Azra Akšamija’s Design for Sanctuary

Azra Akšamija, Design for Sanctuary. ©Aga Khan Museum, 2020. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
ACT at MIT

For the presentation of Sanctuary at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, ACT Professor, artist, and Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab Azra Akšamija designed exhibition architecture that considers the earth’s role as a sanctuary, underscoring global issues of sustainability and waste. Other members of the Future Heritage Lab, Natalie Bellefleur and Lillian Kology, worked with Azra on the research and design development for this project.

Second- and third-life t-shirts have been shredded, knotted, and strung up on steel beams to create structures resembling looms, the mechanisms on which carpets and other textiles are woven. These deconstructed forms evoke images of retail warehouses whose fast fashion overstock awaits destruction at the end of the season. The monumental spool at the end of the gallery, also made from repurposed t-shirts, represents the material threads of weaving. Together, this ensemble calls attention to the environmental impact of the textile industry and the mass waste generated by our consumerist economy. 

All the materials of Sanctuary’s architecture will be reused, extending their life beyond Sanctuary. This message of environmental sustainability challenges each of us to consider the social costs of our daily choices and the collective global impact that we all share.

MIT Program in Art, Culture + Technology · The Eye of the Artist – Ep. 1 | Azra Aksamija

Process Drawing: The Life of a T-shirt
This “Process Drawing” (image below, click for larger view) explores the world through the lens of a cotton T-shirt. Three parallel narratives can be traced from right to left. The first story (Green)  traces the environmental footprint of T-shirts through the resources and the pollution of its manufacturing process. The second plotline (Blue) examines the technologies of T-Shirt production, from the cultivation of the cotton plant to their industrialized fabrication, distribution, and sale. The third narrative Red) traces the social impact of T-shirts, juxtaposing the global mobility of consumer goods with the exploitation of human labor. These interconnected stories weave together historic and contemporary issues, and raise questions about the environmental, ethical, and human impact of T-shirt production.  How can we reimagine the world we live in today, and foster a global sanctuary for future generations?

Process Drawing by Future Heritage Lab: Azra Akšamija (artistic direction), with MIT graduate students and alumni Natalie Bellefleur, Stratton Coffman, Isadora Simone Stahl Dannin, Emily Jane Wissemann (research and design development team)

Al Azraq and Al Zaatari Refugee Camps
The Azraq Refugee Camp is located 100 km east of Jordan’s capital city of Amman, and 25 km west of the town Azraq. The camp was established to protect Syrians, displaced by that country’s civil war (2011—), who cross into Jordan in search of safety.  Azraq opened in 2014 when the country’s largest refugee camp, Al Zaatari, reached its full capacity. The Azraq refugee camp currently facilitates more than 38, 000 refugees and can host up to 150,000 people. 

These creations showcase the ingenuity and resourcefulness of refugees at the Azraq Refugee Camp. They reveal the cultural, emotional and aesthetic needs of refugees within a context of scarcity, war trauma, and confinement. By adapting standardized humanitarian shelters, Syrian refugees have humanized their spaces using art and design as a medium of self-determination and resilience.

Sanctuary
What does sanctuary mean to you? Step inside an immersive and contemplative space dedicated to exploring the concept of safe haven. Woven rugs designed by 36 leading artists, representing 22 countries, reflect their personal responses to the word sanctuary — whether that means refuge, sacred space, place of beauty, or something entirely unique.

The artworks are varied, reflecting the great diversity of the artists’ heritages, philosophies, and histories — many of which include experiences as refugees and migrants.

Exhibition Design Concept
Through a specific selection of materials, the loom guides visitors through the exhibition, forming a critical reflection on the consumerism governing the economy in which we exist.

The stainless steel post and rivet system, which act as the loom’s comb, conjure images of retail warehouses and their association to mass waste. Threaded between these combs are shredded T-shirts. The warp and the weft represent the fast fashion overstock sitting in warehouses, awaiting inevitable destruction at the end of the fashion season. 

By rethreading the loom with designated discard, the exhibition architecture probes how these items can bring value to those in need.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, all exhibition materials will be recycled and woven into sofreh (welcoming food offering) blankets/carpets, which will be gifted to new immigrants of Canada as portable “living rooms,” to offer assistance in a new homeland.

The Sanctuary exhibition is curated by Cheryl Haines,  FOR-SITE Foundation and Michael Chagnon, Aga Khan Museum

Exhibition design: Future Heritage Lab: Azra Akšamija (artistic direction), with Natalie Bellefleur and Lillian Kology (research and design development team)

Process drawing: Future Heritage Lab: Azra Akšamija (artistic direction), with MIT graduate students and alumni Natalie Bellefleur, Stratton Coffman, Isadora Simone Stahl Dannin, Emily Jane Wissemann (research and design development team)

Al Azraq Camp Photographs: Future Heritage Lab: Azra Akšamija (PI and artistic direction), Zeid Madi, Melina Philippou (lead researchers). Photos by: Zeid Madi and Nabil Sayfayn (FHL) and Al Azraq Journal team: Hussein Al-Abdallah, Yassin Al-Yassin, Mohammad Al-Qo’airy, Mohammad Al-Mez’al, 2017.