The Biennale Architettura 2023, curated by academic, educator, and author Lesley Lokko, opened to the public on May 20. In it, eighty-nine participants, over half of whom are from Africa or the African Diaspora, and sixty-three national pavilions presented their work framed around the theme of The Laboratory of the Future. Among the participants is Chicago-born Miami-based Germane Barnes, an architect whose work explores how Blackness has shaped his experiences in the built environment.
In this interview with Iker Gil, Barnes discusses Griot, his contribution to this edition of the Biennale, how the project relates to his ongoing research, and the projects and experiences that stood out for him during the opening days of this year’s Biennale.
IG: Lesley Lokko proposed the theme of The Laboratory of the Future, highlighting Africa and the African Diaspora. How did you get involved in this edition and what was your initial reaction to her theme?
GB: Leslie Lokko’s curatorial direction of The Laboratory the Future was a very interesting proposal for me. I received the email, which was the invite, in July of 2022. This is when I was still doing my American Academy in Rome research, which was the impetus and the inspiration behind Griot, my installation for the Venice Architecture Biennale. It was interesting, the way that they proposed it. I got an email, and in that email, it said, “Hi, I’d like to invite you to create a proposal for The Laboratory of the Future.” The first email was not telling participants that they were included, as far as I understood. The one that I received did not say that I was “in”; it said they were interested in my work. “We think you have an interesting practice; can you propose something?” For the first proposal we had to write a single word, we had to send a single image, and we also had to provide like 100 words for the idea that we will come up with. For mine, I sent the one word as Griot, I sent an image of some AI-generated columns—just very quickly, like I am thinking about designing columns—and I sent a couple of texts. Essentially, that was it. That was literally how this whole thing started. Then I got an email back from Leslie and she said, “Alright, it’s very interesting. For step two, what do you propose?” I said, “I want to do a one-to-one scale column and I want to do some drawings.” That was my step two response and I had to send them information about wall space, budget, finances I had already accumulated, and how to deal with this underlying theme of decarbonization. With all this information, Leslie then told me that I was going to be in the Dangerous Liaisons section and that I needed to respond to Dangerous Liaisons. I began to do some research and found out that it was a book that then became a movie about power and manipulation, and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. This is exactly what my Griot and North African research as part of the American Academy in Rome is all about. It is about manipulation of history. It is about power and dominance, colonialism, taking over real stories and then appropriating them as someone else. My God, this is incredible, this is like perfect timing. This is what I am going to propose.” They loved it and I got an email back saying, “You are good to go. Welcome to The Laboratory of the Future. You are now included.” I was like, “Awesome, this is great.” I later found out that after the first email, that meant that we were in, even though the way it was written made us all believe that we had more steps to go through. In the moment, I thought I wasn’t in, but then, at the end, the curatorial team told me that the first email was the confirmation. I guess I was all worried for nothing, but I was super excited about it. I think the way they positioned us was really cool. What they were saying is, “Here is this book, respond to the book. Here is the theme, give us a word, give us some text, and then we’ll go from there.”
IG: What aspects of Dangerous Liaisons inspired you as the point of departure for Griot?
GB: If the original prompt that we were given was to read a text, I wanted to think about narration as the number one aspect of my project. Griot historically is the term for a West African storyteller. We are talking about text; we are talking about narratives. Can I use architecture to tell a story? Can I use architectural drawing to tell the story? Can I use architectural maquettes to tell a story? If I can, then I will knock out this installation. I am thinking about text and word, and the axis between power and dominance. The text is essentially the elevation drawings. Those explain the importance of each of my columnar orders of Migration, of Identity, of Labor. Word becomes the drawings, the drawings of the Identity Column inside the Pantheon. That relationship between columnar orders and who created columns first, palazzos, plazas, monuments… This alien figure of the Identity Column that these Romans are studying just to steal from them.
IG: Griot is composed of three parts: the column, the drawings, and the masks that sit upon the podiums. Can you explain the overall approach to the installation and how each part fits within the larger narrative?
GB: Each one of them has their own very important part within the installation. Ultimately, the entire installation is around appropriation, Black bodies, and columnar disorder as I call it. If you think about the history of architecture, Vitruvius and his Ten Books on Architecture, the columnar orders (Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian), the entire narrative around the human figure, specifically the woman, and how these things came from Greece, there is always this omission of the fact that Egypt had columns first and that the Papyrus order predates Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. Even before that, columns were used in Africa to support roof structures and were just made of wood and not out of cement or any type of rock or masonry aggregate. So, in my mind I was like, “Alright, how can I tell the correct story about this? How can I tell the correct story of Africa and North African architectural improvisation and innovation before it got stolen?”
The first thing you see when you enter my installation is the timeline. The timeline essentially says, “This is when the orders were invented, this is when these countries had this information, here is North Africa, here is Rome, here is dominance, here is how these things all collapsed onto each other.” To take a step back, the actual way that the drawing is made is using the proportions of a slave ship that was used on the transatlantic slave trade. Again, I am trying to find ways to hide these kind of Easter eggs within the drawings.
After that, you approach the columnar order, or the columnar disorder as I like to call it. Instead of Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian, I had Identity, Labor, and Migration. The Identity Column is the one that is present within the installation. It embeds issues of identity, of hair, of blackness, cornrows, dreadlocks, you see faces, you see figures… I think the most appropriate description of the column is from a friend of mine, Emanuel Admassu, and he said, “I can’t believe you have figured out how to make a column look like Black bodies are within shrink wrap and trying to force their way out of this mold into something else.” I was like, “I can’t believe you are able to see the human figures that I tried to embed in the model. I never thought of shrink wrap but there are definitely human figures embedded within that.” Then there is the Labor Column. The Labor Column is one that thinks about crops, around enslavement, around labor in the South of the US specifically, cotton, indentured servitude, and sharecropping. The last column is the Migration Column, which talks about water and how enslaved people moved across continents unwillingly, and how even in the US there are issues of Black people with water, and the fear of water. Each of the masks are a step forward in articulating that.
There is the Migration Mask, which is essentially a futuristic version of water goggles. Then there is the Labor Mask, which is part N-95 COVID mask, thinking about the groups of people who are most infected, affected, and deceased from the pandemic. They are typically Black and Brown people that had to continue to go to work and did not have the ability to stop their labor. It is also a tie back to this historic map that shows how they would put enslaved people on auction blocks before they were stolen, before they were sold. They would put this covering over their mouth and then the adapters would go around their head as a way of stopping them from speaking, talking, biting, etcetera. It was my interpretation of that mask. The Identity Mask is one that covers 75% of the face, showing this relationship between who we are in public and who we are in private. When we are in public, we are an identity that is always at risk of being shot, killed, and murdered. I am thinking about the Vigilantism issue that we did, which is really all about that: a Black identity in the built environment is “danger” to other demographics. How do we protect ourselves when we put a mask on, and you can’t see our race?
The last thing is the column. The column is something that I felt it had to be built for everything to stop being theoretical and be real. It is nine feet in height and four feet in diameter. It breaks every single columnar rule that you will find in classical architectural studies, such as the lack of entablature, podium, or fluting. It is cut from a single piece of black Spanish Marquina marble and then shaved down. It is quite robust, weighing three tons, 6,000 pounds. It shows just how heavy it means to be Black. Having all these things make a lot of sense together.
On the opposite side of the wall, you have four more drawings, and three of those drawings are various perspectives of the Identity Column within the Pantheon. One of those is this planimetric sectional drawing, which is showing the proportions, like an architectural drawing. If you look on there, there is translated Berber text. Again, I wanted to go back and pay homage to North Africa and the Berber tribes that were often seen as barbaric, dumb, and underdeveloped by the white dominant counterparts. But they were extremely sophisticated, smart, and clever so we wanted to draw that up. We put the Berber text in conversation with Latin on all these drawings. And there is a big drawing, the Howard University collage, which is probably the most personal of every single item that is in there. Again, I am talking about issues of slavery, of labor, of disenfranchisement and this is the thing that I find the most attachment to because of the history I have with Howard University. It is where my older sister, who passed from cancer and really altered my trajectory of education and how I dealt with architecture, went to Howard University. I always speak about her very fondly in all my interviews because it is true. There are a lot of things that I could not deal with because I didn’t know how to accept her passing. This is The Laboratory of the Future and Howard University is one of the foremost historically Black institutions in the US. I took the educational building, removed their Corinthian columns, and put the Identity Column on the front. At the bottom of the drawing, you see the ten columnar rules that I am breaking in Latin, English, and Berber. This is my way of making it go full circle, from antiquity all the way into modern US, slavery from West Africa all the way to labor in the US. Those are all the drawings and the models. One last thing that I want to mention is that every single piece of the big marble was used. The podiums where the masks sit on are from the original piece of stone. The entire middle of the Identity Column is hollow so that it can weigh less. Even though weighs 6,000 pounds, it could have weighed more. We took that core and turned it into three smaller podiums.
IG: Your research “Structuring Blackness in Rome,” developed as a Rome Prize Fellow in Architecture at the American Academy in Rome, explored aspects related to Griot. Can you elaborate on how that research influenced the installation at the Biennale?
GB: A lot of the work that I do is a take on architectural anthropology, as I like to call it. When I was doing early research at the American Academy in Rome, which created the Griot proposal, I couldn’t find any of this information in the architecture department. I met with an expert on North Africa who gave me a few suggestions and some buildings. I went through the archives to try to find information at the library at the American Academy and things kept coming up in archaeology, not in architecture. I went to the library, I went to archaeology, and I found the books. I noticed one book titled The North African Stones Speak. I said, “Wow, what is this?” I grabbed the book, I opened it up, and there was nothing but architecture inside of it. I was like, “Why is this not in the architecture department?” I just grabbed a bunch of books that are all in the same area. I am talking about columnal orders, opus sectile, opus africanum, which are these processes that were created in North Africa, stolen by the Romans, and then re-appropriated. Even Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the leading encyclopedia brands that we had in the US for a while, doesn’t even properly attribute these things. When I said that the work that I do is beyond just architecture is because, oftentimes, our discipline is so limited and so Eurocentric that it doesn’t acknowledge true histories. You have to step out of that and go to archaeology and anthropology in order to find it, because that is where the truth lies. You can find these things in other departments. Throughout the visualizations, my ultimate goal is to show that architecture in and of itself is not enough. We have to be able to understand other social issues and other social disciplines that are tangential to architecture in order to fully be, in my opinion, an affective architect. Now, I didn’t say good or talented. I said affective because I think affective is ultimately what we are trying to aim for. We are being inclusive of all types of people from marginalized backgrounds. My original project was anatomical transformations in classical architecture. I wanted to go to North Africa and Italy, find these different processes, compare them to each other, put them in the historical perspective, and understand them purely from a research proposal. But when I got to the American Academy in Rome everything shifted. That shift was, “Alright, I need to be able to show that Blackness, regardless of corresponding diaspora, is seen in a very negative light in a lot of other places. Instead of harping on the negativity, I am going to celebrate it and design in such a way that it is ours.” The Identity, Labor, and Migration orders (or disorders) are my way of saying: Black is amazing, Black is beautiful, Black is something that should be celebrated. It shouldn’t be something that is denigrated. It shouldn’t be something that creates fear. In this country you see this every single day. Abroad, you find issues of people who are refugees that get turned away at the drop of a hat every single time. But if there is a Eurocentric or Western country that deals with these same issues, they are welcomed with open arms. People find spare bedrooms they never had, they find cottages they forgot they own, they find summer houses that they rent, and they give it to all these individuals. But when it is someone from North Africa or West Africa with the same issue, they are shunned away, they are told that they can’t get a visa, that they can’t come in, because if they come in, they won’t leave. Those three columnal disorders were really developed understanding what it meant to see Black people live in Europe. Now, that is where it gets very complicated because, while I am Black, I am also American, and I am dressed like an American. When people see me, they assume, “Oh, he is an American, he is probably here as a tourist. He is going to spend some money, let’s be kind to him.” That is opposed to the stereotypical migratory “refugee” that you might see in these locations where people say, “Oh no, that someone is trying to steal, or to grift, or something like that.” They are not treated the same, and it always made me sad when I was in Italy. That I was treated so well and that other individuals that were also Black were treated so poorly. I hope that when people leave Griot they are able to see the complexities and the nuances of what it means to be Black, to tell proper histories of architecture, and to be more inclusive than exclusive. That all these things are architecture, that all these things are the built environment, that all these things are the architecture and environment. Just because it may not be a physical building or adhere to some arbitrary set of guidelines that some white man made a thousand years ago, it doesn’t need to discredit other countries and other contributions that clearly created the stuff that these white temples are built upon.
IG: I’d like to know how you see Griot advancing or influencing the rest of your work.
GB: I think the next few things I work on will absolutely still be a continuation of Griot. I want to make the Labor Column and the Migration Column. I need to figure out how I need to fundraise for that to get them at a real scale so people can see them and show the design process that goes into that. Creating a columnar order is not easy. We have seen it historically through architecture like with the chunky order, the colossal order, and the postmodern order. I am not innovative, and I am not the first person to get an order. What I am trying to do, however, is to abandon all the traditional rules and aspects of classical design and use African principles instead. Create principles and use new principles instead. That is what I am going for and I think that proves a lot more difficult than using and amending a script that has already been created.
IG: In Venice you were able to see how other participants and countries responded to Leslie Lokko’s theme. What overall aspects of the Biennale stood out to you? Where there any specific projects that resonated with you?
GB: I got to Venice on May 10 to begin install, so I got to run around and see the national pavilions and the other pavilions in the Giardini that featured a lot of participants’ work. The first thing I thought was, “This is absolutely incredible. It is so expansive. I don’t even care that there aren’t many buildings, because this is all still architecture, it is land, it is people, it is sound, it is visual.” I thought the work overall was just amazing. There were some standouts. I thought on the first day that Olalekan Jeyifous was going to win something. In the end, he won the Silver Lion. His take on an Afrofuturistic world through a port terminal was just mind-blowing. There were layers on layers on layers in world building that he did in there. It was just undeniably exquisite. I thought Sean Canty’s Edgar's Sheds was incredible. I thought the lighting that they chose was awesome. The Venice Biennale employs this older gentleman who rides a little bicycle as their cheap lighting designer. That man is a master. I think that the way he lights everyone’s work just shows that he is an expert and brilliant at what he does. There was a film by a British artist named Lionheart [Rhael “LionHeart” Cape] on a giant iPhone screen, which I thought immediately set the tone for what the show was about. There were these amazing models in the Arsenale by this workshop where it was just every meticulous detail of just working, and working, and working. There is this artist named Ibrahim Mahama that recycled chairs and made a temporary lounge that was also gorgeous. I just think a lot of the other participants found masterful ways of bringing in their own practices through an Afrocentric lens as well as different mediums and things you can’t even imagine they were present. As far as the national pavilions, I was most impressed by the Mexican pavilion because it is centered around basketball, which is my first love. It is basketball as an act of resistance, as an act of defiance. There is a long history of indigenous people, so basketball as a response to indigeneity is just extremely smart. You can actually shoot hoops, they gave you bags, and they had parties. It was awesome and just super, super clever. The curators were also the team that won the League Prize from the Architectural League in the same cycle that I won that award, which I didn’t realize until after I left the pavilion. I thought the Irish pavilion was also amazing. They recreated Pangea, but in this way that cradled Africa instead. The drawing was just so detailed and beautiful. They found this old sheep’s wool, which can be used as insulation for walls, for buildings, and different mechanisms. They are taking the decarbonization and environmental approach super seriously. The British pavilion just absolutely blew me away. Dancing Before the Moon was a curatorial direction that blended sound, architecture, film, culture, hip-hop, Soca, the Caribbean, and what it means to be from the diaspora and the UK. To see four young people [Jayden Ali, Joseph Henry, Meneesha Kellay and Sumitra Upham], all under the age of 40, which typically never happens in these type of events for people of color… it was just… the solidarity, the care, and love that I felt in that building was just beyond measure. Those are the projects that stood out to me. Ultimately, getting to see your friends, to celebrate your friends, to see them in their work, to see them in their industry, and just get to be a fan of them is also something that will stick with me. It just felt like a family reunion.