and Brown people (the figure of the Western academic or white savior). Third, as calls for patriotism and a celebration of sovereignty that quietly erases the presence and power of womxn and queer communities (the figure of the “Hotep,” a pro-Black yet unprogressive cis male). Ultimately, hegemonic narratives have served to maintain control by corrupting or eroding the elusive past and preventing us from speculating into the future.

Through the use of visual and immersive storytelling methods, the thesis attempts to activate the existing architecture of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia, through three parallel narratives constructed around the perspectives of the self-proclaimed experts of the site. Initially the stories were portrayed through three comic books, the medium chosen because it allowed me to impose my own narratives onto the site of Lalibela. The disjointed saga did not feel bound to its medium. It needed space to expand and a territory to occupy. Virtual Reality was the next obvious choice. Therefore I set out to design three VR experiences where the player can occupy the role of these characters and go on their journey of unlearning absolutes. Virtual reality presents the othered with the opportunity to self actualize and take up space that they otherwise could not hold within their patriarchal and white centered realities. After all, identity is a spatial praxis and liberation demands audience and space. While architectural institutions have almost successfully excluded the Black subject from determining and constructing self-invented forms, virtual reality is a new unclaimed territory for Black and Brown radical imagination.

Architecture as we know it has been pivoted around the white male gaze, prioritizing “honorific bodies” (Mario Gooden, Dark Space, 2016) while either objectifying or banishing all other bodies from the picture frame. Similarly architectural discourse dismisses Black subjectivity, treating it as invisible, exotic or unknowable.

In this context, my work may be presented to contest the active exclusion of Black and Brown formalisms and artefacts from the architectural canon. It pushes up against the apocryphal stories of Africa and attempts to uncover and reinstate the presence and power of those marginalized or demonized by the dominant conservative ethos of Ethiopians. And as Africans we must still strive for better representation, self-affirmation and self-determination. The work hopes to imbue its audience with curiosity and urge them to learn more, and thereby shift the center.■

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Unity game engine view of the Lalibela terrain, generated from terrain data.
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Spread of the comic book Seen.
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Spread of the comic book The Heretic.
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3D model of Bete Giorgis in progress.
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Visitors experiencing the V.R. project at the installation at Hubbell Street Galleries.