The Wick - Sumayya Vally by Lou Jasmine The Wick - Sumayya Vally by Lou Jasmine
Monday Muse

Interview South African Architect Sumayya Vally

Sumayya Vally
Lou Jasmine
23 January 2023
Sumayya Vally
Lou Jasmine
23 January 2023
South African architect and principal of architecture and research practice Counterspace, Sumayya Vally, became a household name after designing the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion in London and becoming the youngest architect ever to win the internationally renowned commission.

Last year also saw Vally selected by the World Economic Forum to be one of its Young Global Leaders – a community of the world’s most promising artists, activists, and political leaders – and named on the TIME100 Next list as someone who will shape the future of architectural practice. Vally is committed to unearthing new dialogues searching for expression for hybrid identities and territory, particularly for African and Islamic conditions—both rooted and diasporic.

Amongst her many accolades, Vally recently joined the World Monuments Fund Board of Directors and alongside other projects is currently collaborating on the design of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development in Monrovia, Liberia – the first presidential library dedicated to a female head of state, where she will oversee the scenography, pavilions, and exhibition spaces.

In terms of shaping and educating a new vision for architecture and design, Sumayya Vally is doing this next as part of the curatorial team for the first Islamic Arts Biennale, which opens today (January 23) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and runs until April 23. The first event of its kind, the new biennale will showcase the art and creativity of Islamic culture, past and present, and see Vally curate alongside architect Omniya Abdel Barr, archaeologist Saad Alrashid and the Smithsonian’s Julian Raby.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Sumayya Vally:   In this tribe, we evoke women near and far – friends, ancestors and mythical figures – women who write, organise, imagine and build worlds into being. There are many, and many of those are unrecognised. Take the architect genius of the Ndebele women – women who craft ritual objects and build and adorn their own homes. The calling of their names invokes the calling of millions of errant, unrecognised, other architects the world over – past, present and future. They are Sarah Mguni, Martha Mtsweni Ndala, Rossinah and Esther Mahlangu, Maria Ntobela Mahlangu, Dinah Mahlangu, Johanna Mkwebani, Martina Maghlangu, Anna Msiza, Sara Mthimunye, Sara and Lisbeth, Pikinini and Sara Skosana, Anna Mahlangu, Letty Ngoma.

TW:   Counterspace is your own practice. What prompted its formation?

SV:   I was born and raised in a small, previously apartheid township called Laudium, but I spent much of my childhood at my grandfather’s stores on Ntemi Piliso Street in the heart of Joburg. Many South Africans didn’t (or still don’t) have the opportunity to interact with worlds outside of their own – spaces were (and are still) very much segregated. I think that walking the streets in the city, especially walking to the Joburg library, let me into worlds that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise – and I’ve always had an interest in this, in finding and creating worlds, and seeing what I truly consider architecture – the fabric of the city – as interesting starting points from which to imagine new worlds. I always had this desire to work in the city and to have a practice that brings together different parts of the city into the same world. So, I think how architecture came to me is through this – through the city and through fiction.

Joburg is rough, gritty, ruthless and fast in the nicest possible ways and the meanest possible ways. It is burden and opportunity at the same time, at many different levels. Its tensions and its histories and legacies of segregation and exclusion means that at every turn there is work to do. But it is also a vastly and vibrantly creative world of inspiration (in the other disciplines, not in architecture). There is a sense of something other – other stories, other magic, other soul – that is waiting to be unlocked and translated into form.

I felt very deeply that there was a lack of response from architecture to what is actually happening in the city. Counterspace was born out of this dissatisfaction – out of a frustration with the complicity of the architectural profession and canon in my context, in perpetuating inherited and imposed narratives and forms.

I really wanted to make work that troubles and counters these constructed narratives about ‘lack’ on the African continent – I believe that here, in the fringes and the margins, we can find what truly Johannesburg and African design languages can look like, and I wanted to work with and for this idea. The rest is history.

TW:   Which philosophies formed from growing up in Laudium in Johannesburg, and how do they continue to inform your work?

SV:   The power and necessity of community.

Negotiation, listening – finding the fact that architecture is in everyone, working with platforms and resources that we have access to, in the service of projects of difference, all present an opportunity to imagine the world differently.

Creating new platforms that function in entirely different ways through multiple various avenues is an opportunity. Take the Support Structures for Support Structures fellowship programme as an example – conceived in collaboration with Serpentine’s Civic Projects programme with the intent that year on year it will build and grow a deeper network of bodies of knowledge that are coming from places of difference, so that we can seed and see different pathways and other worlds.

TW:   You have worked with the Serpentine and Notting Hill Carnival. In which ways does your work centre on community?

SV:   Our forms of articulation are limited – we can only see and think through what’s possible with the language we have to articulate it. Once we expand on that language, we can produce entirely different worlds. Architecture is also, of course, a language. It is an abstraction, it has a set of codes, and it also communicates to us who we are. It affirms our place in the world in terms of what we deserve. We see ourselves in our surroundings and then we’re in conversation with those surroundings and we evolve them. That’s why representation and a manifestation of our identities in design are so important because we are in dialogue with it. We need slower forms of practice around what manifesting identity can look like, or can be, in architecture.

Responding to the historical erasure and scarcity of informal community spaces across London, Counterspace references and pays homage to existing and erased places that have held communities over time and continue to do so today. Among them are some of the first mosques built in the city, such as Fazl Mosque and East London Mosque, cooperative bookshops including Centerprise, Hackney, entertainment and cultural sites including The Four Aces Club on Dalston Lane, The Mangrove restaurant and the Notting Hill Carnival.

The Notting Hill Carnival Pavilion 2022 project grew from Sound System Sundays at The Tabernacle venue in Notting Hill – the live programme explored Counterspace’s interest in the history and architecture of sound systems in the UK and featured six sound systems selected with artist Alvaro Barrington and director of Notting Hill Carnival Matthew Phillip. The Pavilion is a small gesture (or offering) towards honouring the elders of Notting Hill and the origins of the resistance movements associated with Notting Hill. The project also took the form of a procession, a structure which comes together in parts. Community members placed the final pieces of the pyramid-shaped pavilion – seen as a work in progress – to make it complete. This project is so much about the process.

Through Support Structures for Support Structures, we are working to deepen the Pavilion’s intent and focus through a fellowship that helps nurture the practice of individuals and collectives that hold space for communities to gather across London. This fellowship truly gives us the opportunity to expand the reach of the Pavilion beyond its physical lifespan; and points directly to our collective role and the responsibility that architects have in working towards systemic change.

Inspired by the IsiZulu proverb ‘Oletha imvula uletha ukuphila’ (They who brings rain, brings life), the Pavilion for the Dhaka Art Summit (taking place at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy from 3-11 February) is a response to the local context and draws cultural parallels with the importance of rain in Bangladesh as the most important catalyst for agricultural production in the country. Wielding the comings of rain is a tradition practised by cultures across geographies. To possess the power to command rainfall is by inference possessing the power to dictate the flow of the natural cycle and climatic conditions. Across Southern Africa, rain-making rituals are directed towards royal ancestors as they were believed to have control over rain and other natural phenomena. One of these rare and powerful individuals is the Moroka of the Pedi tribe in South Africa. Moroka means the traditional rain-making doctor. Clay gourds and pots are assembled to form a temporal space formed by fired and unfired clay pots. Over the course of the installation performances drawing on the traditions of rain-making and harvest will be hosted in the space. These rituals include the use of water, dissolving the unfired pots to reveal areas and niches of gathering contained by the fired pots. A calendar of events, performance and maintenance is marked.

“Seeing the Biennale come to life through the voices and perspectives of our artists has been profound.”

TW:   The theme ‘Awwal Bait’ has been chosen for the first Islamic Arts Biennale. How would you translate the meaning?

SV:   Home is a verb, a set of acts, practices and rituals. Awwal Bait (literally meaning ‘first house’) refers to the reverence and symbolic unity evoked by the Kaaba in Makkah, and underscores the importance of the geographic location of this biennale. At the same time, it reflects on the construction of ‘home’ through our spiritual and cultural rituals in Islam; acts which both unite us and celebrate our diversity and cultural hybridity. As the source of Islam, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holy mosques and the sacred landscapes surrounding them – a spiritual home for Muslims from across the world that also invites contemplation of belonging. 

In these rituals, we refer to our Awwal Bait, our shared spiritual home. The theme looks at how the source has travelled, as we reflect on the migration of the first Muslims from the Awwal Bait to the city of Madinah. Many contemporary migrations in our world are synonymous with loss and displacement. In many of these scenarios, rituals become constructions of belonging – bridges between here and elsewhere and colour a collective imagination of Muslims the world over.

However diverse, and wherever we are, Awwal Bait – Makkah (and Madinah, the city Prophet Muhammad PBUH migrated to) – are present in our rituals of worship. It is present through invisible lines of direction, reverence through study and memory; or through our daily rituals and forms of cultural life. It is held in the hearts of all Muslims. This shared source manifests unity in core philosophies of Islam, an understanding that we are connected to each other through our shared rituals, as we physically and metaphorically turn toward our shared home. Several historical and archaeological fragments inspire, narrate and render visible wisdoms, imaginations and futures of ‘home’ and spiritual placemaking; from the scale of the body to the scale of the cosmos. 

The artists have explored these themes through contemporary interpretations of the following instruments of home:

Etymologically, the Arabic word Qibla (قبلة) means ‘direction’. In Islamic ritual and law, it refers to the direction of the Kaaba during forms of worship. As we observe the daily prayers, we turn to face Makkah five times a day, directing our focus and energy to this centre of gravity. When we pray, we are united with Muslims around the world – in a collective, planetary gathering. 

In this section, facing inward toward the holy sites through historical artefacts and archaeological finds from the region; we reflect on our daily salaah, as it references the holy sites and directs us heavenward. 

Through the adhan, undulating across the world with the movement of the sun, Allah is exalted every second of the day. Through the practice of our daily salaah, we are united in ritual. Prerequisites for salaah include ritual purity, heightened consciousness, and a syncing with the movement of the sun over the course of the day. Focusing on these themes of salaah, we invite artists to reflect on the wisdoms of our daily meditative rituals in engendering transcendence. 

The musalla conceived by Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi for the Biennale reflects on one of the Prophet’s (pbuH) first spaces of prayer. During the many visits and experiments exchanged with Sara and Nojoud, we discussed the Islamic theories of what constitutes a musalla. It is a place designated for prayer, but one which has yet to be fully consecrated as a mosque (which requires the declaration of a boundary, the appointment of an imam, and the programming of Jumah prayers). 

In a similar celebration of humble everyday prayer, Cosmic Breath by Joe Namy orchestrates an ongoing call to prayer (adhan) across time zones and from unexpected locations – a petrol station in Jakarta, a parking garage in Detroit, and a chip shop in Cape Town.

Our second theme, Hijrah, translates as ‘migration’. It references the ways in which the Islamic faith has travelled outward from its point of origin through the rest of the world, and looks at the construction of cultural belonging and sites of cultural hybridity.

Drawing on the potential of intersecting histories and the power of shared spaces, Bricklab’s artwork for the Biennale reflects on the historic Hajj housing in Jeddah, in particular, the accommodation built for pilgrims arriving by air. Soon to be demolished, the building was once the gathering place for thousands of Muslims from around the world on their way to Makkah. Outside it, pilgrims from all over the world would trade goods they had brought with them, weaving this everyday economic activity into the pattern of their pilgrimage journey. His experience of the pilgrims’ accommodation was formative to the politics of civil rights leader Malcolm X, whose postcards home described living as part of this global community.                

Across the Biennale, we are reminded of those forms and moments which spark community. We see a reconstruction of a medieval well along the Darb Zubaidah, one of the longest pilgrim roads of the early Islamic period, in conversation with Alia Farid’s serpentine seating structure, which choreographs the existing furniture in the Hajj Terminal. Lubna Chowdhary’s work reflects on communal rituals surrounding food, taking the form of an ‘endless’ iftar table, its modular parts running some 40 metres in length and embodying generosity in its multiple possible permutations. Over the course of the Biennale, these spaces will host gatherings at which to share both food and ideas. They also remind us of the influence of the influx of people over time on the food of the Makkah region, and the hybrid DNA of Hijazi cuisine. Rund Alarabi’s series of large-scale photocollages brings together similar strands of her ‘homes’, Jeddah and Khartoum, Sudan, reflecting on the cosmopolitanism that the pilgrimage brought to Jeddah.

These and other works remind us of the importance of the rituals and sites associated with Hajj as nexuses in facilitating exchange. As places to gather, share, meet, and differ they are engines of cultural production, hybridity and, by extension, empathy and understanding. Through being with each other we access knowledge and find our home.

Seeing the Biennale come to life through the voices and perspectives of our artists has been profound. Each of them has boldly and sensitively taken on the opportunity of this platform to contribute to an emerging discourse on Islamic arts that we hope will continue. At its essence, this Biennale is about giving contemporary objects a home by giving them a lineage and giving historic objects a home by giving them a future. As artistic director, it is an honour to develop the first Islamic Arts Biennale within this iconic, culturally symbolic and welcoming structure.

TW:   With London Fashion Week around the corner, who are your go-to designers for design moments and biennales?

SV:   My go-to things to wear are Simone Rocha, Roksanda, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Loewe, Miu Miu and Comme des Garçons. I’m absolutely in favour of wearing Harris Reed and Chet Lo too, and I love the current Valentino and the very sculptural Balenciaga dresses at the moment (I saw a black velvet the other day that was so beautiful). Schiaparelli would be a dream, too. There are so many.

Last year, I had the best time working with 10 Magazine on its September issue: Peace, Courage, Freedom. For my editorial, we assembled looks from pieces by friends and some of my favourite designers.

TW:   Where is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

SV:   I’ve been deeply inspired by London, its people and histories of movement. The Serpentine Pavilion 2021 and its extended programme have been developed based on daily inspirations, findings and ingestions of the city. Through the commission, we were able to extend the pavilion to the city, four fragments are installed in selected locations across London to support and facilitate gatherings and impromptu interactions and honour places that have held communities over time. New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, one of the first Black publishers and booksellers in the UK; multi-purpose venue and community hub The Tabernacle in Notting Hill; arts centre The Albany in Deptford; and the new Becontree Forever Arts and Culture Hub at Valence Library in Barking and Dagenham, which was established this year to commemorate the centenary of the UK’s largest council housing estate.

TW:   As a TIME100 Next List honouree, which one change would you wish to make globally with creativity?

SV:   Free, decolonised education is the way to new worlds. At every level, I hope that my practice – in all its forms – offers other worlds and other canons. It is an absolute privilege to be on a list with so many artists, innovators and leaders who I look up to. It has deepened the sense of responsibility to our histories, our hybrid identities and our futures that I strive to embody in my work, and the sense of responsibility that I have to my communities.

Teaching is probably one of the most important things missing from the profession I feel — and since clients and architects work together, certainly the architect should, to some degree, be teaching the client – this is historically done through styles of architecture, which is very limiting and always retrogressive because it can only look back at a catalogue of easily recognisable architectures. In places like Johannesburg, we don’t have the luxury to be regressive. To quote Steve Biko, ‘change the way people think and things will never be the same’ – so to be progressive is to assume that teaching is about guiding someone to find architecture and to do that, you need quite an esoteric process of discovery, transcription, translation, negotiation, and a fair dose of patience from everyone involved.

We need for the discipline to involve many other forms of space-making – the aural and the atmospheric, the performed – ways of being that are resonant with here; have the potential to alter the profession. I would love to see South Africa move forward with confidence and a conviction in multiple forms of architecture which truly express our identities.

TW:   In 2020, you wrote a letter to your younger self, which one piece of advice would you pass on to the next generation?

SV:   Poetry is a necessity. And dreaming is everything.

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