The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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APRIL 2023 Issue
Art Director's Series

Sumayya Vally & Aya Al-Bakree with Joachim Pissarro & Jennifer Stockman

Portrait of Sumayya Vally, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Sumayya Vally, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

Sumayya Vally is an architect who became the youngest person to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London when the company she leads (Counterspace) was awarded the commission in 2019. She was invited to be the Artistic Director for the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennial in Jeddah, which takes place this year. Aya Al-Bakree is a contemporary culture specialist with more than ten years of experience in the arts in Europe and Saudi Arabia. She is currently the CEO of the new Thunaiyat Ad-Diriyah Foundation, which is responsible for producing not only the Islamic Arts Biennial in Jeddah but also the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. Vally and Al-Bakree joined Guggenheim President Emeritus Jennifer Stockman and Rail Consulting Editor Joachim Pissarro for a conversation as part of the Rail’s New Social Environment Director’s Series, a series spotlighting the work of those who lead important cultural institutions.

Installation view: Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale. Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Installation view: Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale. Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Jennifer Stockman: Well, it’s really an honor to be with you all today. The first question I have is for Aya. I am overwhelmed that you have overseen two successful biennales, which have both been so ambitious, under the Ministry of Culture. When I first heard of the plan many years ago, I couldn’t imagine it would happen, but they both happened and very successfully. Would you tell us why these two global events were created, and describe their missions to us?

Aya Al-Bakree: Hi, Jennifer, thank you. Had it not been for the Minister of Culture and the wider team at the Ministry, there’s no way these projects would have happened. And of course, the Vice Chairman of the Foundation, His Excellency, who gave us tremendous support for which we are profoundly grateful. I see these two biennales as two distinct “siblings” under one home, whose purpose has always been to highlight Saudi Arabia on the cultural map internationally. The first biennale, dedicated to contemporary art, took place in Diriyah and highlighted the former Saudi Arabian capital through a contemporary art exhibition. The Islamic Arts Biennale played an entirely different role, being in Jeddah, at the Hajj Terminal that we were able to repurpose as a cultural center. Whilst each biennale plays a different role in the country in developing the arts and cultural infrastructure, the biennales together work to foster dialogue, between contemporary works and historical objects, local and international.

The Foundation ultimately looks to speak to a local and an international audience, and both biennales are complemented by rich educational programs for the public that inspire community engagement and that nurture creative expression. We’re very grateful to have witnessed the staggering attendance rates at the Islamic Arts Biennale—reaching more than 270,000 visitors within the last month-and-a-half alone. So we’re super happy with the impact of this amazing show that was artistically directed by Sumayya. The visitors keep coming back, asking questions, and are super excited to learn about and understand the works, the artists, as well as the ways in which this ecosystem is growing. And that’s exactly at the heart of why we do what we do at the Foundation—to merge our exhibitions with an important and substantial educational program that caters to different audiences, different age groups, and that touch on different topics. We run over five or six programs a day, throughout the duration of the ninety days of the biennale.

Stockman: Yes, and the people you are able to bring over to Riyadh has been extraordinary for the panels and for your educational program. That’s a really important point. Because to have a biennale without the education is just lost, often. Now, Sumayya, how do you believe the definition of Islamic art might change as a result of your vision for this biennale?

Vally: Thank you so much, Jennifer, it’s so wonderful to be here. I’m a huge fan of this platform, and I believe so much in the work that it does. It’s an honor to be in all of your company. Thank you also for the question, I think it’s a really important one, because for so long, I think the definition of Islamic arts has been handed down to us. Of course, there is a very strong existing canon of Islamic art. And it’s been defined and redefined throughout the ages, since I believe seventeenth-century France. And that definition has oscillated around geography, around chronology, and around style and aesthetic practices. And I think as somebody who is of the faith and also someone who’s very much interested in the future of contemporary art, and the future of shaping cultural typologies from voices of difference, it’s important to think about how we can decolonize museums, biennales, and spaces in the public realm that are engaging with art. I was thinking about how we can be an ally in putting forth a definition for Islamic arts that is resonant with our lives, resonant with our lived experiences and practices. And perhaps that doesn’t only focus on style and aesthetic traditions, but that really looks at the philosophies coming from the faith, and thinks through what they can offer for the future of not just Islamic arts, but the future of our practice.

If we think about Islamic practices, I often say—and if we think about African practices and African ways of being as well—our practices are oral, they’re performed, they’re rooted in ritual, they’re rooted in being around community, in coming together and gathering. They’re not always only about built structures, and built forms. They’re not only about static forms of preservation; they are about loved, living, and breathing practices. And this is something that we really wanted to put forward in this biennale. And I hope that we have, because so many of our artists have worked to interpret these themes and to take them on.

So what we have in the biennale is a series of experiences. I created the biennale alongside an incredible curatorial team: Dr. Saad Al-Rashid, who is an archaeologist from Saudi Arabia, and Dr. Julian Raby and Dr. Omniya Abdel Barr, both of whom are exemplary Islamic art scholars. Throughout the biennale we have historic objects and archaeological finds juxtaposed and in conversation with contemporary experiences. And what we really wanted to do was to situate contemporary experiences and practices in a historic lineage and give the historic objects relevance and future by showcasing them with current experiences. So I hope the biennale puts forth a different definition for Islamic arts, one that is really relevant to our lives, resonant with our practices, and is created in the image of us, from within the faith, as a manifestation of our identities, which I believe is so important at the moment, but also as a welcome and as an open hand to anyone who wants to learn about the faith as well.

Joachim Pissarro: I have a question which is perhaps tangential to this. Most of the members of the audience probably are not familiar with the population in Saudi Arabia. And when you look at the demographics of the population, it’s a country with less than forty million people, which is about the average population of some countries in Europe. But what is very unusual, if not unique, is the fact that out of this population of forty or so million people you have over half of the population who are younger than thirty years old. So you have an extraordinarily young audience, and public, and I’m wondering, Sumayya, how that has inflected your practice or impacted your choices, or your general philosophy?

Installation view: Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale. Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Installation view: Diriyah Islamic Arts Biennale. Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Vally: It’s been so incredibly inspiring to work with the energy of a country, as you said, that has such a young population. And I think I’m speaking here, first and foremost, about the incredible Diriyah Biennale Foundation team under the helm of the incredible Aya Al-Bakree. It’s been amazing to work with a team that is so open to thinking about change, and that is also unburdened with particular expectations around what Islamic art is, what it should be, what contemporary art is, what it should be, how things should function on a systemic and structural level. That has been absolutely amazing.

I think what the Foundation team has pulled off in such a short time in terms of its contribution to shaping the culture of arts in Saudi Arabia is absolutely immense. And it is, I believe, largely because they are not burdened by the feeling of impossibility, or the feeling of being trapped in old structural systems. So many times, as a group, we talked about certain things, and everybody said, “That will never happen in time,” or “That’s simply not possible,” or “No one’s going to understand this definition of Islamic art.” But I think in each case, we can say that that was completely overcome and absolutely untrue.

We have been so conditioned by the systems that we have, that we’re unable to imagine systems differently. And the energy of having a population, a culture, and a team that is young and ambitious, I cannot overstate how imperative that has been to the change that we’re seeing. And I’m genuinely, deeply grateful that this definition of Islamic art is now in the world, and that has been enabled entirely by this team, because they have the energy of youth, of ambition, of change and revolution.

Pissarro: I want to expand a little bit on what you’re saying because it seems to me that the dialectical tension between history and present and future, as you just said, is very present. Even curatorially, at the core of the selection of the objects—if I go by my notes—there are 280 historical objects, which is interesting in the context of a biennale, and next to sixty newly commissioned objects. I’m curious about this dialectical tension of sorts between history, present, and future.

Vally: I think there’s something to note in how cross generational the team is as well. Myself being the youngest and learning from people who are incredibly educated and knowledgeable in the field of Islamic arts. Even though we have over 250 objects, which is a wealth of objects and artifacts from all over the world—many of them from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—objects are of a small scale. And all of our contemporary artworks and installations are quite large, which is enabled by the scale of the space that we have. So it doesn’t appear to be overwhelming in terms of the experience of the biennale, and the presentation of objects.

Every experience in the galleries is rooted in responding to historic objects that we have on display. The historic objects were not only chosen for their aesthetic and artistic prestige, they were also chosen for their ritual significance. So we have incredible objects, never before seen in a museum or in a biennale context. I think there’s something significant about being able to situate these in a narrative and alongside contemporary objects, because it roots them in the present. It reiterates their significance in our present day lives, and in our rituals.

For example, we present a series of archaeological finds from Dr. Saad Al-Rashid’s incredible research on the Darb Zubaydah road, which was the largest pilgrim road ever constructed, in the reception area of the biennale, alongside a work by Ahmed Mater, where he’s talking about people who have serviced the pilgrims. And in the background, we can see the historic Hajj terminal. So we’re really thinking about how this specific site and the city of Jeddah has always been a place of welcome. It’s always been a place that’s been synonymous with cultural exchange and cultural production, just by virtue of the fact that it’s gathered people from around the world in that place.

As visitors move through each gallery, they start to see the historic objects come to life alongside the contemporary commissions. Many of our artists collaborated or consulted with Dr. Saad, for example, on his research in the making of the works. This for me has been very important because our artists are making a contribution to the archive, and many of them are thinking about archival practices differently.

Another work I’d like to mention is by Joe Namy, called Cosmic Breath (2023). For this work he’s choreographed the call to prayer from eighteen different locations, where one wouldn’t necessarily expect the call to prayer to be called. So, for example, a parking lot, a gas station, the side of the road somewhere, from across the world, Japan, Durban in South Africa, Detroit as well. And he’s recorded these and choreographed them so that the call starts at the same time, or the verse of the call starts at the same time. And this is really reflecting on the idea of cosmic breath, that every second of the day the call to prayer is being called somewhere on Earth, because it moves with the movement of the sun. And there are five a day, so when we stand up in prayer, we’re joining this undulating rhythm and this undulating call, we’re joining with people who do the same. So many of our practices are not able to be held in traditional archives because they’re not written forms. They’re spoken, as I said, they’re oral, they’re passed down from generation to generation, from body to body. Many of our artists are not only taking on these practices and interpreting them in contemporary artworks, but are really deeply inspired by historic objects and historic practices.

Joe Namy, <em>Cosmic Breath</em>, 2023. Sound installation, 18 speakers. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Joe Namy, Cosmic Breath, 2023. Sound installation, 18 speakers. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Stockman: I would just like to add, as someone who’s had the opportunity to spend some time in Saudi Arabia over the past three or four years, the culture, as both Sumayya and Joachim alluded to, is so youthful and so spirited, and so enthusiastic about all these plans that the Crown Prince has. In my experience, anywhere in the world, I’ve never seen such enthusiasm. And it’s due to the young people who are so inspired and engaged with these new ideas. I truly believe Saudi Arabia will become the model twenty-first-century country, I would say Riyadh is the twenty-first-century city. But I think there’s so much happening in the country at large, on the eastern side, on the Red Sea, in Jeddah, in Al-’Ula—it’s really widespread.

Aya and Sumayya, I’m very curious about how you chose the artists. Because to me, Islam is not just about Saudi Arabia, or one specific country. It’s widespread and consists of many different cultures. To weave these cultures together into the story that you’ve created in the biennale is quite magical. So the question is, how did you choose the artists from around the world? And how did you integrate all the different Islamic cultures? With sound and smell, you know, everything is involved in the culture.

Vally: First, I just want to say I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments, and I’ve been saying it everywhere that I’ve been speaking as well. I really believe that the region has the opportunity to shape the future of culture differently, and it’s doing that. It’s really working to integrate the different models in the way that they’re practicing and creating, and that’s been extremely inspiring to be around.

On the topic of how we selected the artists, I think this is something that has been a huge responsibility because this is the first Islamic Arts biennale. And at the same time, we had to think about opening up the definition of Islamic arts, but we also had to somehow be universal and resonant with Muslims around the world. And so the rituals and the themes that we chose to work with are really things that all Muslims—believing, non-believing, people who are of the Islamic world or who have resonance with it—will immediately recognize. Like, for example, the call to prayer, the way that we come together around food and certain rituals, forms of gathering, and so on. So the themes really allowed us to appeal to Muslims around the world, I think. But then within that, we wanted to showcase that there’s a diversity of voices, a diversity of forms of practice. And somehow despite that diversity, or perhaps because of it, because Saudi Arabia has seen such an excess of cultural production through the pilgrimage, we really resonate with each other, no matter how diverse we are, no matter where we are in the world, whether people have been to the center of Islam, whether they’ve been to Saudi Arabia or not, they’ve been affected by it in their lives. And we selected artists from around the world. We also selected artists, not because of their faith or because of their background, but because their method of practice has something to do with Islamic faith itself. Embodied in their method of practice is something that is resonant with the faith. For example, we can think of the work of South African artist Igshaan Adams, who works very collectively. His tapestries are woven with a group of women. The subject matter of his work is Islamic. But there’s also something of a meditative nature in the way that he practices, and this repetitive action of weaving is also a kind of spiritual practice. So we chose artists who have something of spiritual nature that comes from the faith in their practice, for example, something that’s meditative. We chose artists who work with things that are, as I said, oral, or have a kind of ritual in their practice. We also chose artists who work collectively, who work with others; we chose artists based on their philosophies in relation to the faith, for example, somebody who’s interested in ecological practices that are to do with the faith, or to do with how we can think about ecology differently.

So yes, we really chose them based on their method of practice. And on the subject of geography, we wanted to work with artists who, as much as possible, are hybrid in their geography. I am South African, but I am of Indian heritage. And I’m also Muslim, which is complicated for an Indian. And I live between London and Johannesburg. But I am Muslim. And somehow we’ve carried practices from Saudi Arabia throughout our lives. We stand up in prayer every day to face the Kaaba in Mecca, and our practices of generosity and hospitality, so many things in our lives are really resonant with practices that have come from the kingdom. So we also chose artists who blurred geography, and who are hybrid in their practice, who are able to resonate with many different conditions.

Installation view: Igshaan Adams, <em>Salat al-jama'ah</em>, 2023, Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo: Nadine Khalil.
Installation view: Igshaan Adams, Salat al-jama'ah, 2023, Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo: Nadine Khalil.

Pissarro: I was curious to hear you speak about the piece by Igshaan Adams. The support of these works is actually old, secondhand, or used prayer mats, am I correct? And yet they seem to be glistening, or there seems to be a very precious surface to it. I’m curious about that tension between old and new, or between low and high. Maybe you could say a few words about that, if you don’t mind?

Vally: Yes, absolutely. Igshaan’s source material for that work is prayer carpets he’s collected from his home community in Bonteheuwel, in Cape Town. And often Igshaan works with sites that are loaded. So for example, in some of his practice, he’s worked with floors from sites of forced removal in South Africa, and he stitched them together to form a meditative prayer carpet.

In this work, his intent in the beginning was that he would collect these carpets that have been in families for generations, and he would stitch them together in a kind of communal gathering of bodies. But when he collected them, he couldn’t bring himself to cut these really precious carpets that had been in families for generations. So instead, he worked with the imprints of the markings, and of the bodies. And he stitched together a new tapestry for each carpet with a collective of women that he works with in his studio, as an homage to these bodies who have really come together through their faith, against apartheid, in very difficult conditions over generations. And alongside that is another work from South Africa by Haroon Gunn-Salie, in which we see one thousand cast kufiya hats, alluding to the Islamic funeral procession.

It’s extraordinary because everybody thinks that they’re fabric from the photographs, and even if you stand next to them, you have to touch them to know that they’re not. So they are really very painstaking, meticulous casts. And as I said, there is something meditative in this process of casting them. But this work is about the funeral procession of a man named Imam Abdullah Haron, who Haroon is actually named after. Imam Abdullah Haron was a community and religious leader. He spent a lot of time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And that really influenced his ethos, and his way of being. It also influenced his politics. He was an extremely loved person in South Africa. His funeral was attended by forty-thousand mourners after he was very sadly killed by apartheid police. This work is very prescient because the trial of Imam Haron is currently happening in South Africa to prosecute his killers. And in this work, we see these hats, which are a reflection of a fraction of the people who gathered to pay their respects and say their last goodbye. And we hear an audio piece with narrations from Imam’s daughters and poetry about his life and the impact that he had on his community. This work really is about the idea that beyond our daily prayers and other forms of worship, every interaction that we have in our lives is also a form of worship. When we die, that’s what we leave behind. The consequence of our actions is really this question: how do we leave behind a better world? It’s a truly moving and beautiful work.

Haroon Gunn-Salie, <em>Amongst Men</em>, 2014/23. 1,000 Material One sculptures,variable dimensions, audio, 12?. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Haroon Gunn-Salie, Amongst Men, 2014/23. 1,000 Material One sculptures,variable dimensions, audio, 12?. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Haroon Gunn-Salie, <em>Amongst Men</em>, 2014/23. 1,000 Material One sculptures,variable dimensions, audio, 12?. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Haroon Gunn-Salie, Amongst Men, 2014/23. 1,000 Material One sculptures,variable dimensions, audio, 12?. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Pissarro: I just want to, if I may, reflect on what you’re saying. Jennifer talked about the component of Islam within this biennale, which of course, this is the first Islamic Biennial and in itself, it’s historically determining. I want to segue on this and mention the spiritual, which is what you were just describing here.

Other artists we probably cannot go into such detail with, but Muhannad Shono showing Letters in Light, Lines We Write (2023), which is a reflection of the personal journey through the spiritual and Basmah Felemban’s Wave Catcher (2023), which is a reference to the call to prayer. We could go on and on. I cannot think of a single biennale—I’m sixty-three years-of-age and have been to biennales since I was less than ten years old—I cannot remember any biennale that has had such rich spiritual content at the core of it.

Vally: Thank you so much. That is such a huge compliment to our team. I think there’s something to be said for art being interwoven with spirituality. And that has been taboo, I think, in recent years, and in the kind of secular era that we’re in. But if we think about the roots of artistic practice, they are tied to forms of worship across religion. Even if we think about pagan times, and you know, very much before enlightenment, it’s always been a part of artistic practice. And if anything, I really believe that these worlds and these philosophies can contribute something different to the world of art. So we should absolutely have more of it.

Stockman: Knowing Sumayya a bit, who is herself a very spiritual person, I think she manages to communicate that very well in the biennale. But a question for Aya. I’d like to know why you and your team and Prince Badr felt that the biennale construct was the right medium to share these views on Islamism with the world?. Because there’s never been an Islamic biennale before. I think it begs the question: Why now? Why this format? Why call it a biennale? I know this question has come up to you before and you’ve been very thoughtful about it.

Al-Bakree: Thanks, Jennifer. The main reason for the format is because, first of all, nothing of this scale has ever been attempted before for the Islamic arts, except for maybe the World of Islam Festival in 1976 in London, which was a revered festival. I recall Chris Dercon himself said it was amazing. Anyway, nothing of that scale for the Islamic arts has taken place again. As Saudi can be considered the cradle of Islam from its origins in Mecca and Medina, it only made sense for us to be hosting such a prominent, large-scale show in Jeddah. The idea came about when Prince Badr was signing an ICESCO (Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) agreement. He wanted Saudi Arabia to host a highly inclusive exhibition that worked collaboratively with prestigious institutions that have been at the forefront of collecting Islamic arts like the Benaki, the V&A, and the Louvre, and believed we could stage something different and that is close to who we are as people. Through this format, it was equally important for us to highlight Saudi Arabia’s role in serving the Two Holy Mosques that many don’t know anything about—there were many things that we wanted to say. And I believe the best way to say them was through artistic dialogue.

Exploring spirituality is also important today, because people mistake Islam or religion overall with ritualistic practice, and not spirituality. But yesterday for instance, when one of my friends was touring the exhibition on her own, I saw her stop in front of one of the works. I saw her from afar, reading about the Wael Shawky work, and she sobbed because she was able to relate so deeply to the work. And this is your average visitor. This level of engagement is something that I feel we are uniquely able to do, because of where we are and how impactful Mecca and Medina have been for centuries on our cultures and civilization and how cultural and spiritual aspects continue to be intertwined within the wider religion. So I feel like it makes so much sense for us to be hosting such an amazing biennale. And I believe now, since its opening especially, it makes so much sense.

Stockman: Certainly the reviews, from what is being spoken about, have been extremely impressive and extremely positive. So I think you’re onto the right thing. And this will reoccur every two years. Is that right?

Al-Bakree: Correct. So next year, we will open the doors to the second edition of the Contemporary Art Biennale in Diriyah with our curator who will be announced very soon. And the year after that, we will stage the second edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale again in Jeddah and hopefully include more institutions in the show, through both the main exhibition, and our satellite exhibition AlMadar, which also started as an idea that Prince Badr had to create more forums for different institutions to participate within the Biennale. So looking ahead to the future, we’re meant to work with different institutions and give them bigger spaces, through pavilions for instance, and enable them to contribute or curate their own shows with Islamic artworks that they’ve collected for years.

Stockman: Very interesting.

Pissarro: Can I jump in? Sumayya, we could list the number of boxes where this is a first: first Islamic biennale, the youngest-run biennale, probably the one with the youngest director, and on and on. What I’m actually interested in turning to you for is the fact that you’re not a usual curator in many ways, in the sense that you come from architecture, you are a practicing architect, I believe you are still principal in Counterspace Studio. And I believe that in an interview you were quoted to say, and I love this quote: “Counterspace was born out of a desire to create a different canon.” Well, that different canon is very much, it seems to me, the way you’ve applied it to this biennale. It’s not frequent to see a director of a biennale come from the world of architecture. How has that inflected your own selection, your views? There are some pieces that are particularly moving to me, like the recreation of certain mosques, or the very fragile materials such as bamboo, or palm trees, and so on. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m really curious about you expanding on how architecture has shaped your vision.

Vally: I think it’s certainly not the core of my practice to be a curator. But my practice has always had a research and pedagogical endeavor, since the very beginning. And I also really believe that in order to change the future of architectural practice and canon, we need to be able to expand the limit of what we include in architecture. And so I have often worked on projects that are not really considered traditional architecture. I often work in the artistic realm; I’ve completed many urban research and artistic installations. I also practice as an artist. And I think that working as a curator has been an extremely pedagogical experience. The closest thing I have done to it is teaching, where one really writes and sets out a brief and a framework, and then the process of also working on the commissions with the artists. In that process, not only is the artist developing a project, but one is refining one’s own perspective and bodies of research.

Syn Architects, <em>anywhere can be a place of worship</em>, 2023. Palm, sand, 3 x 12 x 8 meters. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.
Syn Architects, anywhere can be a place of worship, 2023. Palm, sand, 3 x 12 x 8 meters. Courtesy the artist and Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo: Marco Cappelletti.

Pissarro: The Serpentine Pavilion, which Counterspace designed, is where you were particularly highlighted in this project.

Vally: Yes, I think there are certainly works that are spatial and architectural in the biennale. You mentioned two of the mosque projects, one of them by Syn Architects, which is a collective from Riyadh that is specifically focused on nesting-architecture and architecture from the region and what it can offer for the future, in terms of how we think about sustainable futures and ecologies, and how we think about how we preserve heritage and lived practices.

And that work, as you said, is inspired by the Prophet’s (PBUH) first space of prayer, which was not anything ornate or the image that we have of mosques today. It really was created with palm fronds and was integrated and disappeared entirely into the ground; it touched the earth lightly. It was a space that was made by rituals of community and by people coming together. And that, for me, is an architecture that’s different. It’s putting forth an art and an architectural future that’s different. If we think about the mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, they did that as well. They’re still doing that. They’re thinking about how we can preserve heritage but not in a static way; in a communal way, where everybody comes together through this festival to remake the mosque year after year. And arguably, it’s the same mosque that has existed over hundreds of years, but each year, it’s new and it’s collaborating with the seasons. There’s a form of community practice in how it’s made. Many of our architects and artists, Yasmeen Lari, the other architect you mentioned, included or were inspired by this idea that also is very Islamic. How do we preserve in a living and breathing way? And I believe as an architect, that can offer something for the future of architecture. I also believe that it can certainly offer something for the future of artistic practice.

Some of my own work is also inspired by these very same ideas. And I think that this, perhaps, has come from not only my position as an architect, but my position as an architect who wants to shape the future of practice and canon differently. I’m particularly interested in how we shape the future of cultural typologies differently, and a biennale is really a site for making the future. I also think that the experience of this biennale is very narrative, and a lot of the works are large scale installations. So it’s been really amazing to be able to work as an architect on envisioning this narrative and these large scale works. I think that we should also, all of us, acknowledge that there’s so much to be learned when we collaborate with different disciplines. For me, one of the most incredible things on the project has been these collaborations with artists. It’s also been the collaboration that I’ve had with my co-curators, all of whom come from such different disciplines. And I think that my practice as an architect has been deeply enriched by this process.

Stockman: Well, I’m curious. I believe that this biennale was really meant to attract Saudi’s own population, rather than focus on tourism. Although it’s a positive thing for tourists to come and see it. But maybe you could talk a little bit, Aya, about the demographics and even compare it to the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, since we’ll look forward to that next year. Who is coming? And who’s interested? What is your objective? Do you want it to become a destination for tourism the way the Venice Biennale is, and so many events around the world are?

Al-Bakree: Yes, our aim as a foundation is to do a cultural exchange, or cross fertilization—we want the international visitors to see the works. What Saudi is doing as a whole, but also what Saudi artists are doing. And their practices—that’s something really important for us, that a lot of curators came to witness. Our immediate audiences are definitely in Saudi Arabia, but we have had a very large number of international visitors who also visited at the opening, who still keep coming through as entities or as individual guests, including friends of the Ministry, or regular visitors that book online and just grab air tickets and come in. We’ve actually had a lot of international visitors, and I believe there will be many more. People are aiming to visit during Formula One coming up for instance. The biennale is always the first stop, and we are very proud and grateful for that. So I feel like the demographic is growing across both international and local audiences, something I hope to continue growing as we move forward.

Vally: Something that has also been incredibly special on a day to day is that we really have a cross section of Jeddah visiting the biennale and we have so many families, we have so many young people who are visiting the biennale. We also have so many old people. Aya told me recently that the one thing that the team has been asked for repeatedly, and that they have to keep buying, is wheelchairs. Because there are so many families and so many young people who come and then choose to bring their grandparents a little while later. I heard this from many friends as well. It’s really a kind of active place for Jeddah. I think people are coming to hang out, to see each other, to meet. And then there’s art in the background, which for me is so incredibly special. And the other group that we have that’s been really special to witness and be a part of is pilgrims who are coming for Umrah pilgrimage, and the Biennale Foundation has actually organized it so that as they land in the Hajj terminal across the road, they are shuttled, and they come over. And they have a special tour that is particularly related to the pilgrimage that they’re about to go on. This is incredibly special for me. When I first saw this, and when I first engaged with the site, I realized that my parents could be our audience, my grandmother could be our audience, my nephews could be our audience, my nieces. And this is something that is so moving, and to expose audiences like this to art in a way that’s not intimidating, because they’re familiar with the content, is something that’s so impactful.

Al-Bakree: Thank you Sumayya. And just to reiterate Sumayya’s point, a lot of these pilgrims also visit while heading back to the airport, the pilgrim airport terminal, the “Hajj terminal.” So the reason we keep buying these wheelchairs is because a lot of these pilgrims are elderly, and yet, despite the long journey, they make a point to stop again, at the biennale, to see the art and then head back home. And I feel that’s so beautiful, that we’re part of their journey.

Stockman: Well, it’s so brilliant because Muslims from all over the world make this pilgrimage, to just go to Mecca or Medina and then home, you know, this is a way to further educate them, further expand their experience. So I think the whole idea of putting it at the Hajj airport, or the terminal, is just brilliant.

Pissarro: And I think going back to the various sources of Islam, right, the journey of the prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina, from the holiest city to the City of Light, is absolutely preponderant. So there’s a full circle it seems to me from the very birth of Islam to the migration, and the number of canopies you’ve seen as well is so symbolic of that particular aspect. And there’s reference also to the diaspora, which we tend to forget is so immense throughout the world, with well over a billion muslims from Spain to Indonesia. The director herself is from South Africa. We forget how diverse, incredibly diverse, the Islamic population is. And this is, to me, a great salute to this incredible diversity. I don’t know if Aya or Sumayya want to conclude with this? Or maybe say a few words?

Vally: I couldn’t agree more. There are almost two billion Muslims by census, I’m sure there are many more. There are also, beyond that, many more people who may not identify as Muslim, but who are of the Muslim world, who grew up in these cultures, who are resonant and familiar with them. One in two Africans is Muslim, which is a statistic that people are often so surprised by. And I think to have a biennale that is speaking to and from these voices, and is opening up the definition of Islamic art, we can really start to understand and appreciate what the Islamic faith actually is, and what the roots of it are, and who its people are. There’s been so much misconception about Islam, and putting this forth, I think, in a generative way, has been very, very special.

Stockman: Sumayya, who have been your major inspirations? Both from the Muslim world and the world of architecture?

Vally: I often think about architects like Zaha Hadid, Balkrishna Doshi, Isamu Noguchi, and Sir David Adjaye—people who have had very different experiences compared to the canon that they inherited. And they created entirely different visions. All of them are very different, and perhaps there’s not a formal connection between their work and my own. But what I find incredibly inspiring is that they somehow found ways to bring those worlds into being and to take their experiences, to take these different perspectives, and to translate them into vision.


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

Jennifer Stockman

Jennifer Stockman is President Emeritus of the Guggenheim museum.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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