For incorporating the DNA of a community into a museum’s design
The word bët-bi means “the eye” in Wolof, a language native to Senegal and other parts of West Africa. It’s a fitting name for a new museum and cultural center meant to expand the vision of its visitors through architecture and art.
Announced by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and its sister organization Le Korsa in May, Bët-bi will be located near the historic city of Kaolack in rural Senegal. The ambitious plans call for a venue that “brings the joys of visual art to a population that may not previously have had access to museums.” The site will showcase both contemporary and historic art from Sub-Saharan Africa and the African Diaspora (including works from the Harlem Renaissance), as well as pieces from other cultures to illustrate shared visual motifs.
Yet what truly separates this project is how it aims to bring the community into the space. Scheduled to open in 2025, the 1,000-square-meter (10,764-square-foot) site features accessible, open areas, such as a library, a café and a place for local artisans to showcase and sell their work. And project sponsors have stated they aim to employ local residents to foster economic development in a region rife with poverty.
For the building’s design, Nigerien architect Mariam Issoufou Kamara and her firm atelier masōmī took inspiration from the region’s rich cultural heritage, in particular the Stone Circles of Senegambia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site composed of more than 1,000 ancient stone monuments. The project also pays homage to the populations who have occupied this part of Senegal since the 11th century: the Mandinka, known for their monumental architecture; and the Serer, whose traditional religion involves an intimate relationship with the sun, wind, water and ancestral spirits. In Kamara’s vision, the museum’s galleries—triangular areas divided into two groups connected by a walkway to evoke the self-renewing cycle among the elements, the living and the dead—will be placed underground.
Bët-bi also will serve as a temporary home for repatriated African objects, facilitating the return of art to the continent where it was created. The team shares this mission with other recent projects in Africa, such as the David Adjaye-designed Edo Museum of West African Art. (No one knows for certain how many Sub-Saharan cultural artifacts are held outside Africa, with most continuing to cite Alain Godonou, who spoke at an UNESCO meeting in 2007 and put the number at a staggering 90 percent.)
“For far too long, our region has been a place where cultural wealth is pillaged to profit museum collections,” Kamara says. “This project is an opportunity to design a new type of space that is inspired by the roots and spiritual legacy of the region.”
The Bët-bi project ties directly to the atelier masōmī philosophy of creating “spaces that have the power to elevate, dignify and provide a better quality of life.” And in keeping with their commitment to community and collaboration, Karama and her design team plan to partner with local artisans to build the venue using sustainable and traditional construction methods.