By Randa Hadi
Whether you’ve never left your hometown or have veered far away from where you were born, belonging is something we all seek, and maybe something we are in constant search of. Your sense of belonging can take different forms, whether it’s through friendships, maps, archives, or digital communities, we form our identities even when we’re straddling two worlds (Al Abas, 2019). Belonging can exist on several scales: micro, meso, and macro levels.
Belonging Permeates Life in Various Ways
Muhammad al-Idrisi spent most of his life creating cartographic maps of the Arab world. Although his true intentions for making the map are not clear, it’s safe to assume that it was driven by wanting the Arab world to be represented the way an Arab saw it. I first came across these maps when Sherine Salla presented them in the Against the Grain Fellowship at Futuress. I was so intrigued by their form, directionality, and non existing political borders. North is pointing down, and South is pointing up; a small, yet beautiful detail in how he saw these maps.
As I look at these maps, I realize that I can’t locate Kuwait. It didn’t exist back then. But there are countries that I recognize, Egypt, a country I consider to be a neighbor of Kuwait. Egypt becomes my tether as I navigate a map that asks us to reorient ourselves. When I see countries I recognize, I feel a sense of belonging.
“Maps were like portals that enabled people to reach across the miles and the centuries to feel a sense of belonging.”
— Zayde Antrim, Trinity College
Beyond the “Normative” Map
Not only do geographical maps foster a sense of belonging, but even maps that are conceptual, spatial, and abstract can help form that too. In Feminist Spatial Practices, Part 1 on e-flux, a beautifully colored map with forms that mimic the ocean flanks the top of the page. At first glance, the map looks like a colorful ocean, but when you click the image you start to realize it’s a conceptual and abstract map that creates a landscape of feminist spatial practices from around the world, stretching across time and projecting into the future. This map tells a story, builds community, and educates people about political movements and theoretical discourses around feminist spatial practices; a map as a learning tool. These maps of countless feminisms expanding methods of resistance helps us in “imagining and enacting more equitable, supportive, and sustainable worlds” (Roberts, B., Aiken, A., 2023).
These diagrammatic maps that were designed by Bryony Roberts and Abriannah Aiken offer the viewer a diagram of possibilities; imagining different ways of seeing and being. The first time I fully spent time with the map, as I kept getting closer and closer to seeing all the layers of the map I started to find attachment to the words that were calling me: Expanded Histories, Political Struggles, Protests in Iran, War in Ukraine, Mindy Seu Cyberfeminism Index, 2023… The map continues to unfold and offer up a multilayered experience of information.
Left: Bryony Roberts and Abriannah Aiken, “Feminist Spatial Practices, Part 1,” 2023.
Right: Bryony Roberts and Abriannah Aiken, “Complement to Feminist Spatial Practices, Part 1,” 2023, including Liz Galvez, “e.g. An (Im)material Space,” 2020; Lin Tianmiao, “Protruding Patterns,” 2017; Tanya Aguiñiga, “Craft & Care Exhibition,” Museum of Art and Design, 2018; Sheila Hicks, “Safe Passage,” 2014-2015, and “Lianes de Beauvais,” 2011-2012; Lynda Benglis, “Untitled (VW),” 1971.
“Feminist spatial practices are multidimensional and multifaceted expressions of thinking and acting, with an aim to build spatial justice and enable better caring in a world defined by ideologies of injustice and regimes of inequity.”
— Elke Krasny, Feminist Spatial Practices, Part 1 on e-flux
Today, maps are used for navigation, to talk about political borders and delineations, and to help you understand the geography of the world. But they’re also used to reference home, a geographical indication of where you feel you belong. You grow up looking at a map from a unique perspective, one that is shaped by where you grew up. It is through that geographical upbringing that you view the world from that point of view. We become used to the shape of the country we’re from, it gives us a sense of familiarity. Even in the case of immigrants and diasporic people, “home can be an ideal image in the mind”(Al Abas, 2019); a radical dream of what home is.
Dreaming of the past, present, or future can help you imagine a space where you feel like you belong. I came across Saidiya Hartman’s work while I was writing about (Re)Claiming Archives, a space that allows for collective dreaming; one where everyone sees themselves represented.
Saidiya Hartman is a writer and Professor at Columbia University focusing on African-American studies. Her research and writing explore topics of slavery in American society and bear witness to the trauma, happiness, and fleeting moments of Black beauty that historical archives have obscured, erased, and/or omitted. Through an analysis of her work, Nayar (2013) writes, “Hartman…seeks belonging in terms of re-membering the past.” Archives hold information relating to the past, and through those archives, one can either see themselves represented in history or feel erased by it. Archives, whether digital or physical, can help shape your sense of belonging to moments in history.
While belonging has existed in relation to physical spaces for a while, the emergence of digital belonging is somewhat new. The digital sphere has no borders or delineations like maps do; it’s an open ether, a space for all types of communities to form & flourish regardless of where you are geographically.
When Covid-19 hit, many communities that manifested in physical spaces adapted to be present in the digital sphere, and people were staying connected continents and countries away. It gave an opportunity for people to connect, discuss, collectively make, learn and belong to a group (Gunawardena, C.N., Hermans M.B., Sanchez D., Richmond C., Bohley M., & Tuttle R., 2009).
Belonging takes form across several spaces — design education, conferences, coffee shops, libraries, and at parks. For design education, belonging can be fostered through the materials taught, group discussions around books, and specifically the histories that are covered in the classroom.*
*I use the term classroom to also include classes that are offered via Zoom.
BIPOC Design History is an educational platform that was founded in 2021 as a response to the frustrations and glaring gaps in design representation for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Our goal at BIPOC Design History is to create a radical educational experience that revisits and rewrites the course of design history in a way that centers previously marginalized designers, cultural figures — and particularly BIPOC and QTPOC people. Through live and pre-recorded lectures, our classes shed light on moments of oppression and visibility.
Estrangement can also emerge from a lack of representation in the design history canon, with BIPOC Design History we were very aware of how historical archives and written histories have altered, erased, and negated to include marginalized people. The classes each touch on different topics relating to design, identity construction, politics, and the inequalities BIPOC groups face.
During the online Zoom classes, people from all different walks of life came to express their interests and frustrations, and empower each through their shared common interest: belonging to a group of people that genuinely cared about representation and diversity in design education; building up a (re)written design history curriculum that emerged out of the lack of representation in the design history canon.
When I was given the opportunity to write and develop a design history course for BIPOC Design History, I immediately thought about the moments during a design history course when I didn’t feel seen. I knew more about Eurocentric and Western White Male designers than I did about my own culture & design histories. I wanted to develop a course specifically focused on Southwest Asia & North Africa (SWANA) because of how diverse, colorful, bold, and rooted in history the design is in that region. I’ve been introduced to design histories that changed my approach and framework to designing; expanding the possibilities of what design can do and say.
“Visibility enables solidarity.”
— Feminist Spatial Practices
Belonging can be found anywhere, in maps, notion resource pages, written words, are.na boards, Instagram accounts, and in design history classes. Although communities of belonging emerge out of a lack of presence, through this radical act of building a safe space, solidarity emerges. We can continue to build spaces of belonging collectively in various ways.
I’m always seeking belonging in archives, different communities, and through the books I read. All the examples referenced above can foster a sense of belonging, this feeling of attachment is felt through the things we see, read, and hear. Belonging isn’t linear, neat, or limited, belonging is fluid, messy, and infinite.
Randa Hadi (MGD ‘20) is a Kuwaiti designer, educator, researcher, and informal archivist. She is interested in exploring ways to (re)think the archive as a place to dream and imagine a better future; interweaving Arab identity, belonging, and collective memories.
Al Abas, M., 2019. Cultural identity and the dilemma of “in-betweenness” in selected Arab American and Jewish-American novels. University of Essex. https://repository.essex.ac.uk/24933/
Nayar, P.K., 2013. Mobility, migrant mnemonics and memory citizenship: Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 12(2), pp.81–101. DOI: http://doi.org/10.35360/njes.287
Roberts, B., Aiken, A., 2023. Feminist Spatial Practices, Part 1. e-flux Architecture. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/chronograms/506357/feminist-spatial-practices-part-1/
Charlotte N. Gunawardena, Mary Beth Hermans, Damien Sanchez, Carol Richmond, Maribeth Bohley & Rebekah Tuttle (2009) A theoretical framework for building online communities of practice with social networking tools, Educational Media International, 46:1, 3-16, DOI: 10.1080/09523980802588626