Visual Project

Sumayya Vally | Counterspace
Courtesy Counterspace

Dear (younger) Sumayya

1. There is always architecture waiting to happen in places that are overlooked:

2. You will soon fall in love with gold, kitsch, supernatural ideas,

3. with very strange and everyday things – a disco-church on wheels in the inner-city,

4. the performance of a ritual gathering on a patch of veld-grass of a traffic island next to a highway,

5. the rhythms and space of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony,

6. the smell before a highveld thunderstorm,

7. the choreography of Fordsburg on a Friday before, during and after prayer time,

8. the specific colour spectrum of a mine-dump sunset,

9. the tenacity of indigenous plants and indigenous ceremonies and practices – all the magic that is Joburg. There is another canon here.

10.  Ingest atmospheres – learn how to read and feel colour, dust, mist, the phases of the moon. There is another canon here.

11.  Look at these things deeply.

12.  Feel them, absorb them.

13.  You will soon develop a mistrust for the historical record. Listen to that.

14.  Look so deeply at what is present that you notice the silences and the absences too. There is yet another canon here, in these silences and absences.

15.  Read in other languages.

16.  Write in your mother tongues. Look deeply at sentence structure and vocabulary. There is another canon here.

17.  Learn how to dissect the index of an archive.

18.  And how to make your own indexes for archives.

19.  Stay soft and sensitive – it is a deep strength, and architecture needs it. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

20.  Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that everything you can ever imagine has already been done. They are incorrect.

21.  Beauty and social justice are not mutually exclusive. Beauty is social justice.

22.  There are an infinity of untold stories, unheard voices, unrealised dreams, undreamt worlds.

23.  Poetry is a necessity.

24.  And dreaming is everything.


(older) Sumayya

Courtesy Counterspace

The shape, colour and materiality of this work came through the Joburg sunset. When it is clear, the Joburg sky moves gracefully and soundlessly through shades of all the colours you have never known, as the sun drops behind the horizon line at the end of a day.

Courtesy Counterspace

The pollution, dust and chemical particles in Joburg’s air, produced by its legacy of mining, create a colourscape of refracted light and inorganic pigments that can be considered visually beautiful.

Serpentine Pavilion 2020 plus 1, designed by Sumayya Vally, Counterspace. Photo Iwan Baan

The Pavilion’s design is based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods significant to diasporic and cross-cultural communities, including Brixton, Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Edgware Road, Barking and Dagenham and Peckham, among others.

Photo Iwan Baan

The forms in the Pavilion are a result of abstracting, superimposing and splicing elements from architectures that vary in scales of intimacy, translating the shapes of London into the Pavilion structure in Kensington Gardens.

Photo Iwan Baan

The Pavilion is built of reclaimed steel, cork and timber covered with micro-cement. The varying textures, and the hues of pink and brown, are drawn directly from the architecture of London and reference changes in the quality of light.

© Dennis Morris, all rights reserved

Bernardine Evaristo and Jacqueline De Peza performing in Chiaroscuro, written by Jackie Kay, directed by Joan Ann Maynard, set and costume design by Helena Roden, 1986. The play was produced by the Theatre of Black Women, Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, founded by Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall in 1982.

Photo Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The carnival, organised by Claudia Jones, was known as the Caribbean carnival or the West Indian Gazette Carnival and was held indoors at St. Pancras Town Hall. It would not be until 1964 that the carnival would move outside onto the streets of Notting Hill. Picture shows one woman having a good time at the event (30 January 1959).

© Stephen Mosco

Exterior of what was then Roots Community, now 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning. The centre was founded in response to the social unrest as a result of racism and discrimination experienced in British cities, and continues to have a significant impact on the arts, cultural and education worlds, particularly for Black and Caribbean artists.

© Dennis Morris, all rights reserved

Admiral Ken with his Box Men, Hackney. Admiral Ken was one of the big sound system owners and producers in Hackney at the time. His ‘boxmen’ loaded and unloaded the speaker boxes and amps, and together the group performed at venues like Four Aces and Hackney Town Hall.

The Four Aces, Dalston Lane (1984). Photo Alan Denney.

The Four Aces Club was a pioneering music and recreational space on Dalston Lane in Dalston, London. Based in a building that had formerly been the North London Colosseum and Amphitheatre and then a cinema, in the 1960s and 1970s the club became one of the first venues to play Black music in the United Kingdom.

Courtesy Dhaka Art Summit (2023). Photo Shahrear Kabir

A series of performances that draw on the traditions of rain-making and harvest is performed in the space where the hands that formed the pots also work to un-form them. The rituals include the use of water, which allows the un-fired pots to dissolve over time, revealing areas and niches of gathering contained by the pots, as well as rhythmic drumming that evokes the sound of thunder at the end of each day.

Courtesy Dhaka Art Summit (2023). Photo Shadman Sakib

Fired and unfired clay vessels are assembled as a temporal space to hold gatherings.

Courtesy OMA. Photo Marco Cappalletti

The inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale (2023), Jeddah, was commissioned and produced by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation and was curated by Sumayya Vally alongside Dr Julian Raby, Dr Omniya Abdel Barr and Dr Saad Al-Rashid. Islamic Arts Biennale, scenography by OMA.

Ka’bah door. Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Image courtesy OMA. Photo Marco Cappalletti

The biennale fragments inspire, narrate and render visible wisdoms, imaginations and futures of “home” and spiritual placemaking, from the scale of the body to the scale of the cosmos. Artists explore these themes through contemporary interpretations of instruments of home. Islamic Arts Biennale, scenography by OMA.

Syn Architects, anywhere can be a place of worship (2023). Commissioned by and courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

An enclosure that recalls the humility of this first musalla (“a place to pray”), inspired by one of the first mosques to be built, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuH) in Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah.

Syn Architects, anywhere can be a place of worship (2023). Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The walls are formed from local palm reeds woven together by Saudi artisans, recalling how temporary prayer spaces were once created along travel and pilgrimage routes. Gaps in the walls allow glimpses of the landscape where indigenous plants bloom, evoking the historic gardens of Madinah. Light from above falls on a slit that stands for the mihrab, emphasising the role of the sun as a compass determining the direction as well as the times of prayer.

Civil Architecture, Sun Path, Rajab to Shawwal 1444 (2023). Commissioned by and courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

Traditionally, mosque courtyards featured a sundial that indicated the time of the five daily prayers, and mosques served as spaces where the general public could align their sense of time with the movement of the heavenly bodies. 

Civil Architecture, Sun Path, Rajab to Shawwal 1444 (2023). Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The installation tracks the movement of a beam of sunlight passing over lines on the ground corresponding to the hours, months and seasons, as well as sculptural objects that indicate significant moments in Islamic history.

M’barek Bouhchichi, Kolona min Torab (2023). Fired clay, 1288 units, each 35.5 x 21.5 x 3.5 cm. Commissioned by and courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The floor installation explores the bond that unites all people – “We Are All Made of Earth.” Using clay from the Ourika Valley and natural pigments from across Morocco, Bouhchichi has created tiles in various shades that address the complexity of difference in geography, geology and people. 


Sumayya Vally is founder and Principal of Counterspace, an award-winning design, research and pedagogical practice searching for expression for hybrid identities and territory, particularly for African and Islamic conditions both rooted and diasporic. A World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and TIME100 Next list honoree, Vally has been identified as someone who will shape the future of architectural practice. She serves on several boards, including the World Monuments Fund. Her interests lie in dynamic forms of archive and embodied heritage, and support for new networks of knowledge in the arts. Vally designed the acclaimed 20th Serpentine Pavilion in London, and was the youngest architect to receive the commission. She was Artistic Director of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah and has been praised for supporting a new, decolonial definition of Islamic art resonant with the lived and embodied practices and experiences of the Islamic world. She has received numerous awards and honours for her contributions to the field, including an Honorary Professorship from University College London and a gold medal from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.

How to cite this article:
Sumayya Vally | Counterspace (2024), "Visual Project" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. Accessed 24 April 2024.