Counterspace’s Sumayya Vally named co-curator of inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale

In Jeddah

Counterspace’s Sumayya Vally named co-curator of inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale

South African architect Sumayya Vally (Courtesy Counterspace)

Fresh off the conclusion of the first-ever Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Biennale Foundation (DBF) has announced a location and revealed the four-person team that will develop the curatorial vision for a major counterpart event, the Islamic Arts Biennale. Per a April 14 press release published by the DBF, the Islamic Arts Biennale will “showcase the art and creativity of Islamic culture, past and present” and “[…] champion innovation while supporting continuing traditions and encouraging the preservations of skills.”

The inaugural biennale “will explore spirituality in the aesthetic realm and celebrate both shared heritage around the globe and diversity of artistic expressions and forms,” added the DBF. “By inviting artists from around the world, it will provide new dialogues and insights.”

Notably, the just-announced slate of co-curators for the Islamic Arts Biennale will include Sumayya Vally, co-founder and principal of Counterspace, a collaborative architecture studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa. In early 2020, Vally, along with Counterspace colleagues Sarah de Villiers and Amina Kaskar, made headlines when they were announced as the designers of that year’s Serpentine Pavilion. Vally was 29 at the time, making her the youngest designer to ever win the high-profile commission from London’s Serpentine Gallery.

As recently reported by The National, the Islamic Arts Biennale was initially slated to be held in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh but has since been moved by the DBF to the kingdom’s second-largest city, the sprawling coastal metropolis of Jeddah. As noted by the organization, Jeddah was a natural fit for the new event due in part to its sizable trove of historical sites and the “diversity of the city’s cultural heritage,” which “complements the Biennale’s objective to interlink past, present, and future.”

Led by head curator Philip Tinari, the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale ran from last December until March 11 in the event’s namesake location of Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site–inscribed town on the outskirts of Riyadh.

Jeddah’s Islamic Arts Biennale will be held sometime in 2023; dates have yet to be confirmed.

Joining Vally on the curatorial team for the Islamic Arts Biennale is Omniya Abdel Barr, a Cairo- and London-based architect specializing in cultural heritage conservation and monument restoration who serves as the Barakat Trust Fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Saudi archaeologist and scholar Saad Alrashed, and Julian Raby, a London-born Islamic art scholar and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art.

“I have visited Jeddah as a pilgrim many times,” said Vally, a native of Johannesburg, in a statement shared on Counterspace’s Facebook page. “The location has so much embodied meaning, that speaks to both communal and individual experience. Alongside my curatorial colleagues, I am inspired by the opportunity to present a range of works in this extraordinary setting.”

In announcing the Islamic Arts Biennale’s location and involvement of Vally and the larger curatorial team, Prince Badr bin Farhan Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture, said: “Cultural and artistic exchange are essential in this period of unprecedented growth and development in the creative community in Saudi Arabia.”

“The Diriyah Biennale Foundation is at the forefront of this cultural awakening and flourishing art scene,” he added. “Our contemporary edition closed in March after attracting critical acclaim, and the Islamic Arts Biennale represents our next chapter.”