The founder and principal of award-winning architecture firm Counterspace, the youngest-ever architect to design London’s Serpentine Pavilion, a 2021 Time magazine ‘100 Next’ honouree, the artistic director of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale, and now an honorary professor in the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London — Pretoria-born Sumayya Vally defies her relatively tender years by continuing to climb the ladder of success at a mindblowing pace.
Vally, who cites the city of Johannesburg as a heavy influence in all aspects of her career, is an architect and educator whose work is centred around narrative, identity and memory. We spoke to her about defining Islamic art, what she hopes to bring to the University College London curriculum, and what she’s looking forward to for the rest of the year.
You’re the artistic director of the first Islamic Arts Biennale — what does this mean to you both career-wise and in a personal capacity?
It has been an immense honour to take up this platform and the task of shaping the definition of Islamic art for our time.
When the term ‘Islamic art’ is mentioned, it comes to us with the weight of many existing definitions — inherited from 17th-century France and oscillating around geography, chronology and style. We have an ingrained definition of Islamic art in the world — images of craft and aesthetic styles come to mind when the term is mentioned — and this has been defined outside of ourselves.
I was intent on putting forth a different definition of Islamic art — one that is resonant with our practices and experiences of being of the Muslim world. I wanted to go to the root of philosophies and practices, and draw on the knowledge, wisdom and experience of rituals in the faith — to deepen our appreciation of our daily practices and to transfer their meaning to audiences in non-didactic ways.
My own experiences of growing up in a Muslim community in South Africa have been key to shaping the thinking of this biennale, from our practices at home to our shared gathering in faith — sharing pain, loss, celebration, memory and imagination. These rituals are much about the experience of spirituality, both individually and communally, and they are oral, aural, performed and experiential.
To be able to work with these personal experiences on this historic platform has been incredibly moving, and I hope it is a testament to the fact that our unique perspectives have so many discourses to contribute to our present and future worlds. I hope it will present something that resonates with our lived practices and experiences as we reflect on the universality of spiritual practice in Islam and the construction of spiritual belonging — forms of cultural belonging that we return to as first principles of belonging when we construct our spiritual home.
As we gather to reflect on the significance of this cultural connection and draw on bodies of knowledge that come from places of difference and different places all around the world, my hope is that this biennale is an opportunity for audiences to reflect on ritual, the sacred, the personal and the communal — to build on that definition and to think through what Islamic art means and can mean, for now and for the future.
My own practice is centred around developing the design from the voices of different cultures. 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 the opportunity of this platform to contribute to this discourse on Islamic art that I hope will continue long beyond this biennale.
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.
The theme you set out for the biennale is ‘Awwal Bait’? What does it mean and how is it translated in the Biennale’s experience?
‘Awwal Bait’, which translates literally into ‘First House’, is used in the Qur’an to signify the Ka'aba in Makkah. As the House of God, it is the most sacred site in Islam and the direction (Qiblah) all Muslims face in their daily prayers, regardless of location. Moreover, it is the destination for pilgrims from around the world embarking on the annual pilgrimage, making it the unifying focus for all Muslims.
The concept of Awwal Bait examines how the Ka'aba and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah inspire Muslims worldwide on both cultural and metaphysical levels to create a sense of belonging in their own home, their own ‘bait’, wherever that may be.
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 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, is present in our rituals of worship. It is present through invisible lines of direction, in 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 the core philosophies of Islam, an understanding that we are connected to each other through our shared rituals, as we physically and metaphorically turn towards our shared home.
Several historical and archaeological fragments inspire, narrate and render visible wisdom, imaginations and futures of ‘home’ and spiritual placemaking, from the scale of the body to the scale of the cosmos.
The theme unfolds in two complementary sections, with galleries and outdoor installations creating a dialogue between sacred sites and rituals, inviting artists to interpret and reflect on the personal and communal expressions and emotions they invoke. The principal theme of the indoor galleries is that of Qiblah (Sacred Direction), with Makkah as the focus. Under the canopy of the former Hajj Terminal, the installations reflect on multiple senses of Hijrah (Migration), from the initiation of the Muslim era to contemporary displacement, and how, despite the loss of a physical home, Muslims retain their spiritual home in the Awwal Bait.
Establishing the Qiblah and the times of prayer encouraged the Muslim world to make notable advances in astronomy and mathematics. It influenced the architecture of mosques — in which the Qiblah is marked by a Mihrab — and their orientation so that they often stand at a marked angle to the surrounding streets.
The Qiblah also connects the believer to Allah’s House after death, as Muslims are buried on their right side, facing Makkah. A cemetery is a place to remember an individual, but the aligned interments remind us that the individual was a single member of a greater community.
In the galleries of the Biennale, historical objects and contemporary artworks have been placed together to reflect on the rituals of Muslim life. They trace a journey following the invisible line of the Qiblah, from the first call to prayer to arrival at the Ka‘bah, the holiest site of Islam.
The journey of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers from Makkah, during which the first Muslims fled persecution, is also identified as the epoch of the Lunar Hijri calendar, marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar. As we reflect on the migration of the first Muslims from the Awwal Bait to the city of Medinah, we reflect on how rituals are carried out in the construction of home and belonging. 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.
The holy sites are still synonymous with migration, as the most-visited sites of pilgrimage in the world. They construct and colour a collective imagination of Muslims the world over. They belong not fixed in geographical place but woven into senses of belonging and identity for the Ummah. Rituals and practices, from everyday to transcendent, born in the holy sites are reflected in homes across the globe.
The world too is reflected in the cultural life of the Hijaz, having witnessed and absorbed these migrations. Travelling through culture, from the sounds and cadences from one region to another, from the shapes and forms of one lettering system to another, from the tastes of one region to another, this section explores how our rituals migrate.
The Biennale is a platform to reflect on the power of the philosophies of these rituals to produce a multitude of forms of cultural expression.
What does your new role as an honorary professor in the Bartlett School of Architecture entail, and what do you hope to bring to the curriculum?
I will contribute to the professional practice stream across the Bartlett School of Architecture and its architecture MSci programme.
My pedagogical thinking has been grown by my context – shaped by South Africa and Johannesburg, and grounded in ‘southern’ conditions. I believe in the relevance and the power of these perspectives to make a contribution to shaping and shifting architectural discourses for the future. (In 2020 I penned a letter to younger architects reflecting on discourses that are available to us in our own conditions and the power of imagining possibilities from them.)
Johannesburg has shaped so much of my own design voice, and I was incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to teach at the Graduate School of Architecture in Johannesburg under the helm of Professor Lesley Lokko immediately after graduating, at a time when the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements were at the forefront of discussions around education; and when Lesley came to the school with the intent for us to imagine curricula from and for our own conditions. The experience was formative to my practice and deepened my perspectives on the urgencies of decolonised education and the transformative power of teaching methodologies different to those we have inherited from colonial worlds.
I hope to use this as an opportunity to broaden the lens of the existing curriculum such that the social and sociopolitical are presented within the artistic, the expressive and the aesthetic. It’s very important for me that pedagogical practice and studio practice always run alongside each other because they naturally do feed into each other. Questions of design and social justice have never been mutually exclusive.
On a deeper level, beyond questions of service delivery, spaces to imagine ourselves and in turn to create our futures are arguably the most important social endeavours we can undertake. Beauty is also social justice.
There are entirely different worlds and transformative canon waiting to emerge from our diverse perspectives, our cultural identities and in our languages. There is always architecture waiting to be found in places that are overlooked.
What advice do you have for aspiring architects in South Africa, specifically Johannesburg?
There's so much that's waiting to happen and waiting to be translated into design form from our conditions. Rather than feel that we are far from the centres where culture is being made, we need to realise that we have the opportunity to shape the future of culture and cultural typologies differently, in ways that are authentic to who we are and in ways that serve our ways of being.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of 2023?
I am currently working on several cultural projects — the design of a presidential library for the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Foundation in Liberia, in collaboration with [Nigerian architect] Mariam Kamara; a public plaza in honour of the pan-African conference that took place in Manchester in 1945; and several cultural projects in Saudi Arabia and West Africa.
We are working on the next iteration of the Support Structures for Support Structures fellowship at the Serpentine, which is dedicated to supporting artists working at the intersections of art and social justice, art and ecologies, and art and the archive.
For now, I am taking in the experience of seeing the public inhabiting the Islamic Arts Biennale and working intently on our Ramadaan programme with our artists. I am also looking forward to developing several legacy projects with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation.
Photographs: Marilyn Clark, Lou Jasmine.