who is Azra Akšamija? | inside-act profile

Azra Akšamija, Inside View Southeast. Investigations on Backyard Mosques, 2005. Mixed media (re-designed Austrian traditional dress, video 5min)
ACT at MIT

Azra Akšamija is a Sarajevo born artist and architectural historian. In her multi-disciplinary practice, she investigates the potency of art and architecture to facilitate the process of transformative mediation in cultural or political conflicts. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the Art, Culture and Technology program here at MIT, and will be teaching two courses this Fall– 4.307/8 | Art, Architecture, and Urbanism in Dialogue and 4.322/3 | Introduction to Three-Dimensional Art Work.  Her book, Mosque Manifesto – Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence was just published.

We sat down with her to find out more about her artistic paths, inquiries and her take on ACT.

When and how did you decide to become an artist?

It wasn’t a conscious decision actually. I was studying architecture in Austria, and my undergraduate thesis basically became my first art project. It was quite a theoretical and experimental study that proposed a new type of research at the time. The project was about the largest black market in the Balkans, documenting the emergence of a new city  born in a political no-man’s-land surrounded by a minefield in Bosnia after the war. It caught the attention of the media and the curators of the Generali Foundation heard a radio interview with me talking about it and invited me to discuss my work.

The foundation is one of the most important art institutions in Austria, and I ended up giving a talk there and had my first show there with Krzysztof Wodiczko, Marjetica Potrc and Florian Pumhösl. It was the perfect context because in architecture – at least in the type of school in which I studied – it didn’t necessarily have a place for any type of exposure or public communication. The artistic context allowed me to reach a broader audience, and created room for discussion.

You also have to know that this was at a time when Western Europe was very interested in Eastern European art, artists and ideas in general so this was somehow an ideal scenario.  I later worked with Marjetica on several joint projects before I went to Princeton for a Masters degree. During my studies there, I realized that I didn’t want to be an architect in the traditional sense of having an office or working in one. Eventually I got more interested in the social and political dimensions of architecture, and that’s where my interest in mosques, for example, came into play.

Tell us more about your education. You are an MIT Alumna. You received your PhD from the HTC / AKPIA Program in the Department of Architecture.

I was also the first graduate affiliate of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), when they introduced that program. My PhD was about the systematic destruction of cultural heritage in Bosnia and the emotional, political and ideological responses to the genocide through post-war reconstruction.  I looked at these processes in the contexts of mosque architecture and Islamic identity.  At the same time I continued working on my art. That’s when I looked into the Visual Arts program. In fact, Larissa Harris and Krzysztof Wodiczko, who were directing the CAVS at the time, invited me to join as a graduate affiliate after my exhibition at the Generali Foundation. They initiated this graduate affiliation program to provide home for artists who were graduate students at MIT, but were not in the Visual Arts program.

Tad Hirsch, another graduate affiliate from the Media Lab, and I were the ‘pilot people’ for this program. It was a really fantastic experience and that is how I got familiar with the visual arts program. There I conducted a number of projects with Marjetica Potrc. We did the ‘Lost Highway’ exhibition, in which CAVS participated, and then I took the Interrogative Design Workshop with Krzysztof, which was really transformative for my entire career. It was the first time that someone was helping me become a better artist. He was a true artistic mentor, and Nasser Rabbat, Caroline Jones and Andras Riedlmayer were my academic mentors. My artistic journey is definitely an interplay between the depth of the history theory program and this interrogative design approach, interest in the public space and the impact that one can have with their work.

You also took ACT studio classes with Ute Meta Bauer and Joan Jonas. How did you take those if you weren’t an ACT grad student?

I know, they said this class was exclusive to ACT students, but because I had no space to do my artistic work otherwise, they just let me in. I would just come and sit there to meet people, work and hang out. That’s when I produced the ‘Frontier Vest’ project, which was also really informed by the discussion about the ‘Just Jerusalem’ project that Ute was initiating at that time. I used my research from the History, Theory, Criticism and Aga Khan Programs in the history of Islamic Art to create my signature piece of work, ‘Nomadic Mosque,’ off of which I based an entire body of work later on.

Krzysztof’s class at the time was themed, “Fearless Speech”, about devices for speaking out in public space. The work I produced in this class, provided me with tools with which I could do research through an artwork outside of academia and get feedback that would be beneficial for my academic research and the papers I was writing in the history-theory program. So it was really going in two directions, and it still is. My book that’s coming out in a few weeks, “Mosque Manifesto: Propositions for Spaces of Coexistence”, starts with some of these early Mosque investigations at Princeton and then here in Krzysztof’s and Nasser’s classes, up to the most recent work that I’ve been doing as a faculty member at MIT. So it spans the decade-long obsession with mosques.

We should do a book launch and another party.

Exactly! What does a mosque-party look like?

I guess we’ll find out soon! What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Well a lot of things.  I get really excited about students’ ideas. You think you have figured out one topic, and you pose these questions, then students come with the most interesting responses or even other questions entirely, and it just opens my own mind. After starting to teach, I think I’ve really become a better artist. I also love how through education you can transform people. We get a lot of students that are either so stressed or pushed by their parents or by any other system to succeed in a certain way or have some kind of preconceived idea of where they’re expected to fit in, and then you just open their minds. I really just like to “help them become better them” – that’s my motto, and it’s something I learned this from Krzysztof.

And you work with a lot of students that are studying outside of the program or outside of the Department of Architecture… Where do most of your students come from?

We have some classes that are oriented towards architecture undergrads, but then others are completely open to the entire Institute. We get a lot of Mechanical Engineering, Aero Astro, Electrical Engineering, and Mathematics students. These are the most present fields in my classes. It’s all so incredible to see the speed by which people learn here. And then they’re all from these different cultures, and I love that students bring all of these different perspectives from their home countries. Have I ever told you about the “How to Marry Almost Anything” class?

No! Is that a play on the “How to Make Almost Anything” class?

Well… it was a ‘Culture Fabrics’ class, but it was a small one and it so happened that all of the students taking it were women. It was an evening class, so we were here alone at night, hungry and eventually just started cooking! Because a lot of the topics were about cultural traditions, a lot of students were working on inheriting knowledge from grandmother to mother to granddaughter as well as marriage and family gender issues. So I started teasing them. We were cooking, teaching and talking about marriage, “I should call this class how to marry almost anything!” and I promised to get each of them married.

I bet you’ve seen some weird things during your time here projects, stunts, also amazing student work. Do you have any interesting stories weird things you’ve seen amazing project from your classes that you would like to share with us?

I have an elevator pitch class where I stuff the whole class into the elevator in the Media Lab and they have to come up with and present their concepts really quickly in an elevator. It’s a comic take on corporate culture, so they only have time to write between floors, to introduce themselves and tell each other what their ideas were. I think it’s really important to change places so that we’re not always in the classroom. Shows at the end of the classes are also very interesting. Last fall, we were looking into traditional costumes and how their meanings have changed with time. One student looked at the transformation of Japanese underwear, gradually transforming a meaningless t-shirt into an a delicate kimono-like gown with a special craft. So to reintroduce value into that object again, she started developing these techniques of ripping the t-shirt with her bare hands – just tearing the strings apart until it started looking like a kimono! It’s a really beautiful piece, and she worked for at least 3 weeks, just doing this with her hands. It was very contemplative and the result was beautiful.

What are some of the classes that you’re excited about teaching this semester?

I’m teaching the ‘Culture Fabrics’ class again this semester. I want to work with students on transcultural suits experimenting with how you can try on the cultural skin of another, so that you share your cultural experience with them and foster understanding among cultures.

The other class I’m teaching is called ‘Dialogues in Art, Architecture and Urbanism’. It will be a new class for me, so I’m still developing it. It will work on the agency of culture in conflict and crisis in the broader sense, with a focus on the refugee crisis in Syria. I am on one hand moved by the recent destruction of the Islamic world by Isis and the media spectacle around it. On the other hand, this relates to my own research about the genocide and how the attack on culture and the destruction of libraries and archives serve the purpose of the erasing cultural memory and really revising the future of that society.

We learn a lot from these wars. We learn how important culture actually is and its impact on society politically, socially and emotionally. We can work against these forces as well by taking on culture.  And this is also what Krzysztof has been calling out for recently. He’s calling it “Un-war”.

What does art, culture and technology mean to you and what role can or should ACT play within the broader community of MIT?

This program is a really unique place where artistic practice, cultural heritage, history, contemporary culture, new and ancient technologies come together in a constructive dialogue to reflect on an array of topics, including but not limited to the research being done at MIT. ACT is the critical and creative mirror for the Institute but we are also a place for experimentation. We also need to defend this space against the consumer culture and the pressure on academia as well as the art world to produce deliverables that could be immediately marketed and often sold.

What book/film/album should every MIT student read/see/hear, and why?

Students always want to know what books they should read, but at the graduate level you should know what kinds of things you’re interested in. I prefer helping students find their unique thematic scopes that motivate them. What is that theme? What is the question or questions that they may be interested in exploring? After that there’s a lot of research, books and thoughts that support these themes and questions. References could be in the discipline of art, but I also encourage students to look in other fields who may have said things about their topics of interest before and develop their own additions to that ongoing discussion.