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Aliens in the Megacity? A Reflection on the 2019 Graduate Studio Visit to Lagos

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Sourabh Harihar received his MA in Global Studies at Berkeley and holds degrees in civil and ocean engineering from TU Delft (Holland) and the Indian Institute of Technology. In his previous years as a management consultant and a Young India Fellow, he has engaged with projects relating to smart city planning and urban informality in Indian cities. In Spring 2019, he completed the GUH Graduate Certificate as he strongly believes that an urban humanities perspective is extremely critical and valuable to understanding urban development, particularly in the Global South. He was also one of the graduate students who participated in the 2019 GUH Graduate Interdisiplinary Research Studio on Lagos, Nigeria and writes about the trip to the African mega-city.

“If there were aliens, they certainly wouldn’t come to Nigeria. Or maybe they would.” -a character in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon


At the workspace and gallery of artist-performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji in Ikoyi, Lagos

Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, is not just a city; it is a persona. In fact, it is many personas. From the security of the gated colonies of Lekki to the precarity of the dwellings in Sogunro, many traits manifest across its monumental expanse. As a group of students representing a gamut of departments at Cal, we were introduced to the cultural heritage and the socio-political realities of Lagos in a series of seminars leading up to the visit, helmed by Prof. Ivy Mills from Art History and Prof. Charisma Acey from City and Regional Planning. Yet, for many of us, being physically present in this megapolis was no less than surreal.

The trip kickstarted with an enthralling welcome at the Nike Art Gallery, which hosts a spectacular collection of some of Nigeria’s finest art and sculpture. What followed was ten days of visits to various artistic and social-political organizations as well as the opportunity to meet with some of the most outstanding people of the city, each of whom revealed to us the indomitable spirit of a Lagosian.


Artist-activist Jelili Atiku speaking in his community at Ejigbo, Lagos

As a city with a Yoruba past and present, Lagos remains deeply influenced by Yoruba culture and philosophy.  Besides obeisance to the orishas (deities from Yoruba mythology), concepts such as the ogun, one’s personal alignment with nature, and aje, the power of manifestation continue to inform the city’s complex identity by intertwining belief with the city’s material reality. It is perhaps why we heard artist-performer Wura-Natasha Ogunji be candid about the deep relationship between the spiritual and material world that her city shares, whilst leaving us with the thought “if we knew the world through our spines instead of our hands…” I was reminded again of the power of manifestation only a few days later when we visited the Kalakuta Museum, commemorating the life of iconic multi-instrumentalist composer Fela Kuti, whose own work, through the activism and politics of his musical oeuvre, has been testament to the revolutionary power of art. His memory would return as we listened to the artist-activist Jelili Atiku, a contemporary sculptor and performer, speak of “art as being produced not for the sake of aesthetics; but to increase the consciousness of the people.” I am writing this blog at a poignant moment as I receive news that Jelili has been detained by Lagos Police for “provoking the community”, among other charges. Despite the odds, he keeps inspiring through his grounded respect for indigenous tradition, which he does not see as separate from a deep commitment to social and environmental justice.

Issues of social and environmental justice certainly plague Lagos as they do the world. Hence, besides a visit to the Alimosho local government where we got a glimpse of the governance architecture at the district-level, we spent a couple of days learning from leaders and volunteers at Justice and Empowerment Initiative (JEI), a non-profit organization that works to empower poor and marginalized communities to drive in-situ changes in their neighbourhood. Witnessing Otodo-Gbame, a site of eviction that has displaced over 15,000 people from their waterfront communities, was one of the most deeply stirring experiences for many. JEI generously allowed us to shadow their volunteers as they carried out the task of ‘enumeration’ in these displaced communities, a practice of labelling houses and businesses that it hopes will build data to prove the existence of often undocumented communities. This, in turn, is expected to help in leading resistance against future displacement so that they can overcome a concern that one of their own volunteers voiced, “We can’t fully invest in our communities because we’re not sure we’ll be here in the future”.


2019 GUH graduate studio cohort, with Doyinsola Ogunye (front-left), founder and volunteers of Kids Beach Garden at Elegushi Beach, Lekki, Lagos

We also met students of planning at the University of Lagos (UniLag, in local parlance) inculcated with what Prof. Taibat Lawanson calls "planning WITH the people and not FOR the people," as we heard founders at Kids Beach Garden, an organization committed to sustainable beaches, pledging that “Lagos will not be a mess.”  Yet, from a massive corporate makeover of its substantial shoreline as a result of the Eko Atlantic project to reckless law-making such as the Kick Against Indiscipline (KAI) that threatens to criminalize the poor under the garb of protecting the environment, challenges keep mounting on this maximum city. What is reassuring is that, while challenges persist, there are Lagosians at work everywhere trying to mitigate them.

To us, the experience of Lagos was so extraordinary that, as we navigated the bizarre tapestry that is this mega-city, every thread has been woven into our mental fabric and every knot inextricably linked to our lives. Engaging with a city where ethnic differences replace racial divisions, Lagos instilled a renewed understanding of identity. While we ogled at the city through an air-conditioned bus, Lagos invoked questions of positionality and privilege. And yet, the very set-up of the touring bus has made all of us have conversations we would never have had otherwise, absorbing the city at once through our own little window and all together thinking that we are all, hopefully, not aliens to the city anymore.

Re-envisioning Memorial Cultures: A Reflection on Techniques of Memory

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If you missed the diverse and engaging presentations at this year's Techniques of Memory symposium, fear not! Rhetoric PhD student Linda Kinstler writes below a reflective summary about the symposium. Linda Kinstler was also a member of the Techniques of Memory symposium planning committee. Power Panel at Techniques of Memory Memory is on the move. All around the world, artists, activists, architects, and scholars are re-evaluating approaches to memory and its physical manifestations. In New Orleans, ephemeral monuments to the city’s forgotten heroes and triumphs are going up where markers of Confederate power recently came toppling down; in the Democratic Republic of Congo,…

Architecture and the Cult of Apology

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Congratulations to Architecture PhD Candidate and GUH Student Valentina Rozas-Krause for receiving the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for 2019-2020. The fellowship is awarded to 65 doctoral candidates annually and supports one year of research and writing to help advanced graduate students in the humanities and social sciences in their last year of PhD dissertation writing.  Rozas-Krause will be using her fellowship to complete her dissertation titled Architecture and the Cult of Apology. Read the abstract below to learn more about her research: In 2004, when Argentina’s president apologized for the state’s crimes committed during the last military dictatorship (1976-83), he also inaugurated…

Populism, Art and the City Students Published in Journal of Urban Cultural Studies

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UCB STUDENTS AND FACULTY CAN NOW CHECK OUT THIS JOURNAL FROM OSKICAT. 2018 Populism, Art, and the City students, Jeff Garnand, Tania Osorio Harp, Xander Lenc and Connie Zheng, published their papers in the September 2018 issue of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. These articles are an extension of their final projects for the Spring 2018 GUH Core Seminar Course co-taught by Jason Luger (City and Regional Planning) and Angela Marino (Theater, Dance & Performance Studies), who co-wrote an introductory article for the issue about the course as interdisciplinary pedagogy for our time. Read the abstract and contributor bios below to get an…

Peoples & Places: Photography and the City

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Having emigrated from Egypt to the United States in November of 2005, Menat Allah El Attma is now a third-year undergraduate student studying English Literature at UC Berkeley and a GUH Undergraduate Certificate student. She is a writer, self-taught visual artist, and Muslim woman who is personally invested in a myriad of art forms. To her, art is necessary to meaningfully study history, architecture, religion, science, language, ourselves and each other. The more she practices with these accessible instruments - the pen, brush and camera - the more she understands that the art is in the telling of the story as much…

GUH People: Noam Shoked

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Filed under: Los Angeles

Noam Shoked is a 2018-2019 Princeton-Mellon Fellow and was a student in the first GUH traveling course on Los Angeles called No Cruising: Mobile Identities and Urban Life. At Cal, Noam completed his PhD dissertation, which traced the ways in which the design of West Bank settlements became a site of both collaboration and confrontation between architects, settlers, and government officials. At Princeton, Noam will revise his dissertation into a book manuscript and lay the foundations for his next research project on the encounter between modernism urbanism and Bedouin communities in the Middle East. How were you invovled with the Global…

Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco (Mikayla Domingo)

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Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco Lecture by Chris Herring for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People. Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Mikayla Domingo wrote the following reflection on the November 13th lecture given by Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology. The pervasiveness of the homeless population in San Francisco has gained attention at the international level following the UN’s recent declaration of it being a human rights violation (Graff, 2018). Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, focuses his lecture around the topic of how criminalizing the homeless essentially perpetuates poverty, while also illuminating the relationship…

A Cardboard Life

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About the writer: Connie Zheng is an artist and writer currently pursuing her MFA in Art Practice at UC Berkeley. She uses the dialogue between text, drawing, painting and time-based media as a conduit through which to consider the environment of the media and the media of the environment, and these investigations tend to center on the visual culture around environmental crisis and economies of waste and creative reuse. She received her BA in Economics and English from Brown University and worked as a researcher before beginning graduate school. Here, she writes about her current practice and research on cardboard…

Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco (Edmundo Fitzgerald)

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Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco Lecture by Chris Herring for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People. Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Edmundo Fitzgerald wrote the following reflection on the November 13th lecture given by Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology. Chris Herring’s work looks at how cities attempt to mitigate homelessness. His presentation shared the results of his research as a PHD Candidate at UC Berkeley. He first showed us a brief history of cities incorporating anti-homeless legislation, the legacy of which being that 50% of all cities have at least one anti-homeless ordinance while some have as many as…

Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco (WeiJie Zhu)

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Neutralizing Poverty: Governing Homelessness in San Francisco Lecture by Chris Herring for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People. Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student WeiJie Zhu wrote the following reflection on the November 13th lecture given by Chris Herring, PhD Candidate in Sociology. Chris Herring’s lecture focused on discussing the relationship between the police and the homeless community in San Francisco. He began by explaining that there has been a history of discriminatory laws and ordinances that have negatively affected homeless people. An example is the Ugly Law (revised in 1970s), which makes it illegal for “unsightly or disgusting” people to appear…