The First Islamic Arts Biennale, curated by Sumayya Vally, opened on January 2023 and is still ongoing until May 23, 2023, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It re-imagines the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz Airport, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and winner of the 1983 Aga Khan Award, as a cultural space to redefine Islamic Arts from “within, in a way, that connects some of these art forms and forms of artistic expression to the experience and rituals” of those that live it.
Sumayya Vally is a South African architect, founder, and director of the Johannesburg-based collaborative architectural studio Counterspace. Designer of the Serpentine Pavilion in 2020/2021, she was the youngest architect to get this commission. Part of Time’s 100 emerging leaders who are shaping the future, in 2021, the only architect to make the list at that time, Sumayya started her career as a curator and teacher, and recently she was appointed as artistic director of the first Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah. ArchDaily had the chance to talk with Vally about her contribution to this biennale, her vision of the exhibition, the venue, the scenography, and the participating architects. Sumayya also shared some exclusive info about her entry for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, starting on May 20th, in Venice, Italy.
In the Qiblah section (or direction), we focus on unpacking the concept of time. Qiblah is the sacred direction that we point toward in prayer. We explore this idea on a variety of scales, from the abstract scale of the mind and the vibrational sound of the call to prayer, which touches our bodies and asks us to turn our attention towards the Kaaba, to the scale of infinity. The idea is that every time we stand up in prayer, we’re connected with people past, present, and future who will do the same. This is explored through the theme of Qiblah.
And then in the Hijra theme, (or migration), we’re questioning: what are the first principles of home? What are the first building blocks of the first house after migration, after displacement? How do we find a home and find community through our rituals? how do we share together in loss, in celebration, in prayer, in festival? How do different times of the year bring us together?
We think about the first home as the place where the faith came from and the practices around which it is centered, but we also think about this idea of the first home in a more abstract way. We explore how we construct home and belonging through our rituals, faith, and gathering of the community.
AD: The biennale that opened on January 2023, extended till May 23, 2023, is taking place in the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, initially designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The terminal is one of the 1983 Aga Khan Award winners. What can you tell us about the main setting of the event? What value did it bring to the biennale?
SV: It has been completely formative in the way I’ve thought about the Biennale and its first theme, “Awal Beit.” When I was first appointed to work on the project, the Biennale was still in its early stages, and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation was still being established. We looked at various sites in Jeddah when considering potential locations. On my first visit to this particular site, which we were considering, I was flooded with memories of being there as a 14-year-old pilgrim, where I witnessed the entire world coming together, the different food, sounds, and people all gathering together to share food and lead each other in prayer.
The energy of this city, which comprises the entire world under the SOM-designed canopy, was incredibly special to me. I realized that this site has immense significance in the hearts and minds of Muslims from all over the world. Those who have been there will remember it as a key entry point and moment at the beginning of their pilgrimage journey. Even for those who have not been there, there is an aspiration or love towards the idea of the journey and pilgrimage.
ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): How did you first become involved in helping produce this exhibition?
Sumayya Vally: I was first approached for the project by, a cultural strategist, who is on the board of the Islamic Arts Biennale. It was during Ramadan at the time when I was working on the Serpentine Pavilion and the Serpentine hosted a Zoom discussion. We were in the beginning of the pandemic at that time, and, I was speaking with Hans Ulrich Obrist about renegotiating rituals of community in Ramadan in relation to this time that we were in. Subsequently, someone who heard the interview expressed interest in me working on the biennale, and that’s how it all started. It’s been an incredible honor to be part of this project, especially since I don’t have a background as a curator. It’s been fascinating to approach the project architecturally, given the type of venue we have. I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the project.
AD: In your opinion, what is the significance of having a biennale that focuses primarily on Islamic Arts?
SV: I was initially thrilled to be involved with the project when I learned that it was called the Islamic Arts Biennale. There is an inherited definition of Islamic art that comes from 17th century France, and Islamic Arts have continuously been defined and redefined, and these definitions oscillate around geography, chronology, style, and aesthetic tradition, but they’ve never really been defined from within by us, from our perspectives, in a way, that connects some of these art forms and forms of artistic expression to our lived experience and to our rituals.
AD: What can you tell us about the main themes of the biennale? How can we define the Qiblah (direction) and the Hijra (migration)? And how were these themes portrayed in the exhibition itself?
SV: This is the first Islamic Arts Biennale, and because of that, I think we had to think about ways for it to have broad appeal and also to set the ground and go back to fundamentals. The theme for this biennale is called “Awal Beit,” which means the first house. This is a term of reverence that’s given to the Kaaba in Mecca, which is the center and focus of our rituals. In the biennale, we explore the idea of the first house as the Kaaba, the center of our rituals, but we also think about the first principles of belonging, how we construct home, and how belonging is constructed both spiritually and through community.
For people from Jeddah and Mecca and Medina, it is known as the gateway to the holy site. I think there was a sense of the profound significance of the site. Additionally, it is physically beautiful. SOM won the Aga Khan Award because it functions differently from a conventional airport terminal. People wait there for many hours on end, and instead of being encouraged to spend money or go shopping, they gather as a community. This is an important step and moment in the Pilgrim’s journey.
This became incredibly formative for the theme of Qiblah and Hijra, reflecting on the centrality of this region in Muslim practice everywhere. This place has always been synonymous with migrations and movement of people from medieval times with the historic Pilgrims roads constructed to contemporary mega infrastructures of the pilgrimage. It has really come to function as a nexus of cultural production by virtue of the fact that it is such a cultural melting pot, that so many people have always passed through it, and it has absorbed the culture of the entire world inside of it, and it’s transmitted its own culture to the world. That is the center of the theme of Hijra, and it is also expressed in many of the artworks.
AD: The scenography was designed by OMA. How did it transform the space? And how did it contribute to the general vision of the biennale, and of you as an artistic director?
SV: As the Artistic Director, I was excited to select OMA for the scenography of the Biennale. We wanted someone who could work at a mega-scale and subvert the idea of a white cube space.
The site is charged with significance, it has the energy of thousands of people, tied to aspirations in a deep way. We wanted a scenography that would express the different atmospheres of ritual prayer, gathering, and community, so I worked with OMA on designing the shifting atmospheres from space to space and sub-themes.
In the Qiblah section, we created a meditative journey that moved from darkness into golden light, ending in an explosion of light where we encountered this idea of infinity and the central moment of our rituals, the Kaaba in Mecca. In the outdoor area, the scenography was driven by what we described when we talked about my own journey of first being there as a pilgrim and seeing the entire world come together. We wanted to create a gathering place that could manage the scale and create intimate moments within the landscape. OMA took on that challenge and created a scenography that celebrates the canopy structure -every time we look up, we’re able to see it- while also creating intimate moments. Part of my legacy for this biennale is that our outdoor scenography will be permanent and will form the basis for future artistic directors and curators to build upon.
AD: Will the next Islamic Arts Biennale also take place in the same location?
SV: Yes, it will. We have constructed a series of buildings and galleries, including the Qiblah section spread across four galleries, and a fifth gallery which is an initiative by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation functioning as a community of institutions. We have invited institutions from around the world, as far as Mali and Uzbekistan, to contribute something on the theme of “Awal Beit” from their perspective. Additionally, we have a building dedicated to public programs, a reception area, cafes and restaurants, and an outdoor landscape area that serves as a set of outdoor galleries for both permanent and temporary installations. The idea is that this site will become a home for the future of the Islamic Arts Biennale and a Center for the Arts. When the Biennale is not on, the site will be a place for arts and culture, and exchanges throughout the year.
AD: Let’s discuss the architects who have contributed to this biennale. Who are the architects exhibiting, what are their main backgrounds, and what are some of their key interventions?
SV: We have a significant number of architects participating in this biennale, and for me, it has been crucial to blur the distinctions between contemporary and historic, traditional and evolving archives of practice, as well as art, craft, design, and architecture. In fact, many artists in the region have a background in architecture and design, as that was the primary field of study available to them. We embrace this diversity of practice as a showcase of diverse voices and practices. Throughout the biennale, most of the experiences are highly architectural, given their scale, and we have invited architects to contribute to several themes, including the Qiblah and Hijra sections.
AD: Other than your recent work with the Islamic arts biennale, this is the year of the Venice architecture biennale. In 2014, you held the position of assistant curator and film producer for the South African Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia, and in 2023 you have been invited, with your firm Counterspace, to exhibit in the central pavilion in the Giardini.
SV: I’m incredibly excited about the theme for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. Professor Lesley Lokko is someone who has been formative in my own career. I was very lucky to be able to teach at the school she started in Johannesburg, the Graduate School of Architecture, where we were really working towards creating a curriculum for and of the African continent. And I’m incredibly honored to be in this cohort of architects that she’s working with for the Biennale.
The project that we’re working on is called the “African Post Office”, and I invited the architect, artist, and curator Moad Musbahi, who is also African, to work on the project with me. We are creating an installation that is about bringing different territories into being through performance, sound, and activation. We’re also reflecting on the idea of exchange, and the architecture of the post, which has a long history in many African typologies and Islamic traditions. We’re thinking about the post as an elemental form that really calls for gathering, and the installation is going to reflect this idea.
AD: How relevant are architectural exhibitions and biennales? Why are they so important?
SV: I believe that biennales, pavilions, and platforms for experimental art and architecture are essential because they provide a space for imagining the future. However, I also think that the biennale model could be more productive and generative than it currently is. That’s why I was thrilled to artistically direct the first Islamic Arts Biennale because there is no platform that we currently have for imagining a future for Islamic art.
source : archdaily
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