Keg de Souza is an interdisciplinary artist interested in the built environment and the social spaces and communities that inhabit it. De Souza’s wide-ranging practice encompasses video, performance, installation, publishing, inflatable architecture and site-specific, community-driven projects. It is informed by her training as an architect and her time spent squatting and working in alternative spaces. In De Souza’s site-specific work, her emphasis is on the participation and contribution of the immediate community, which is fostered through dialogue, skills development and extensive consultation.
For the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Keg de Souza presents We Built This City, 2016, a new public site-specific work that continues her interest in community collaboration and the sociopolitics of the built environment. Specifically, the work explores the tent as a contemporary symbol of and metaphor for displacement, and questions the idea of ‘public’ space as the antithesis of private property.
De Souza returns to the inner city after co-curating the 2009 There Goes the Neighbourhood festival in Redfern with artist and curator Zanny Begg. The festival included an exhibition, publication and public program that explored gentrification and the politics of urban space in the context of the inner-city suburb.
At the centre of We Built This City is a temporary structure made from sewn-together tents that operates as a gathering place for dialogues, performances and public discussions occurring over the course of the Biennale. These events explore issues of temporality, land rights, occupations, housing, homelessness, statelessness, informal economies, community and resistance. For de Souza, they tie together the local tent cities in Belmore and Wentworth Park, as well as the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, with the global phenomenon. Says de Souza, ‘Across the globe we are witnessing a huge upheaval and mass migration caused by instability, economies, conflict and climate. Whilst tent settlements increasingly represent the neoliberal gap filler of the displaced, it is in these cracks that we also see alternatives created. Tent cities often allow for spaces of informal economies, self-management, self-education, direct democracy, resourcefulness and tolerance, embodying sites of resilience and resistance.’
Bringing local voices and experiences together within this immersive installation is important to de Souza but We Built This City is also a temporary sculptural structure, with a central, circular bricked bench that is both talking circle and border. It is for the visitor to decide which way to face when seated.
‘I’m always clear when I do these socially driven projects that I am an artist,’ de Souza says. ‘And I’m really clear about what I’m exploring to begin with. [But] there’s a lot of risk taking. You can’t go into a community expecting a particular outcome… [It’s only] when you meet people – that’s what really shapes the project.’
While not connected to any particular embassy, de Souza’s work adroitly engages with the broader thematic of the Biennale; that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Keg de Souza has exhibited widely, with numerous solo exhibitions including ‘Temporary Spaces, Edible Places: Vancouver’, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2015); ‘If There’s Something Strange In Your Neighbourhood…’, Lismore Regional Gallery, Lismore (2015); and ‘Temporality in Art, Architecture and Communities’, Delfina Foundation, London (2014). The artist’s recent group exhibitions include ‘Mud Maps’, Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney (2014); ‘SIASAT’, 15th Jakarta Biennale, Taman Ismail Marzuki, Jakarta (2013); and ‘If you were to live here…’, 5th Auckland Triennial (2013).