Meeting multifaceted Senegalese-French-Guinean architect-urbanist and African Cultural Heritage Specialist Alyssa K Barry is a joy that I shall cherish lifelong. At such a young age, her maturity of knowledge is truly remarkable! Her passion and commitment towards African Cultural Heritage and its sustenance is not only noteworthy, but also an inspiration for many youngsters in the African continent. Alyssa K Barry enthuses, “As an Architect-Urbanist, specialized on African Cultural Heritage and African Contemporary Art enthusiast, my career has been punctuated with various experiences at the international level, that have demonstrated my curiosity, determination and adaptability.

I am particularly interested in the notion of “Africanity” in today’s African cities and societies and their place within globalization. I firmly believe in the role of culture, in all its diversity, as a vector of sustainable development for the African continent.” Alyssa is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in ‘Modern artistic heritage in West Africa: cultural trajectories of the Independence struggles in Accara, Conakry and Bissau’ at the UCAD – Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar in Senegal.

With an interesting academic repertoire, Alyssa K Barry holds an International Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Urban Studies Specialty ‘Global South’ cum Laude from École d’Urbanisme de Paris (2016 – 2017); Architecture Diploma Suma cum Laude from École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Marseille (2011 – 2016); Bachelor of Arts and Sciences from Suffolk University Dakar Campus (2009 – 2011).

Fogo, Cabo Verde – 2017

In the year 2018, Alyssa K Barry established AFREAKART – a digital platform dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diasporas. She has been playing a significant role as an Independent Art Curator since 2019. From 2018 to 2021, Alyssa worked as African Cultural Heritage Specialist at the UNESCO, World Heritage Centre (Africa Unit) – Paris. In the year 2022, she decided to turn into an Independent International Consultant, specializing in African Cultural Heritage. Alyssa has worked with UNESCO (Dakar), UNESCO (World Heritage Centre), ICOMOS, UCL – Bartlett School of Architecture, UCAD – Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, EPA – African Heritage School, Expertise France (AFD Group), ICCROM and AWHF – African World Heritage Fund.

Johnny D has a long and interesting interaction with the multitalented, creative academician Alyssa K Barry to get enlightened about African Cultural Heritage and her fascinating journey to inspire many youngsters, academicians and professionals across the world.

What was your childhood’s ambition? Did you always wanted to be an architect?

I think I have always been a Cartesian person. So when the time to decide on what I wanted to study came, I undertook a self-assessment of what I liked and what I was good at (smiles). I have always loved arts and was very good in mathematics. I figured the best for me would be to study architecture as it was, at least from what I thought at the time, the best way to combine these two fields.

Lalibela, Ethiopia – 2023

Briefly elucidate your work practice and role as an African Cultural Heritage International Consultant.

As an African Cultural Heritage International Consultant, I provide support and advise international and national institutions on the development and implementation of projects for the preservation, promotion and valorization of African Cultural Heritage. This includes a broad range of activities, from capacity-building activities on topics related to heritage, to field missions to assess heritage sites, to projects combining heritage conservation, youth inclusion and/or sustainable development, to giving lectures or being invited as a panelist at heritage-related events.

What are the projects you are currently working on in various cities / countries?

I usually do not share about the projects I am involved in, until they are implemented! My most recent projects include the development of a community animation strategy for DJOWAMON, a mobile training application dedicated to African museums and heritage;  a field mission in Uganda to assess the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, a World Heritage site which was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger until the last World Heritage Committee in July 2023 ; or the development and implementation of a project for the establishment of a Network of Young Heritage Professionals in West Africa.

African World Heritage Young Leaders Workshop, Cape Town, South Africa – 2022

I am also the current coordinator of the ICOMOS (International Council of Monuments and Sites) Emerging Professionals Working Group for the Africa Region. We have been undertaking many activities to put the light on African cultural heritage, such as a monthly newsletter we ran from May 2022 to December 2023, or a webinar called ‘Heritage in the Hands of African Youth’ that we organize each year on the occasion of the African World Heritage Day – the 5th of May.

You have embarked on a new chapter as a Ph.D. Candidate at Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar. Please elaborate on the aims and objectives of your current Doctoral thesis – ‘Modern artistic heritage in West Africa: cultural trajectories of the Independence struggles in Accara, Conakry and Bissau’.

The aim of my research is to understand what the independence era has created in terms of artistic heritage in West Africa (from visual arts to architecture), by focusing on the three first Capitals to have gained their independence at the scale of the colonial power they represented: Accra (in Ghana) representing the English colonial power, Conakry (in Guinea) representing the French one, and Bissau (in Guinea Bissau) representing the Portuguese one. I am also interested in understanding the potential cultural links, influences and exchanges that might have existed between these three pioneering Capitals at this particular time.

Kasubi, Uganda – 2023

Looking back in time, please enlighten our global readers about the beauty and artistic characteristics of ancient African architecture and their prominence in historical context with few examples.

When I give lectures on African traditional architecture, I love to ask the audience about the image they first see when referring to this type of architecture. Most of the time, and even when the audience is African, the image they have is that of a modest mud hut. Even if I do think the modest mud hut is beautiful, do you remember that the Egyptian and Nubian pyramids are African traditional architecture, too? That the great mosques of Djenné or Timbuktu in Mali, or the rock hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia are African traditional architecture, too? Do you know that African traditional architecture can also be made of stone (like the traditional houses on the Island of Fogo in Cabo Verde), coral (like the Swahili architecture found in Lamu, Kenya), vegetation (like the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi,Uganda) or textiles (like the Tuareg tents in the Sahara desert)?

This can range from the ‘simple’ hut, to fortress-like architectural complexes such as the Takienta in Koutammakou (Benin and Togo), to entire cities like the Ancient Ksour of Mauritania. African traditional architecture is incredibly rich, diverse and beautiful, and is the result of knowledge and know-how that could benefit the whole world.

Lalibela, Ethiopia – 2023

How has modern African architecture changed the scenario of the African Continent culturally?

I am always very careful with the use of the word “modern” when applied to Africa and to African architecture in particular. If “modern” refers to a break with a past period, perhaps this first break corresponds for African architecture to that of the colonial period, when we moved from a vernacular architecture to one inspired by that found in the metropolises of the colonial powers and mostly using imported materials. It is at this time that the perception of most Africans about their traditional architecture changed, to be associated with something seen as “primitive” and, unfortunately still today, with poverty.

However, as an architect trained with a Eurocentric vision of architecture (having studied in France), modern architecture also refers to the modernism movement which appeared between Europe and America during the first half of the 20th Century, and could be extended, in the case of Africa, to the independence era (1960’s). It is a vast subject, but one that has unfortunately not been researched enough in the case of Africa. This is also one of the reasons behind the subject of my Ph.D. thesis.

Koutammakou, Togo – 2021

‘Heritage, both tangible and intangible, carries a multiplicity of meanings and values that differ depending on the region, the neighbourhood, the home, and most importantly, the individual’. What are your views about this quote in respect to African Cultural Heritage?

I totally agree with this definition. African Cultural Heritage covers the tangible, the intangible as well as the cultural and creative industries; the sacred and the secular; the monumental and the ordinary; the cultural and the natural; the State-governed and the popular; the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras… Yet, I was once asked what my favorite heritage place is, and after thinking for a while, I realized that it is actually my childhood home because of all the memories it is related to. So I definitely concur in saying that heritage is, also, individual.

Koutammakou, Benin – 2021

Africa is finally rising to mark a new chapter at the global scenario. Do you see a shift in African Culture and African architecture that would be detrimental to the Africans? Elucidate your perspectives as an International Consultant.

I am not quite sure about the statement which sees Africa as “finally rising”, although this is kind of a trendy saying at the moment. I cannot help, but asking myself: “rising” according to what, according to whom? But there is definitely a shift in that there is a growing need for us, Africans, to reclaim our history and storytelling, including through architecture and culture in general. And this means researching what has been done in the past, to be able to see what we can keep, what we can adapt to today’s society and most importantly how we can do so.

Kong, Côte d’Ivoire – 2022

How have the various regional conflicts among African nations affected culturally-rich ancient heritage of Africa?

I think what has first affected culturally-rich ancient heritage of Africa are not the conflicts of today, but rather colonization (and in my opinion today’s conflicts are often a continuity of colonization, but I guess this is not our point here…). Colonization has changed the perception of Africans on their own cultural heritage, as well as the perception of the rest of the world on Africa. And if you do not consider your heritage as rich, or if you do not know it well enough, how can you preserve it?

But to come back to your question regarding today’s conflicts, one good example I like to share is the case of Timbuktu in Mali, which was affected by a conflict in 2012. During this conflict, 14 sacred Mausoleums were destroyed by members of the armed forces occupying the North of Mali. Luckily, they have been rebuilt between 2013 and 2016, thanks to the support of UNESCO and its partners. Ahmas al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who was involved in their destruction, was condemned in 2016 by the International Criminal Court to nine years of prison and to pay 2.7 million euros in compensation to the victims. This was the first ever case of a suspect charged with war crimes against a World Heritage site. This is a success story, but unfortunately an exceptional one. 

Lamu, Kenya – 2019

Which significant aspects of the global platform ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ did you liked the most, and why?

I find ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ a very interesting initiative, as it allows to highlight professionals of the architecture world from various backgrounds and shows how diverse and broad this field actually is. As a youth advocate, I particularly like the GEN Z Series. The ‘Legendary’ one is also very useful and necessary. I just hope to see Africa being more represented on this platform in the future (smiles).

West African celebration of 50 years of World Heritage, Saint-Louis, Senegal – 2022

How would you describe Alyssa K Barry as a professional and a person?

I love to say that I am just a small girl with big dreams (smiles)! I am a very passionate and determined person focusing daily towards the achievement of her dreams.

Image Courtesy: Alyssa K Barry

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