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Architecture (MA)

Zakiyyah Haffejee

Zakiyyah Haffejee is a South African-born, London-based architectural designer and researcher. She holds an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Johannesburg. Prior to joining the RCA, Zakiyyah contributed at Johannesburg-based studio, Counterspace and later moved on to work for TakeAway Spaces and the Archive of Forgetfulness.

In 2021, Zakiyyah moved to London and joined the ADS2 cohort - Black Horizons: Worlding within the Ruins of Racial Capitalism. Within ADS2, her work focused on the toxic legacies left behind by the gold mining dumps of Johannesburg and the black and brown communities that occupy them.

Zakiyyahs’ work often draws on themes of gender, identity and spirituality; focusing on rituals and uncovering meaning through language, history and religion.

Person walking across a drawing.

Indigo Waves

Let us embark on a journey that unravels the hidden stories woven within the fabric of our world. As Sarat Maharaj once posed, ‘Textile art – who are you?’ going on to suggest that we might understand textiles under the ‘chameleon figure’ of the ‘undecidable’; something that transcends boundaries and genres, stretching and reshaping our perceptions. 

This project aims to explore the hybrid identities of the Indian diaspora using textiles as a medium. My inquiry began by exploring the production and trade cycles of an indigenous South African textile, known locally as isiShweShwe. ShweShwe is an indigo-dyed blueprint textile which originated in Asia, it was absorbed and adapted by Europe and travelled across oceans reaching the shores of Africa long before its craftsmen. The ShweShwe print specifically represents a major historical remnant of an intercultural past, with Pan-African, Eastern and Western dimensions testifying to a history of encounters and exchanges between humans across the globe.

Migrants often shape spaces through various forms of temporal space-making. They appropriate space by interacting with movable objects, such as textiles, and arranging them in imaginative and creative ways; re-creating traditions in new and blended forms to adapt to a new local context, thus the project asks How can textiles be used as a medium to explore these hybrid identities, and how can we utilise fabric as a means to extend the connection between the body and space, while also serving as a tool for design?

Mixed media world map depicting inter-continental trade routes on canvas.

‘For the glory of God and the profit of Portugal’, enthused by this statement, Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, opened up the direct sea route to India (Strutt 1975). This initiative marked a crucial turning point in Indigo’s fortunes (Balfour-Paul 1998). The Portuguese were not well received when they arrived in India in the early 1500s, but they soon forged significant trade links with East Bengal and the Tamil Nadu coast, colonising Malabar and obtaining cloth from Chittagong and Coromandel on the south-west coast of India, both important centres of Muslim and Levantine trade (Boyajian 2008: 17). Indigo and the Indian textiles associated with it, including variants of plain indigo-dyed and printed cloth became the source of much of Europe’s future dress. 

The Portuguese initiated the practice of copying the designs of Asian textiles. The Dutch, whose desire for fabrics was growing steadily in the 1500s, usurped this practice and were Europe’s most accomplished emulators by the 1670s. The English and the Germans also pursued their emulation of Indian textile design in London and Hamburg in the 1700s, exerting a profound influence at the same time on the tradition of blueprint as peasant dress. The imitative textiles produced by this intervention soon became loosely known as indiennes throughout Europe. However, the term also still applied to painted and printed patterned cloth imported in mass from India.

Portuguese East Indiamen, meanwhile, plied the waters around the tip of southern Africa on their way to Asia, using their entrepôt at Delagoa Bay (now Maputo Bay, Mozambique, bordering SA) on the east coast to gain access to the African interior. It is from here that early variants of blueprint and other painted or printed cotton may have entered South Africa.

Image of three cats da gama shweshwe
Original isiShweShwe textile
Catalogue of isiShweShwe prints
Three Cats isiShweShwe catalogue

Using isiShweShwe as a parallel narrative for the Indian diaspora, I explore various ways of negotiating spatial relationships between tradition, culture and modernity. The project is realised through a series of performed rituals using a sari. Each of these rituals engages with the body, space and textiles and can not exist without each other.

The project demonstrates a sari as a device for exploring the layered and complex definitions of the intercontinental textile trade & production, the colonisation of both India and Africa and the subsequent displacement of bodies between these two lands.

The project adopts traditional indigo dyeing techniques as well as traditional representational styles to create a series of resist print drawings narrating the entangled histories of colonialism and extraction that are linked to the indigo textile industry. The drawings are printed on a 7m x 1m long cotton fabric, ie. the length and width of a typical sari, and are presented as a choreographed performance. Following the theme of narration, story-telling and performance, the design output includes a series of spaces embedded within a single cloth for ritual gathering and performance that captivates the dual identity of the hybrid being.

Natural indigo dye being poured into vat
Sewing pattern pieces laid out on shweshwe fabric.
A series of words and their origins scattered across the image.
Folklore inspired machine embroidery.
Mockup of drawing on textile

The research looks into a number of sites at varying, social, ecological and anthropological scales in relation to the studio brief Investigating Extractivism.

site 1: the indigo field 

-relating to resource extraction

site 2: the textile plant

-relating to labour extraction

site 3: the port / ocean 

-relating to cultural extraction / the ocean being a transient space of belonging for the diaspora 

site 4: the ship

-relating to the displacement of black & brown bodies

site 5: the diasporic home

-a place of refuge

site 6: the body

-relating to the embodiment of memory, knowledge and trauma

Embedded in the architecture of the sari is a multi-layered story, gathered over time. The sari acts as a container of memory traversing across sites of extraction at varying periods, and various socio-political and economic, ecological and anthropological scales. Depicted on this sari is the story of indigo, from the fields of west India, to the production sites and the ships that exported bodies across the Indian Ocean to Africa and other parts of the world.

In architecture, the body is often considered a measuring tool and a reference point for designing spaces. The dimensions and proportions of buildings and spaces are often determined by the scale of the human body and its movements.

Traditionally, the only non-negotiable element of the sari was a single, orthogonal length of fabric, typically six yards long (5.5 metres. A sari can, however, be as long as nine yards (8.2 metres). From an architect’s perspective, the sari could be read as a structure that hinges on three key elements: the border; the body; and the pallu, which hangs over the shoulder. Unlike the rigid structure of a building, the sari’s architecture is fluid and easily adapted. Depending on the preferred length of the pallu, the pleats can absorb endless adjustments.

Throughout its history, the sari has known many guises - its diversity finding expression through variations in textile, weave and in many other aspects. Its fluidity is exemplified in its varied drapes, which determine how the sari takes its form.

Mockup of drawings on a fabric.
Image of printed textile folded in a rectangle on the ground.
Mockup of drawings on fabric.
Mockup of drawings on fabric.

The project asks us to extend our spatial awareness through the activation of the textile, using the human body as a drawing, thinking, making, sculpting, and cognitive tool. The architect’s role becomes that of a storyteller, articulating bodies in space and producing notational sketches that come into being through the interrelation of bodies and materials. Rather than orchestrating relations between people, the focus is on the body in space, and the relationship between the body, space and the textile which can be worn or used individually or in collective actions. 

A stack of frames with drawings printed on acetate.

[Traditional Clothing]

In the act of wearing a sari, the exploration of the body-space relationship is informed by the works of Archizoom, particularly their project “Getting Dressed is Easy.” It challenges conventional notions of dressing and reimagines it as an architectural act, blending textiles and spatial design. By incorporating the concepts of embodiment and spatiality, I explore the interplay between the body and space.

Embracing the concept of embodiment, I recognize that our bodies extend beyond physical entities and serve as mediums through which we engage with and perceive the world. When wearing a sari, the body becomes an active agent, shaping and responding to the spatial environment it inhabits. Simultaneously, considering spatiality allows us to explore how our bodies are positioned within and interact with the surrounding spaces, reflecting the dynamic relationship between the body and the spatial realm.

It becomes an opportunity to unravel the connections between the body and space, recognizing that our bodies are not only shaped by the spatial environment but also actively contribute to shaping it. The sari becomes a tangible manifestation of this interplay, a conduit through which we can study the transformative potential of clothing and its impact on our spatial experiences.

Image of person extending the textile in space.
Image of person extending the textile in space.
Image of person wrapping the textile around their body.
Image of person wrapping the textile around their body.


In line with Azra Aksamija’s approach, the aim is to portray identity and religion as fluid and adaptable, capable of evolving across different temporal and spatial contexts. Drawing inspiration from Aksamija’s Nomadic Mosque, the performance reinterprets the conventional notion of a mosque based on the Prophet Mohammed’s phrase, the world as a mosque, as wearable architecture. By integrating the body and textiles, a minimal-volume mosque is created, tailored to individual needs and experiences. This concept challenges traditional architectural boundaries, allowing the mosque to be an immersive and portable space that can be carried and inhabited by individuals as they navigate through different environments.

Person laying down textile in a public space.
Person wrapping the textile around their body.
Person in Islamic prayer.
Two people praying in public on textile.


Through the dastharkhwan, the body-space relationship is studied in the context of cultural practice, the performance takes inspiration from the works of Lubna Chowdhary, particularly her installation “Endless Iftar,” and Franz Erhard Walther’s “Werksatz (Work Sets).” Both Chowdhary and Walthers delve into the exploration of how individuals utilize and transform space to articulate their identity, beliefs, and values, while also examining the active involvement of the body in these practices. Cultural expressions like dance, ritual, and ceremony exemplify the performative utilization of space and the body, enabling the conveyance of profound meaning and emotional resonance. 

Two people unfolding a textile in a park.
Two people stretching out a textile in a park.
Two people stretching out a textile in a park.
7 people sitting on a stretched out textile in a park.
Phantom Mosque
Phantom Mosque
Phantom Dining Table
Phantom Dining Table

The way we move and interact with spaces affects our experience of them, the body plays an active role in shaping and transforming spaces. We use our bodies to manipulate and transform materials, to create structures, and to generate different spatial configurations. We also use our bodies to interact with spaces and to create meaning and identity through our movements and gestures. This is particularly evident in the case of cultural practices and traditions.

Diagrams depicting the body-space-textile relationship
Diagrams depicting the body-space-textile relationship

proxemics [noun]: the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors. Anthropologist Edward Hall coined the term 'proxemics' in the early 1960s and classified 4 major proxemic zones: the intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. The textile in this project, i.e. the sari; facilitates interaction between people in the varying zones of proximity. 

The project situates itself at the intersection of architecture, textile, and cultural studies. While the focus is on textiles and wearables as a medium for exploring identity and spatial relationships, the project draws on architectural concepts such as spatial awareness, memory, and the interaction of space and bodies. By extending spatial awareness through wearable devices, the project explores the potential for textiles to become not only a means of cultural expression but also a tool for shaping and negotiating space. Overall, the project aims to blur the boundaries between the body and space, viewing space as an extension of our bodies and our bodies as an extension of space.

Image of exam presentation set-up.
Image of exam presentation set-up.
Mockup of dark blue text on white fabric.