Since founding Atelier Masōmī in 2014, Mariam Issoufou Kamara has brought contextually sensitive and formally elegant architecture — like the Hikma Community Complex (designed with Yasaman Esmaili) and the Dandaji Regional Market — to her native Niger. In May, Le Korsa and the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation announced her as the designer of Bët-bi, a museum and community centre slated to open in 2025 near the historic Senegalese town of Kaolack. Featuring a ground-level public space above a series of subterranean galleries, the museum has two admirable goals: to repatriate African art from Western museums and to create a platform for the flourishing arts scene in West Africa and throughout the continent. We spoke with Kamara to learn more about this paradigm-shifting project.
1 A modern-day museum requires a new type of space
I thought deeply about the history of museums as spaces where pillaged artifacts were stored, because I want Bët-bi to push the boundaries of a 21st-century museum. Positioning the galleries below ground is a way to honour what was not meant to be disturbed in the first place. They’re sunken, in the same way that the area’s cherished memories and ancestors were once buried under a mound surrounded by stone megaliths.
2 Architecture can recognize the spiritual realm
I wanted to honour the sacredness of the site and the Serer and Mandinka peoples who have historically occupied this landscape. The project’s geometry comes from the series of triangles that reflect the relationship between divinity, the elements, the living and the dead — a self-renewing cycle of life. I translated these into a triangular building with a ramp system that metaphorically reproduces that sense of the sacred journey.
3 Cultural projects must put people first
Above-ground, I am creating an open space that merges with the landscape to make the project approachable and democratic for the Kaolack community. The museum includes makerspaces for artists and artisans, an open-air amphitheatre for celebration and performances, a restaurant and rest and picnic areas.
4 The best-designed spaces take on a life of their own
One of the most rewarding aspects of our public and cultural projects has been noticing the incredibly creative ways users have found to inhabit the projects. For instance, in the Dandaji market, it was amazing to see the various ways people use the infrastructure to display their goods or to otherwise maximize the space to increase their income.
5 Local is luxurious
Working in a low-income desert country like Niger has meant that certain building materials taken for granted in the West are a luxury for us and unaffordable to the majority of the population. Collaborating with local masons and artisans has taught us a lot about valuing local skills — and finding a language for carrying them into the 21st century.
Portrait of Mariam Issoufou Kamara by Stéphane Rodrigez Delavega.
Niger-based architect Mariam Issoufou Kamara, recently commissioned to design the Bët-bi museum and community centre in Senegal, discusses finding inspiration in a site’s roots and spiritual legacy.