Architecture affirms who we are in the world. The built fabric around us tells us our place in the world and what we deserve, and this is why architecture is so powerful. - Sumayya Vally
In today's episode, we explore a multidisciplinary arts approach with architect Sumayya Vally. Vally ruminates on topics such as the deep political power of beauty, how art and architecture affirm who we are in the world, and the often overlooked intelligence of early African architecture, which has the ability to connect us to each other, and to a higher power.
Principal of the award-winning architecture and research, Counterspace, Vally’s design, research and pedagogical practice is searching for expression for hybrid identities and territory, particularly for African and Islamic conditions, both rooted and diasporic. Her process is often forensic and draws on the oral, aural, sound, ritual, supernatural, and the overlooked as generative places of history and work.
In 2022, Vally was selected by the World Economic Forum to be one of its Young Global Leaders, a community of the world’s most promising artists, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, and political leaders, and, as a TIME100 Next list honoree, has been identified as someone who will shape the future of architectural practice and canon. She recently joined the World Monuments Fund Board of Directors, and serves on several boards through her interest in dynamic forms of archive, embodied heritage and supporting new networks of knowledge in the arts.
In 2019, Counterspace was invited to design the 20th Serpentine Pavilion in London, making Vally the youngest architect ever to win this internationally renowned commission. With the Serpentine, she has initiated and developed a new fellowship program, Support Structures for Support Structures, which assists artists and collectives working at the intersection of art with social justice, the archive, and ecology.
As Artistic Director, Sumayya has creatively shaped the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah (January - April 23, 2023). She is actively working to expand and deepen the definition of Islamic arts; in an effort to embed new discourses and manifest identities which are reflective, resonant and generative with the philosophies and experience of Islam.
She is 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. She is also working on a garden and gathering place commemorating the 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, UK, in 1945.
Sumayya’s practice operates adjacent to the academy. For 6 years (2015-2021), she led the masters’ studio, Unit 12, at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg—founded by Professor Lesley Lokko, with the intent to create a curriculum for the African continent. She has taught and lectured widely, most recently as Pelli Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Vally leads a new masters’ programme, Hijra, at the Royal College of Art and is an Honorary Professor of Practice at The Bartlett School of Architecture.
My biggest inspiration has always been Johannesburg. For all of its challenges and all of its flaws, I very much feel that the lifeblood of my conceptual thinking comes from the conditions that we find in the city. And that has been my greatest teacher. - Sumayya Vally
Supplementary Reading Material
In many non-Western languages, there is no concept of environment. It's not something that's outside of ourselves. We see ourselves on the same plane as everything around us, and that sensibility is something that I find really, really inspiring. - Sumayya Vally
About the Latitudes Podcast
Hosted by dynamic broadcast journalist and penchant for the arts Refiloe Mpakanyane, The Latitudes Podcast, which is the only podcast dedicated to contemporary African art, is an immersive and engaging platform that builds a new layer of access to the contemporary visual arts from Africa.
Latitudes is now a pan-African platform with a global audience, and this podcast is an additional discoverability tool for global audiences to uncover African art and learn about the featured topics and speakers.
Season one of the Latitudes Podcast explores new ways of accessing and thinking about the contemporary visual arts from Africa, while building a robust archive of thought leadership.
About Refiloe Mpakanyane
Refiloe Mpakanyane is a broadcast journalist, with a penchant for the arts. Known for her love and support of local African literature, art and artists, Mpakanyane has an Honours Degree from the Wits School of Journalism and majored in International Relations, Media Studies and English Literature for her undergrad. Her firm grounding in the critical, analytical and creative thinking of the humanities discipline has underpinned her passion for broadcasting, leading her to delve into working not only behind the scenes in radio and television production, but in front of the camera and hosting her own radio shows as well.
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Further Reading In Articles
African Artist Directory