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Book Review: In the Skin of the City

Book review of António Tomás's In the Skin of the City: Spatial Transformations in Luanda (2022)

Published onMay 26, 2023
Book Review: In the Skin of the City

In the Skin of the City: Spatial Transformation in Luanda, by António Tomás (2022). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Despite António Tomás’s opening statement that “the thrust of this book is less any particular aspect of the city of Luanda [Angola] than how certain notions of physical and social boundaries, or the lines that denote limits and edges in the city, came into being” (p. 1), In the Skin of the City turns out to be a brilliant dissection that exposes this African capital’s “innards.” To be sure, the author’s dissection succeeds in showing the interior of Luanda’s politics, economy, and society in a more complete and longue durée manner. The reader is thus guided through the interactions, negotiations, and entanglements of the city’s political actors, as well as the discourses, spaces, actions, and processes that have constituted, transformed, and fragmented the urban from its colonial genesis to postcolonial present. Such an endeavor has invariably led Tomás through a cross-continental maze of historical archives (in both Europe and Africa) – which is bolstered by extensive anthropological research, including the innovative “walking as methodology,” the literal traversing of Luanda as a participant-observer, as he also deeply reflects on his life as a native of this city.

The book stands out theoretically as an exercise that develops the “singularity” of Luanda, in contrast to many southern urban and global urban theories that have positioned themselves as alternatives to the Chicago School’s set of classic urban theories. Tomás begins by arguing, among other things, that alternative theorizations [for example, de Boeck (2016), Pieterse (2010), and Brenner and Schmid (2015), among others)] have focused on the ephemeral in their understanding of Global South cities through their “insistence on elaborating episodic engagements and making problematic generalizations with cities of different scales and with divergent histories” (p. 11). Rather, Luanda, as described in the book, is a historically grounded and specific application of “the modern” as a process that can be understood through an investigation of “categories of association,” the genesis of these categories, and how they define parameters for actions, their meaning, negotiation, and transformation in the hands of the powerful and powerless (p. 21). As a result, we are offered an exercise in tracing the experiential and relational rather than the typical accounts describing rigid urban politics and infrastructures.

Following the opening, which explains the book’s scope of analysis, the remainder of In the Skin of the City is divided into three thematic sections. The first section is titled “Formation,” the second “Stasis,” and third “Fragmentation.” These sections do not give a chronological telos of events, but rather a conversation between diverse actors, spaces, and planned and conjectural social interactions, from slavery to colonial and postcolonial eras. The various histories combine to form a palimpsest of Luanda. At the start, Tomás chronicles the history of the city, beginning with its days as a slave trade port and nascent colony, exposing in graphic detail the split between slaves and slaveholders, indigenous Luandans, and new colonial settlers. He demonstrates how these social distinctions were ingrained in the city’s arrangement of spaces, architectural styles, and social interactions – which served as a prelude for future urban development, struggles, and dichotomies along racial lines (during colonialism) and along power/economic lines (in the postcolony). The city’s historical heritage, thus, provides a mise-en-scène for the late-colonial and contemporary struggles between squatters and the state, divisions between inside/outside and formal/informal, and so on.

In the first section, “Formation,” In the Skin of the City describes the colonial expansion and transformation of Luanda, stressing the many modernization experiments carried out by Portuguese colonial administrators. Tomás describes architectural and social engineering experiments as “the most successful attempt at creating borders and boundaries between different social and racial groups using the built environment” (p. 23). However, at the heart of such colonial urban expansions and socio-spatial exclusions was the conscription of Africans into productive labor in the service of the settlers and the Portuguese colonial empire. The laws that accompanied this transformation, such as the Estatuto do Indígena, sought to create sources of “African manpower” (p. 78). By arguing in this way, the book suggests that the figure of the squatter – as well as Luanda’s growing informal settlements (musseques) that emerge from the conferring of the right to, and exclusion from, the city – are historical products of capitalist development in the colony and postcolony. These historical references distinguish Tomás’s book from other seemingly presentist studies of African urban politics in general, and those of Luanda in particular [for example, Gastrow (2017)], which define the city’s predicaments within contemporary struggles around neoliberal development.

The section on “Stasis” discusses the rather tumultuous end of Portuguese colonialism and the unprepared takeover of power by the postcolonial government. This new regime essentially put a halt to experiments with supposed notions of “modernization” as conceived by colonial officials, such as the separation of the fronteira do asfalto (the concrete center) and the peripheral musseques. This part, as such, expresses the stalling of urban growth and urban planning politics, if not the utter decomposition of Luanda. However, this did not translate into a passive lull for the economic and collective life of ordinary Angolans. The author turns to the figure of the squatter, whose imagination and action took over the city, building an informal economy in previously excluded areas, which was exemplified by the vast bazaar of Roque Santeiro. As a result, the author contends that Luanda became “a city decentered,” with its edges – in terms of physical places and even social and economic activities – gravitating to the center, upending the fixities that colonial Luanda intended to reflect (pp. 119-144). The informal logic and urban aesthetics that emerged were flexible and dynamic, with no clear parameters about the city’s inhabitation and use of space, resulting in “people as infrastructure,” as AbdouMaliq Simone (2004) observed in post-Apartheid Johannesburg.

The last part, “Fragmentation,” shows the government-controlled attempts to reverse the urban decay that had characterized much of the 1980s and 90s. Luanda, as described in the previous section on “stasis,” had become “nondescript” as the institutions of regulation and systems of orientation were no longer active (p. 127). Informality and deregulation had “decentered” the divisions of the colonial past – for instance, the interface between the fronteira do asfalto (the concrete core of “modernization” attempts) and the peripheral musseques (informal settlements) had become blurred. Yet, in trying to restore control over Luanda, the ruling elites’ grand plans succeeded in fragmenting even further the city’s urban fabric and altering state-society relations. A new set of property rights, spurred by the state’s authoritarian directives and bankrolled by oil profits, led to what the author terms the “bifurcation” of the urban – that is, on the one hand, the creation of privileged urban spaces for those who could access land and acquire the corresponding title deeds; and on the other, government social housing and “quasi-squatter” arrangements, whose inhabitants do not have rights to said land. Through championing plans and processes that produced a layer of citizenry stripped of all rights, elite government officials were tightening their grip on Luanda, effectively strengthening their power and political position in the city.

To reiterate, In the Skin of the City displays the “inner organs,” or the inner workings of an African city that is constantly undergoing transformation. This is precisely what makes Tomás’s book successful – in how it deconstructs binary representations of the city and how it demonstrates the intertwined relationships, tensions, negotiations, and linkages that exist beyond these fixed binaries, such as the clichéd juxtaposition of center-periphery. That central figure of African postcolonial urbanity, the squatter, is highlighted for their active engagement in this urban flux and its associated contingencies. Squatting is a political act, the book reveals, “that brings together a myriad of practices (of building houses), repertoires (what kind of house in which part of the city, using what kind of materials), and regulatory apparatuses (under which terms of the legislation, regulation, or constitution)” (pp. 14-15). In sum, In the Skin of the City emphasizes the “core” involvement of “the margins” in the contemporary political economy of African cities. Despite its misleading title, which leads the reader to expect more about the creation and constitution of Luanda’s variously defined boundaries (discursive, spatial, political, and economic, et cetera), Tomás’s book is an engaging and exhaustive study of the history, politics, economy, and culture of a constantly changing and unpredictable African capital city. In this sense, it will undoubtedly become a reference for researchers interested in urban studies, history, anthropology, and similar disciplines.

 

References

Boeck, Filip de. 2016. Suturing the City: Living Together in Congo’s Urban Worlds. London: Autograph ABP.

Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. 2015. “Towards a New Epistemology of the Urban?” City 19 (2–3): 151–82.

Gastrow, Claudia. 2017. “Cement Citizens: Housing, Demolition and Political Belonging in Luanda, Angola.”Citizenship Studies 21 (2): 224–39.

Pieterse, Edgar. 2010. “Cityness and African Urban Development.” Urban Forum 21: 205–19.

Simone, AbdouMaliq. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16 (3): 407–29.

 

Biography

Melusi Nkomo received his Ph.D. at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland, in the bi-disciplinary Anthropology and Sociology program. His research focuses on the intersections between labor, politics, and cultural practices in Sub-Saharan Africa. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Zurich’s Department of Geography.

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