When I connect with Sumayya Vally for our call, I am immediately transported to the bustling atmosphere of the Western Hajj Terminal, the home of the first Islamic Arts Biennale. Vally gives me a short virtual tour of a towering canopy that’s been illuminated green in recognition of the recent Founder’s Day celebrations in Saudi Arabia.
Vally, the artistic director of the Biennale is reflecting on the significance of the moment, particularly the excitement of welcoming a public audience to the site where she has convened a range of artists from different regions of the world whose works draw on Islamic traditions and philosophies.
“Local people are hungry for art. Today, we had a bus with a group from Nigeria and another group from Pakistan, and these are people in their pilgrim clothes ready to go on their big journey,” she tells me from Jeddah’s vibrant thoroughfare where thousands people travel throughout the year.
Vally's career is an impressive trajectory. She was recently appointed honorary professor of practice at The Bartlett School of Architecture in London and was recognised as one of TIME100 Next's emerging leaders who are shaping the future. Her appointment with this biennale is undoubtedly an example of her fulfilling this prediction.
Born in Laudium, southwest of Pretoria, and classified as Indian under apartheid, Vally reflects on growing up in a community that was deeply involved in social action, where powerful anti-apartheid voices emerged and celebrations during Eid and Diwali brought people together. Part of her childhood was spent in inner-Johannesburg where her grandfather worked on the pulsating Ntemi Piliso Street, one of the city’s most historic districts. Exploring the city, Johannesburg City Library stands out as one of the most memorable catalyst for her journey into architecture.
“Being able to see and be in Johannesburg, and then walking to the library and becoming immersed in a world of fiction, and imagination, I think was everything for me,” Vally says. This love for Johannesburg inspired her to co-founded Counterspace, an award-winning architecture and research practice. Counterspace was established in response to the continued lack of nuanced representation of the city in the architectural canon and profession, and promotes an inclusive and diverse approach to spatial design.
Rebelling against traditional modes of understanding space, the work also recognises the existence of a multifaceted Johannesburg and other cities within people’s imaginations. “The practice started with humble research ambitions. We were interested in hosting things in our spaces, talking about the city, about land, and our hopes, dreams and frustrations for the city through this portal,” Vally says.
Her approach and desire to build and converge authentically multiple worlds and identities was important in the artistic direction for the Biennale. Drawing on her own experiences of embodying multiple identities — being South African, African of Indian Origin and Muslim — Vally saw the event as an opportunity to showcase Islamic art in the contemporary world in a way that transcends the boundaries of identity and geography.
In weaving together a narrative for the biennale, and considering the interconnectedness of the world in the region through migration, a profound theme emerged: Awwal Bait, The First House, which refers to the Ka’bah in Makkah, the focal point of Islamic worship. The biennale explores this theme in a multifaceted way, delving into the spiritual and internal dimensions of rituals and the philosophies that underpin them, and is expanded on in various sections.
The first section, titled Qiblah or Sacred Direction, showcases the importance of daily practices such as prayer and meditation in creating a sense of community and connection. It is intended to be meditative, atmospheric and pared back. The second section is dedicated to Hijrah or Migration and is a collection of large installations under a magnificent tented canopy. This section highlights the principles of first house or first home, bringing together expressions of food, sound, festivals worship and work. It invites us to consider how we can come together beyond physical structures, to form a sense of belonging and community through shared principles and values.
Vally’s vision invites us to explore the interconnectedness of the world, highlighting the ways in which a single region can serve as a microcosm of hybridity, how global migration shapes our world and inspires a reimagination of how we experience home as individuals and as a collective.
“I really wanted to create a definition for Islamic art that is resonant with our lives and who we are, while using this opportunity to show work that also resonates with our everyday ritual practices,” Vally says. “My work is also deeply interested in finding design form and sign language for the diasporic and the migratory.” The biennale’s exploration of Awwal Bait is a deeply thought-provoking experience that will challenge visitors to reflect on the enduring and universal human quest for belonging and meaning.
While searching for a location, the biennale’s team were struck by Jeddah’s incredible convergence of multiple perspectives and traditions that together create a rich cultural tapestry. The site they selected, just across from the city’s King Abdulaziz International Airport where pilgrims from around the world arrive, holds a deep significance for millions of people. With planes taking off and landing in the background, the energy and excitement of the site was something that Vally and her team were determined to harness and bring to life through the biennale.
Jewel of Jeddah
Jeddah has been shaped by centuries of migration, particularly during the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah that has brought people from all corners of the globe. “It is a site that’s imbued with so much significance for so many people,” Vally says. “People who have been here have memories from this place, and people who haven’t been here aspire to. When I first visited the site professionally, when we were still scoping things out, I was immediately flooded with memories of being here as a pilgrim.”
The fusion of cultures is palpable throughout the city’s makeup, including its cuisine that draws flavours from Indonesia, Morocco, and West Africa and other places. Its history as a bustling port city has always made it a place of welcome. Through further exploration of Jeddah’s cultural and architectural fabric, Vally’s team has created a space that embodies this spirit of hospitality and inclusivity that the city is known for.
The featured artists present various work from collective performances. Some are grounded in ritual and spirituality, while others are oral and aural perspectives, but they all explore the many facets of Islamic art. As she speaks about some of the work, Vally says: “I didn’t want to define Islamic art through people who are only Muslim or through looking at specific geographies in the world. I really thought about methods of practice, subject matter or content that explore many facets of Islamic art and come from Islamic philosophy.”
While it was important for her to work with Saudi Arabian artists who make up the majority of the participating art in the biennale, other artists come from several regions including Palestine and Lebanon. Vally also felt it was important to highlight the work of artists from the continent, including Soukaina Aboulaoula and Igshaan Adams.
Undoubtedly a moment of great significance, Vally shares her vision and aspiration for the biennale as well as her ongoing journey as an educator. “As an architect with a keen interest in decolonial discourse, I hope it’s like a seed that will grow, and when people think about Islamic art, this artistic definition becomes an integral part of their thoughts,” she says.
She emphasises that this definition isn’t limited to anything overly aesthetic or tied to specific times and places. Instead, it reflects the spiritual and cultural philosophies that we can all learn from in the faith.
The Islamic Arts Biennale, produced by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, runs until May 23 2023.