MIT Professor Azra Akšamija: Creating Community Amid Conflict

It is not uncommon to catch Azra Akšamija, an assistant professor in MIT’s Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) Program, sweeping through the white halls of Building E15 in bright, swooping garments, her step buoyant. Today, for example, Akšamija is wearing a lime green galabiya, a type of loose caftan she recently acquired while speaking in Kuwait.

In her office hang a variety of eye-catching accouterments — a Mexican sombrero, a silver sparkling shirt. They were props, she says, for her most recent work, “Future Heritage Collection,” for which she dressed up in different costumes as an archeologist from the future. In one video segment, she wears Batman-inspired sunglasses and a crisp, blue airline attendant hat, clipboard in hand. Her expression is austere.

“This one, I just had a laugh attack,” she says, looking at a video and pointing out the tears of laughter, barely visible, in her eyes.

On display in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Wolk Gallery, “Future Heritage Collection” calls upon audiences to reimagine what cultural heritage might mean in the world to come. It is just one project among many showing in Solidarity Works: Politics of Cultural Memory through Friday, March 21, 2014.

Art in Solidarity

Akšamija’s work treads the line between humor and gravity. It asks viewers to reexamine the ways in which history and culture are displayed, destroyed, and politicized, particularly in societies split along religious and ethnic lines. It also brings to mind questions such as: Who defines heritage? And, in reinterpreting the artifacts of the past and present, how can we imagine the future of civil society differently?

“Future Heritage Collection” succeeds the international 2013 “Solidarity Day,” initiated by Akšamija, in which more than 250 cultural institutions draped yellow barricade tape over objects in their collections in solidarity with the shuttered National Museum in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which closed after 124 years of operation. The collective action aimed to highlight the importance of shared culture in the face of continued division between Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats in the war-torn state, where “cultural heritage was systematically targeted and destroyed” during the war of the 1990s, Akšamija says, to “eradicate evidence of existence and coexistence.”

Another of her works on display is the installation, “Museum Solidarity Lobby,” composed of what she calls “conceptual furniture” — part listening booth, part folding beach chair — fashioned from salvaged museum shipping crates. From the chair, audiences can listen to interviews conducted by Akšamija around topics of cultural memory and heritage. “My work explores the mission of a national museum in the post-national era,” she says. “This project attempts to envision the museum as a site in which we can begin to reclaim the lost notion of public virtue.”


Defying Cultural Borders

Akšamija was 14 when the war broke out in her native Sarajevo. She fled with her family to Germany and later to Austria, where she studied architecture in Graz and was eventually awarded citizenship. In Sarajevo, she remembers watching the soldiers assembling on the mountaintops: “People kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s just some military exercise.’ Nobody wanted to believe that war was coming.”

From Austria, Akšamija went on to earn a master’s degree in architecture at Princeton University in 2004 and a PhD from MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture in 2012. While completing her doctorate, she became a graduate affiliate at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), taking such transformative workshops as “Interrogative Design,” led by former CAVS director Krzysztof Wodiczko. “This was wonderful for me because I could do my studies in architectural history and continue being involved in the art scene at MIT,” she says.

Between 2005 and 2008, she developed a series of wearable architectural projects in which Islamic prayer spaces unfolded like magic from clothing and everyday materials. In “Dirndlmoschee,” a three-person mosque emerges from a traditional Austrian outfit into a cultural hybrid for the 21st century. The 2005 “Survival Mosque,” which she describes as a “Muslim survival kit,” contains everything from ablution water to Bluetooth to a copy of the U.S. Constitution. The 2006 “Frontier Vest” could mutate from a sleeveless refugee jacket into a Jewish prayer shawl, and then into an Islamic prayer rug.

Her vestments — sartorial, architectural, or some combination thereof — are endlessly transformable, helping their users shift more fluidly between the secular and sacred; traditional and contemporary; public and private; material and spiritual; and Muslim and non-Muslim. Akšamija dismantles and reconstructs markers of identity, refuting the idea of an imagined homogenous society. Her pieces are an attempt to facilitate mutable identities that are more fully equipped to address the complexities of an interwoven global world. With them, new and portable homelands are forged.


Community-building through architecture

By now, Akšamija estimates, she has lived two-thirds of her life outside her home country, affording her a unique and critical perspective from which to create artworks that defy accepted borders. She feels at home in each of the places she’s lived.

And yet, her work not only crosses physical or cultural boundaries, but also disciplinary ones. In “Solidarity Works,” Akšamija seamlessly brings together scholarly research, visual arts, architecture, history, and activism in a multi-pronged and mutually reinforcing approach. “I try to stretch boundaries,” she says. The creation of the physical objects often evolves out of her theoretical research, and the reception of the work, in turn, informs the next phase of investigation in a kind of ongoing feedback loop.

The past year has been a momentous one for Akšamija. In 2013, the artist won architecture’s prestigious Aga Khan Award for her contributions to a unique Islamic cemetery, the design of which was led by Austrian architect Bernardo Bader in the picturesque alpine town of Altach, Austria. For this project, Akšamija designed the interior prayer space — a golden, light-strewn room that combines the woodcraft of the region with Islamic aesthetics to create a serene, natural environment.

The cemetery was the result of a nine-year process of mediating between town officials, immigrant communities, and longtime residents. “It was a project of building community,” Akšamija says, “and building social structures for immigrants who up to that point were quite scattered.” In a clear measure of the community’s final approval, more than 1,000 people attended the opening. “People were coming with bicycles and buses, it was incredible,” Akšamija recalls. “It was a truly multicultural experience.”

The cemetery’s construction marked the first time Muslims in the area were able, by religious rites, to bury their dead in their adopted country. “That’s where I saw the power of architecture,” Akšamija says. “This cemetery shows that homeland is not anymore the place where one came from, but where one wants to find the final resting.”

Akšamija’s work is essentially hopeful about the role of art and architecture in building community and dialogue in the midst of conflict. “Art can point at what has been lost or deliberately erased, but it also provides a poetic means to address trauma,” she says. Her architectural projects — whether on the scale of a building or the body — create the space to imagine the world differently, giving shape to alternative scenarios for a peaceful coexistence. In this, her work epitomizes a distinct MIT ethos: the belief that a more utopian future can be engineered into being, and that through the alchemy of art and design, some of the world’s most deepest and intractable conflicts may be alleviated, or even solved.

On view in SA+Ps Wolk Gallery from December 6, 2013 through March 21, 2014, “Solidarity Works” presents recent work by Azra Akšamija, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in the Department of Architecture and an assistant professor in the program in art, culture and technology.

Posted on March 21, 2014 by Anya Ventura