Shembe ritual. Image courtesy of Counterspace
Shembe ritual. Image courtesy of Counterspace

A Blurry Line on the Plan: Johannesburg Rituals on the Edge

In this photograph, a Shembe ritual is captured on a disused piece of no-man’s land—a mine dump in Johannesburg. It is believed that God directs the worshippers to the space to be prayed in.

Shembe services often take place on “leftover” urban spaces—islands next to freeways, spaces under highways, mine-dumps. These are also spaces that were used to divide races during Apartheid.

An exercise in place-making—preparing the space for ritual prayer:

  1. Chase former evil dwellers.
  2. Remove dirt.
  3. Dig a hole, place salt in the hole.
  4. Add a sheep’s tail to the hole. Sheep’s tails act as good amulets against witchcraft.
  5. Cover the hole with soil.
  6. Draw a circle of hot ashes within the limit of the cleared space.
  7. Have three priests gather with a bucket of water in the middle.
  8. Mix coarse salt in the water.
  9. Pray over the water, simultaneously sprinkling it around.

A wall is usually denoted by a line on the plan. It is a necessary, ultimate and primordial element. Its omni—and ever—presence in our environment has rendered it almost subconscious, easy to be overlooked. But the history of the wall is often painful and brutal too. The wall separates here and there, this and that, us and them. Its beginnings are rooted in ideologies that manifest as exclusionary and hierarchically classist city spaces.

In his work Forensic Architecture, the architect Eyal Weisman suggests that architecture is “political plastic,” describing the elastic way in which abstract forces—political, economic and military—are slowing into material form. In Johannesburg, largely because of our apartheid legacy, our spaces are divided manifold, with “walls” of varying thicknesses, sizes, gradients, and varying degrees of perceptibility and visibilities. Physical walls and dividing infrastructures include golf courses, mine dumps, fences, and gated communities. Other forms of “walls,” soft walls, are less tangible, and are experienced through the legacies of economic, class, ethnic, and language divides.

Codes and rites for different cultural enclaves exclude those who aren’t in the know. As a result, adept Johannesburgers often learn and navigate these systems. The photograph below describes one group of Johannesburg “funambulists”: people and systems which navigate and circumvent the divide and threshold.

Sumayya Vally

Digital collage and a forensic approach to space expose Sumayya Vally’s particular obsession with deconstructing and reconstructing image and space. Whether unpacking the city through a microscope, or satellite imagery, Sumayya has a particular interest in exposing the parts of its constituency, which are largely invisible. Her interests have admitted her into a host of prominent conceptual and investigatory projects, including a position as assistant curator and film producer for La Biennale di Venezia 2014 (South African Pavilion). In 2015, she co-founded the experimental architecture and research firm, Counterspace. She currently teaches design at the University of Johannesburg as co-leader of Unit 12, An African Almanac, at the Graduate School of Architecture, Johannesburg.