Bët-bi is a new museum and centre for culture and community in Senegal being developed by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Le Korsa. The Bët-bi museum will house exhibition and event spaces as well as a library and community rooms. It will showcase contemporary and historic African art, and store repatriated objects. The museum is slated to open in 2025.
Nicholas Fox Weber is the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and founder and president of Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to medical care, education, and the arts in isolated villages in rural Senegal. He spoke to blooloop about the project, its aims, and its development.
The origins of the Bët-bi project
Beginning with the Albers Foundation and Le Korsa, he says:
“The Albers Foundation was created by Anni and Josef Albers in 71, with the general purpose of ‘the revelation and evocation of vision through art.’
“That’s a very specific and yet very open mandate, and we’ve done a great deal in half a century. We’ve mounted exhibitions of the Albers’ work, done a lot of publishing, and made a lot of gifts to museums all over the world.”
The Albers were, as well as philanthropists, leading pioneers and protagonists of modern art and design. They are among the twentieth century’s most important abstract artists, with careers stretching from a formative period at the Bauhaus in Germany, to their remarkable influence at Black Mountain College in the United States, through an intensely productive period in Connecticut.
The Bët-bi project is, Fox Weber says, thrilling:
“It originated, I suppose, with a very personal feeling on my part, which has guided a lot of the work of Le Korsa. And that is the fact that some of us have the good fortune to have a great deal offered to us in life, and other people don’t. That may sound simplistic, but it’s as simple as that. I grew up with access to education and good medical care. We had art in the house and the opportunity to go to museums and all sorts of other things. There are millions of people elsewhere in the world who have none of these luxuries.”
Le Korsa in Senegal
In Senegal, Le Korsa has mainly worked in the medical sector, for instance, building maternity and paediatric units at Tambacounda Hospital and helping with medical centres. One such project, the Tambacounda Maternity and Paediatric hospital redesign, builds on 15 years of work in rural eastern Senegal by the Albers Foundation and Le Korsa. This goes far beyond a single architectural structure, embedding itself within the local community, economy, and landscape.
“The only major hospital in the region, Tambacounda Hospital is a vital resource servicing over 40,000 patients per year from the surrounding area, which stretches across the border into Mali. The doctors had previously been working under extremely difficult conditions, the original design leaving the communal spaces severely overcrowded.
“The design of the new Maternity and Paediatric Hospital, which greatly improves the comfort of patients and their visiting families, comprises a two-story building in a curvilinear form, bringing the paediatrics and maternity clinics – together under the same roof, and offering approximately 150 hospital beds. The extensive length of the building allows for the smooth circulation of staff and patients. It also accommodates multiple communal spaces, both between the rooms and in the courtyards.”
Bët-bi adds to existing opportunities
However, Le Korsa’s aspirations extend beyond the provision of much-needed medical facilities, he explains:
“We also want to improve the quality of life and extend opportunities for the people we serve in other directions. It isn’t enough just to try to assure good health.
“As someone who has, for my whole life, taken the most enormous pleasure in looking at art, I wanted to give that same opportunity to people who would not normally ever enter a museum. It is absolutely about privilege. It shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be the norm that one gets to look at beautiful things.”
In many Western cultures, financial and cultural poverty often go together with being time-poor. Those struggling to earn enough to keep afloat are unlikely to have the time to seek culture. It is easy to assume this to be a universal truth.
In rural Senegal, however, this, Fox Weber says, is not the case:
“A lot of people have a lot of time. You can go into a village, and you will see, usually, a large baobab tree in the middle of the village, with a lot of people just hanging around. We’re in a part of the world where most homes do not have electricity, so there are none of the diversions that we’re used to in our world of television and all the things that computers give us access to. Here, in fact, there is time. This is one of the reasons we’ve already done quite a bit in the area of sports.
We’ve built a tennis court, which is an unusual thing to do. But it gives people of all ages the opportunity to play that wonderful game which is unexpected in an isolated Senegalese village.”
Expanding the artistic universe locally
The idea is to provide people in the region with a new form of everyday pleasure, something as important, in its own way, as medical facilities.
The tennis court built by Le Korsa in 2019 is the first in the region. The nearest court to it, in any direction, is over four hundred kilometres away.
“We have helped with soccer tournaments,” he adds. “At the same time, we’ve built a marvellous artist residency in a village called Sinthian, in a wonderful building called Thread.”
Working closely with Dr Magueye Ba, who runs the medical centre, Le Korsa also created a site for artists from around the world to live and work in this community, located about ten hours from Dakar. It houses two artists’ residences as well as a public space for performances and village meetings. The design, which won international awards, was donated by Toshiko Mori Architects of New York. The roof collects and retains rainwater during the rainy season, providing for 40% of the village’s domestic water needs year-round.
“We’ve seen wonderful interactions between our visiting artists and the local community,” Fox Weber comments. “And this has made us eager to expand the visual universe, the artistic universe, of our public.”
Bët-bi – what’s in a name?
The name of the new museum, Bët-bi, means ‘The Eye’ in Wolof. He explains:
“First of all, it was important for the name to be in an African language. Although Senegal is a Francophone country, we didn’t want either an English or a French word, which would reference the invading powers. The idea is to expand vision; with architecture and various exhibitions and collections. Bët-bi will enable people to live more with their eyes.”
The architect chosen for the project is Mariam Issoufou Kamara, founder of Atelier Masōmī in Niger. She was selected by a jury to lead the design of the new museum.
“We had an intense selection process. We looked at architects all over the world, trying to figure out who would be most qualified. There were various submissions.
“Mariam both made a very interesting submission, and also showed an attitude which was responsive to the local community, to the materials that are available there, and to the needs of the people to have live functions there. I also saw some of her other work, as did others in our architectural jury, and everyone was terribly impressed.”
A unique design
“What she is planning is quite extraordinary. If we get permission to do it, it will be on an island in a saltwater estuary. It’s like a visual oasis. There’s nothing built on that island today.”
“We have a meeting coming up with the mayor of the village that controls the island. It has a specific status which has prohibited the development of the island. However, Mariam has a design concept which essentially puts the collections underground. One doesn’t immediately see a big, imposing museum. Instead, it’s a very gentle structure that is part of the landscape. It also includes an amphitheatre.”
“Gradually, one has views of the collection below, and goes down into that collection. Rather than being an intimidating or off-putting building, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a very welcoming structure.”
In terms of conservation, he adds:
“We’re going to be a museum that upholds the necessary conditions of climate control and security. It’s very important that we protect the museum’s collection. So, humidity, temperature and so on will be controlled, as they are in the most impressive museums worldwide.”
Exploring stone circles
A number of education and engagement initiatives will take place when the museum opens:
“We definitely want to do what it takes to attract visitors and make them part of everything,” he says. “We also hope to organise trips to megaliths, which are very hard to find, but within an hour of Bët-bi.”
The ancient stone circles of Senegambia are groups of megalithic stone circles that lie in The Gambia north of Janjanbureh and in central Senegal. They made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006. The area contains over 1000 stone circles and tumuli, spread across an area 350km long and 100km wide.
The Senegambian stone circles are the largest concentration of stone circles anywhere in the world. They are thought to be an extensive sacred landscape that was in use for more than 1500 years.
“They’re absolutely extraordinary,” Fox Weber adds:
“I’m in Southwest Ireland at the moment, and they’re the type that we also find here. You certainly find them all over the British Isles, and in France and in Romania. It’s so interesting; these circles of stones are, in many ways, a universal language, created by different cultures. It’s not a case of influence. It’s not as if X knows Y, but rather that human beings have the same needs in these very different locations in different eras. It’s wonderful, to me.”
Bët-bi & the move for the decolonisation of museum collections
The stone circles are, he says, very difficult to date:
“I’ve read a great deal about examples from 1200 before the Christian era to the year 500 AD. I am not really sure about how old they are, whether they fit in with the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, or something significantly later. There is not a huge amount of research on them, and it’s also contradictory in different ways.
“There are very good archaeologists who go there. It’s not as if they’re my personal discovery, by any means. In fact, having gone to Senegal a lot for 20 years, I didn’t even know these stone circles existed. I was absolutely amazed to discover from an anthropologist at Yale who was visiting the foundation in Connecticut that these wonderful sites exist.”
There has been an increasing drive over the last few years to make restitution for colonial looting and appropriation. New projects are working to restore artefacts to the countries and people from whom they were seized. Bët-bi is very much a part of this:
“There is a distinct possibility that we will be gifted a sizeable collection that was intended to go to a museum in America. There were too many questions about the origin of the artworks and how they came into the collection. So, Bët-bi, being in Africa, is an ideal setting to house that collection.
“We also want to offer to be a way station. That would mean that, even if the ultimate destination of certain objects isn’t known, this is an in-between stage where objects that will be restituted, or that will go into permanent collections elsewhere, can be shown.”
A local workforce
When complete, the museum will employ local people, says Fox Weber. Additionally:
“We will also build with people who are in the region and will use materials that come from the region. It’s a part of the world where poverty is pretty severe. We certainly want to employ local people.”
“I’m self-conscious enough as a white American male, going into part of the world where I am not a native, and I have all my ideas on things to do. So, I want to be very aware of not imposing an outside culture. We want to respect to the maximum the Senegalese culture and the culture of the peoples that are there.”
With this in mind, there is a group of advisors on the project, many of whom are Senegalese:
“They are people whom we’ve worked with for a long time; a doctor from Dakar, an educator from the city of Tambacounda, a doctor from a small rural village. All Senegalese people.”
Part of the museum will also be a community centre. Its goal is to put the community at the heart of the museum, and the museum at the heart of the community:
“It will be an assembly point where people can go and meet in whatever way they want. It will also, assuming the building goes ahead on the island, be something of a pilgrimage to go there. So, there will be a very special feeling of arrival once one is there. The idea is that it would be a community centre. The same way that those stone circles were community centres, or gathering places.”
The goal of Bët-bi
While he envisages that Bët-bi, as an independent organisation, will, in time, plan such things as guest curator programs and partnerships with other institutions globally, he points out:
“We hope to have a Senegalese museum director. So, a lot of plans would need to come from her or him, rather than being imposed by our preconceptions.”
Summing up, he adds:
“The real goal of Bët-bi is to increase the joy of people’s lives. That was also the goal of Anni & Josef Albers, with what she did with weaving and printmaking, and what he did through the exploration of colour and painting and teaching.
“They were celebrants and made the world a better place, and human life more enjoyable. They used to spend a great deal of time in Mexico, where they said that art was everywhere. This idea of art being everywhere or finding the art in things that are everywhere is extremely important to us. As I say, the idea is really to provide wonderful experiences for people who would not otherwise have them.”
Rendering of the proposed Bët-bi museum and centre for culture and community in Senegal © atelier masōmī.