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Dialogue between Adrian Jo Milang and Mariam Kamara

50 Minds for the Next 50. Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites

Adrian Jo Milang

Practitioner of parapand takna', an oral tradition of the Kayan communities of Borneo and Community Manager at The TuyangInitiative

Mariam Kamara

Architect and founder of Atelier Masōmīi

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… The culture and heritage of indigenous communities are unbound from prejudice and are recognized as key to expressing people’s true experiences and narrative.

In the Next 50… Local communities are empowered to provide knowledge shaped by their own context and experiences for better representation in the world. Local heritage serves as a tool for understanding and promoting these different narratives and traditions.


The dialogue between Adrian Jo Milang and Mariam Kamara focused on the importance of understanding the true narratives of local and indigenous communities. Adrian and Mariam concurred that local culture should not be confined to preconceived notions but must convey people’s real stories and experiences in their own context.

As a practitioner of Parap and Takna’, Adrian said that experience shared through his performance could tell the true story of his community. Harnessing the inherent power of communities is essential to better represent their culture and empower them economically, he added. Mariam pointed out that the existing knowledge base does not fully reflect the contexts and narratives of underrepresented countries; empowering local communities is key to moving towards balanced representation. She explained the link between local heritage and public space design, noting that understanding this heritage allows us to create public spaces that correspond to the real needs of communities.


I was just going through the Atelier Masōmīi site. It's so wonderful to see the work you have done. Can you explain how your architecture responds to the surrounding natural and cultural heritage in Africa? And how it ultimately contributes to heritage protection?

Thank you for that question, Adrian. For me, it comes from the fundamental fact that architecture should always be a response to our environment, right? That is what gave birth to the practice itself – the need to shelter yourself, to protect yourself from the elements, to create community and to house and protect that community. And so it goes hand in hand with a local culture, with local heritage. Distancing yourself from that automatically creates issues of disconnect, from community especially. And so for me, practising meant automatically having to get back to what was essential for a certain place, in whatever country. The question is what is the DNA and the story of that particular place, so I can figure out how it can be merged back into the architecture in a way that allows the people who use the buildings to feel symbiosis with their environment.

Equally for you, I was looking at your work and I did not know anything about Parap and Takna’ and I was absolutely enthralled by it, and also incredibly impressed by how young you were when you started and how that turned into this engagement in community and in heritage in Malaysia. I was wondering, as a younger practitioner, what have been some of the challenges that you've experienced? You have a very strong point of view, in this embracing of the heritage and the need to make sure the heritage doesn't die, right?

I do relate to how you try to represent what heritage is for you in your architecture, as much as I do in my work. As for the challenges, I guess we are talking about representation?

I come from from an island shared by tens or maybe hundreds of different indigenous communities. Borneo is basically a melting pot of culture and heritage – it's the third biggest island in the world. But often we are clumped together, by external perspectives and even our own, into this blob of a general outlook. On the world stage, when you think of Borneo, you see cultural costumes and regalia and so on, but the true examples are specific songs, music and other practices. You have to bring yourself out there and explain yourself: “Yes, I do this, we do that, and this is the true expression of our heritage.” And so one challenge is the stigma of perception. People are like, “oh, the dude is from there, he's probably this!” We're not. There's so much more. So, for me, when I go and sing my songs and share with everyone and with fellow practitioners, it's to remind them that these are our experiences and it gives them an aspiration to tell the true story. Perhaps we can continue this kind of momentum, to enhance recognition and visibility on a global stage. What do you feel needs to change?

I think it's very similar to what you were talking about.. Number one is the lack of representation, right? Representation always goes a long way, and not just the people who are put forward, but the variety in the architecture, the kinds of works studied and put forward as the canon of architecture. One challenge for people like me from the continent is that we learn a craft embedded in Western culture. You almost cannot learn architecture without learning only a Western way of looking at it, which means the rest of the world is largely ignored. That means automatically a problem in the scholarship and what is available. Other continents equally rich in architecture and heritage must have the opportunity to contribute to that scholarship. Not by having people from outside coming in and making the scholarship based on what they think they understand of the place, but by really empowering local communities to contribute to that knowledge base for the rest of the world – to allow African architects to read a lot more about African architecture on equal footing with other architectures from other parts of the world.

For me, that has been the biggest challenge to surmount. Because how do you make architecture for an African context when you had to learn the craft based on European and American architecture?

I feel I'm also echoing some of the challenges you were talking about, of preconceived notions and realizing we have to do a lot more work to unearth the truth of what something needs to be.

As a community manager with initiatives you see through, how do you think we can reach a certain form of empowerment of indigenous communities? Economically, or even in terms of contributing to promoting the culture and heritage? I feel there are a lot of parallels in what we're talking about.

Yes, the parallels are uncanny. At the Tuyang Initiative we work with different communities. As I mentioned, there are tens, maybe hundreds of different Borneo indigenous communities – in Sarawak where we are based, there are over 38. We work with different practitioners from these communities through their unique practice, be it performing arts or crafts or others. We're highlighting everyone's heritage through their own narrative. We strive for the inherent strength of each community and we work with them in developing the skills through industry partners or other social businesses and organizations.

So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel or making them something they're not, take a methodology we’re not used to, as you were saying, it's more about harnessing what we all have. It could be labelled ‘art’ in the more Western, outside world context, but for us it's more a way of life. The songs we do, the music we play - it's a part of ourselves. So when it comes to economic empowerment - when we approach a practitioner from the community, we share advantages from the Tuyang Initiative side. We have networks and industry partners we can talk to, to ask “How do we go about sharing our culture and heritage?” We develop that with the practitioners and with everyone. Everyone has a say. We go to the community and say “Hi there, there's a potential in what can do it. It could go to a global stage. Would you like to work with us? What would your end goal be like?” For example, beautiful paintings that someone is doing could be turned into postcards, and the painter’s name would be represented, and he would be on the frontline with us. That's the idea. We empower the practitioner and the community through their own work. Economically, when you've done that, you elevate each other through all of these ideas. It's so interesting to know that the other side of the world has this same problem.

Exactly, it's about tackling the same issues from different practices and different backgrounds, but at the end of the day, you're still trying to solve the same problem, even though the specifics of that problem might be different, which then makes for a really rich discourse.

Exactly. For you, how can public spaces be able to protect local heritage or foster a sense of community, such as bringing everyone together and what do you do to enhance the way of life there?

This is a question I've been exploring a lot. I started realizing when I came back to practice in Niger that even what we mean by public space can actually be different. When you are in Europe or in America, public spaces might take the form of a park where people can go and have fun, be together or be with family. Here, specifically in Niger –

I'm not talking for the whole continent – public space is a much more complex and layered thing. And it really means all the ways in which you come together. And that takes completely different forms from what we're used to seeing. It's not so much about having this structured park, but maybe the public space is actually in front of someone's home because all of a sudden people drag a chair and sit there and neighbours walk by and they stop by, there's a tree there that gives enough shade and you end up having ten people congregating and sharing something about the day and it goes on until three in the morning. And these are forms of public spaces that, once again, are not necessarily what we're taught to make in architecture and as we plan for cities and for life in community.

I see this unique opportunity to expand what we understand as public space, in order for it to be really looking at the local heritage. Because this allows us to expand the vocabulary and tool set we have, for what constitutes a public space and how it functions and how it can serve a certain community. Local heritage is encoded and embedded with the different expressions of these public spaces, and ultimately with what you need to make for a certain community in order to enhance that community's life – rather than ignoring these narratives of place and destroying a certain kind of cultural equilibrium that exists among people. By really paying attention to that, you end up creating spaces that truly empower. Without focusing on what is there and what is needed there, it's virtually impossible.

And I wonder, as you're both a musician and a performer – a very public art form – do you see a parallel between an intangible type of heritage, like music or performance, with a very tangible, physical heritage form, like the built environment? How could they be linked, for example, in your practice?

Very good question! As I mentioned earlier, our practices are part of our life. Intangible heritage, songs or music, is more for us about reminiscing and being and feeling grounded in what you are, in who you are. Because when we sing these songs, we draw our inspiration and our metaphors, these poetic phrases, from the nature around us. And we talk about our ancestral times, how it used to be.

So for us the two kinds of heritage are not disconnected. Every part of your life is an essential catalyst to what you are doing. Everything comes together and it just flows like a river.

That's beautiful. I think we're going to need to stay in touch because when I was reading about what you were doing, I realized the art form has parallels in my community.


Yes, we have something very similar. I'm from the Hausa people in West Africa and our language has a lot of imagery and metaphor – you can have entire conversations in metaphors and image-based language. I would love to continue our conversation and hear more about your work, because there are a lot of parallels.

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