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Grains of Paradise, Triennale Brugge, 2024 © Iwan Baan


Sumayya Vally’s contribution to Triennale Brugge 2024 honours the historic trade routes that connected Bruges to the world during the Middle Ages, and the traditions and origins of the Melegueta Pepper - Grains of Paradise - which came from Benin.

The concept is rooted in and tied to another of Sumayya’s projects in Belgium, the Asiat-Darse bridge in the city of Vilvoorde. Both these works draw on the country’s complex history and relationship with West Africa as it relates to migrant communities and ecology. The Asiat-Darse project centres the story and legacy of the Congolese Pan-African horticulturist and activist, Paul Panda Farnana, a figure the studio uncovered in their research. Though he was one of the city’s most important figures, his impact has not been acknowledged until now.

A sister project to this, the research for Triennale Brugge led the studio back to West Africa, to discover the significance of the melegueta pepper, which was once a highly prized spice used for its unique flavour and medicinal properties. Its strategic location near the coast and trading networks established Bruges as a hub for the distribution of melegueta pepper throughout Europe, amassing enormous wealth, making the city one of the continent’s most prosperous at the time.

The water architectures of the Congo - a former Belgian colony - is one of the starting points to honour these histories. Along the Congo River, fleets of dug-out canoes are frequently seen docked alongside one another. When stacked together on the water as a collective, they form a communal platform from which trading and gathering can take place.

Grains of Paradise stands as a striking assembly of thirteen pirogues, positioned in unison near the Minnewater Bridge. Together, they form a collective platform for exchange and commerce, referencing the past and the present, and connecting the north and south. Their charred appearance lends an ethereal quality, evoking a sense of haunting beauty amidst the bustling tranquillity of the Minnewater. The rough and varied formal language of the boats references the floating markets made from hollowed-out tree trunks found in Ganvie (BJ), Lagos (NG) and along the Congo River.

The boats are filled with bright plants and herbs, including the lesser known melegueta pepper or Afromomum legueta. In these regions, it was nicknamed the "grains of paradise" or " paradijskorrel" , because of its unique taste and medicinal qualities. These vessels carry stories of Bruges' Golden Age, where spices, ivory, and pigments intermingled in a tapestry of cultural exchange. Grains of Paradise serves as an invitation to transcend the Western narrative, encouraging critical reflection and enriching our experience of history and heritage.

Reflecting on the starting point for the project and the studio’s engagement with the Belgian landscape, Sumayya Vally said: “If we listen closely enough, there is always architecture waiting to happen in overlooked places. As architects, we have a collective responsibility to listen deeply to the contexts within which we work.”

Triennale Brugge 2024 - Spaces of Possibility

With Spaces of Possibility, the Bruges Triennial 2024 takes a close look at Bruges and the public space: which places are currently un(der)used? How can we maximise the city centre by dealing with space differently? This fourth edition of TRIBRU challenges artist and architect, viewer and user to think about the future of Bruges and cities worldwide.

TRIBRU will be running from 13 April through 1 September 2024