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Azra Akšamija

Portrait from Akšamija’s new photo collection Spring Collection, 2014.

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Can art and architecture help heal cultural conflicts? Azra Akšamija PhD ’11 explores the power of art and architecture in resolving conflicts and identifying contexts in which these conflicts can be analyzed and explored. Akšamija is an Assistant Professor at the Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) program and MIT’s Department of Architecture, where she works as an artist and architectural historian in addition to teaching both undergraduate and graduate classes. She recently talked to The Tech about her origins, the ideas behind her projects, and her artistic vision of helping resolve the lingering conflicts in her native country, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I come from Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I lived there until I was fifteen, and then the [Bosnian] war started,” says Akšamija. “No one could believe at the time that the war would come to Bosnia and Herzegovina. But, my father saw soldiers sieging the city, and said that the best way for us was to avoid the war and not be a part of it. So, we left to Germany first, and then to Austria and stayed there over the course of war.”

Akšamija studied architecture at the Graz University of Technology, where she first started experimenting with art. “I was never really trained in art, but my work was very conceptual”, she adds. “My first art work was my undergraduate thesis project, which was the discovery of this new wild-west city emerging in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a city called Arizona, which was really a market started by International Community and SFOR to promote community.”

Arizona Market was created to foster communication between the three constituent nationalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Even though the market was perceived by many as a safe haven for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was still a place of human trafficking, weapon trading, and drug dealing. “I mapped that market as an architect and I created an unusual intervention to counter what the government planned for the market, which was to erase it completely and build a shopping mall on top of it”, says Akšamija. “I argued that even though that market was source of criminal activities, it was also the first place of communication where people in the middle of the war were meeting and talking. So, I designed what I call a provocative pole, an architectural intervention that’s just punctual and that could give infrastructure to people like canalization and water, but at the same time introduce some form of regulation and slowly integrate the market to become an actual city.”

Akšamija’s conceptual undergraduate thesis project launched her into the world of art, and she continued with her education and obtained a Masters in Architecture from Princeton University, after which she earned her PhD degree from MIT. In 2011, Akšamija became a faculty member at MIT, where she continued to explore the mutual influence between architecture and culture. Despite her clear vision about the future of her work, she admits that MIT has had an important influence on her projects.

“I came with a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, but as it is at MIT, once you come here, your horizons explode,” adds Akšamija laughingly “So, you learn about many other things. I still kept my main trajectory and reason why I came here, which was to write a book about genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the way architecture culture can actually help remedy some of the effects of that catastrophe.”

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina has served as a template for many of Akšamija’s research projects and artistic concepts. “For me, that was such a traumatic event in my life,” she says “I just wanted to understand how the society thinks and how I can give my contribution given the fact that I was lucky to survive the tragedy.” She explains that the destruction of architecture in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war was an intentional process that was supposed to extinguish the idea of national coexistence. “My dissertation was about the way nationalists were destroying things [during the war]. It was not just pure destruction – there was a certain element of sadism on architecture that went beyond rational explanation. It was really about torturing people and architecture to traumatize population so much to the extent they wouldn’t want to live with each other,” she adds. “This is where I work – to rescue those components of history to prove these people wrong, and to show that we can actually live together and that everyone can have their own identity and be completely different.”

While Akšamija’s work is largely influenced by events and behaviors that she observes in her private life, she expands these ideas in academic setting and puts them in a global context when working with students. She finds MIT’s student body to be very academically versatile international, which brings fresh and dynamic perspective to classroom work. “Everyone [at MIT] is creative in a different way,” she says “And when these forces come together, it’s just incredible.”

Despite her focus on architecture, many of Akšamija’s projects incorporate different types of art, such as fashion, video, and – with the case of her interactive installation Digesting Dayton in 2012 – even food. However, she never starts her projects with the aim of making impressive multimedia installations. “I like to work across different media, but for me it’s really all about the problem at stake,” she adds “For example, with my wearable mosques project, it all started from architecture and then I did a lot of research in history of criticism of architecture, and saw that actually the problem was really in constructing an image or a stereotype of a certain area, for example.”

She also adds that an important purpose of her projects is to individualize ideas that she’s exploring and bring them closer to the perspective of the spectator. “What I try to do is personalize the problem and bring it to the level of individual,” she says “It’s about looking at the ways the history is embodied in objects and artifacts, and how we can unplug that story by creating a situation in which the visitor of the exhibition can get curious and understand the context.”