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Azra Akšamija

Born in Sarajevo, Akšamija is an artist, writer, architectural historian, Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab , an ‘antidisciplinary research community’ looking into technology’s disruptive influence, and an Associate Professor in the MIT Art, Culture and Technology Program. In 1992, aged 14, she and her family were forced to flee Bosnia during the conflict, and later lived in Europe and North America. The war in the Balkans was a formative experience in her life, and later in her body of work. As she describes she “came to understand that culture was completely instrumental” in dividing their society. However if culture was “so powerful in the hands of nationalist extremists who wanted to transform Bosnia’s multiethnic society into ethnically homogenous, separated, and mutually hostile nationalist enclaves, then we can also work with cultural means against these kinds of developments.”

She describes Sarajevo as the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’1, and her partial upbringing in a diverse and multiethnic place informs her exploration of aspects of complex identities. Being a European Muslim, she is subject to a received confusion when transplanted into the United States, where these two components are oft-regarded as a mutually exclusive binary.

Azra Akšamija, Dirndlmoschee (2005) wearable device, 12 photographs, video // image via https://www.azraaksamija.net/project-5/

Akšamija, taking flight from Bosnia, joined many of this Diaspora in the ‘West’ where, as Lana Sirri suggests, Muslim women can be subject to intersecting axes of oppression, perhaps most vociferously regarding their dress2. Her project Nomadic Mosque pushes the boundaries of architecture, creating a wearable mosque through the means of reinventing the garment. Where does the distinction lie between the body’s personal space, and spaces of worship that can open up in situ?

Deleuze and Guattari describe the State’s gradual repression of body nomadism, citing the case of peripatetic Gothic craftsmen being rooted in place through changing relations3. The specialist church-builders were slowly circumscribed and their work bound to a fixed territory. For those forced into nomadism, fleeing war, as in the case of Bosnians, this right to erect a place of worship has been resurrected in a directly corporeal manner. This piece subverts the resistance that Muslim women face by defiantly reaffirming their right to bodily sovereignty.

A later iteration of the Wearable Mosque series resulted in the creation of the Dirndlmoschee. The Dirndl is a traditional form of Austrian dress, which perhaps somewhat anachronistically, forms a strong image of the country’s identity. In a country with a significant Turkish population, the hybridising and cultural integration of migration is played upon, with the Dirndl unfolding in a similar manner to provide the architecture for worship.

Azra Akšamija, Nomadic Mosque (2005) textiles, qibla compass, prayer beads, zippers, single-channel video // image via https://www.azraaksamija.net/nomadic-mosque/

Memory Matrix is an itinerant, continuously evolving project which attempts to build a speculative solution for cultural heritage. A multitude of acrylic squares hang from a chainlink border fence – each bearing the shape of a piece of threatened cultural heritage. Zooming out, these each act as pixels forming the whole image which is presented on an architectural scale. In Ramallah this took the form of the radio towers which were once common to the city; at MIT the Triumphant Arch from the ransacked city of Palmyra; and at Manila the ‘Jeepney’ a common form of public transport made from Jeeps the US military abandoned after the Second World War. These interventions attempt a form of ‘glocalisation’ of cultural heritage, engaging local practitioners to help realise the project, with their greater forms specific to the area in which they are installed, whilst the Plexiglass pixels invoke a planetary heritage of artefacts from Nepal to the Amazon and Syria to pre-war Germany.

Each of these squares was inscribed with a cryptographic key, utilising blockchain technologies to create a distributed repository of cultural heritage that could be accessed through the Internet. This aspect of the project was produced in collaboration with Dietmar Offenhuber, who devised the system as a speculative yet practical solution to cultural destruction during conflict.

Azra Akšamija, Memory Matrix Palmyra Arch (2016) chain-link fencing, scaffolding, 20,000 neon-green acrylic elements, theatre lighting, participatory design workshops // image via https://www.azraaksamija.net/memory-matrix/

Azra Akšamija, Memory Matrix Manila (2016) 2 large steel fences, 10,000 neon-green acrylic elements, fishing wire, participatory design workshops // image via www.azraaksamija.net/memory-matrix-manila

Lightweaver is a participatory project that Akšamija developed in collaboration with some inhabitants of the Al Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, as part of the Future Heritage Lab programme. This culminated in a series of ‘kinetic lighting sculptures’, intended to nurture the multifarious cultural traditions of their places of origin. The unfortunate reality of refugee life means that material possessions can be lost, stolen, seized by authorities, or simply left behind in a hurry, and therefore realistic design solutions must account for this. Thus, the project itself consists of an easily formulated pinwheel machine that uses a light source to project the holes punched into paper. A peripatetic existence will see these people taking shelter on an ad-hoc basis, so Lightweaver is a small intervention in these spaces which creates continuity, homeliness, and allows for some visible furnishing.

Azra Akšamija, Lightweaver (2017) Participatory project, installation // image via https://www.futureheritagelab.com/work/#/lightweaver/

Would I do this work without gaining any social or professional capital?

Working again with Future Heritage Lab, Akšamija’s 2017 project Code of Ethics? presents some difficult questions for those working in a humanitarian context. Creating a platform for critical discussion, this participatory piece embarks on a mission of bringing self-reflexivity to those working with the victims of conflict, positing questions such as ‘is it ok to create artwork around war and crisis without a first hand experience?’ These interactions are inscribed onto tablecloths, which form the basis for the piece’s physical manifestation. The partakers are given bittersweet chocolate coins bearing phrases like “privilege” and “road to hell” which humorously illustrate the contradictions of this dynamic. The refugee camp is a focal point of good-intentions, many of which are uncritically thrust into such a context where the beneficiaries are at their mercy. Akšamija attests that refugee camps “should not be understood as makeshift shelters, but as civic spaces where critical social healing and cultural exchange take place in a fragile environment.”

Azra Akšamija, Code of Ethics? (2017-) Participatory project, workshops, text, chocolate coins // image via https://www.azraaksamija.net/code-of-ethics/

Akšamija collaborated to deliver the contributions at nine pavilions for Sites of Sustainability: Pavilions, Manifestos, and Crypts on show until 26th August 2018 at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin. This project highlights the alternative models of artistic production that artists developed in the former Yugoslavia and wider Eastern Bloc during the communist era. This show takes on the challenge of critiquing institutional bias in favour of Western European/North American art. Presenting networks outside this sphere of attention is the method by which this paradigm is challenged, because it reaffirms that artistic innovation is not contingent upon privilege or location in the global economic core.

 

By James Elsey

 

 

(1) https://news.mit.edu/2016/azra-aksamija-multidisciplinary-practice-art-and-architecture-0201

(2) Lana Sirri – Einführung in islamische Feminismen

(3) http://epicbaz.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/nomadology_read1.pdf

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