The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, under the umbrella of the Sharjah Museums Authority, is hosting the exhibition of the T-Serai, a portable palace for transcultural futures. This exhibition aims to assess the potential of art and architecture to address conflicts by connecting people across cultural and disciplinary borders and outlining a cultural approach to humanitarian intervention.

Conceived by Azra Akšamija, Director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab (FHL) and Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture and the ACT, the T-Serai is developed with the FHL team involving collaborations with MIT students and refugee learners across USA, Europe, and the MENA region. The project is launched with the support of the Sharjah Museums in UAE, the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria, and international humanitarian organizations in Jordan.

The T-Serai is informed by FHL’s multi-annual research about the role of art and design in conflict and crisis. Over the past three years, the FHL has been operating a series of transdisciplinary collaborations across MIT in Boston, and Amman and Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan aimed at addressing the cultural, educational, and emotional needs of refugees. The exhibition showcases this research through the lens of design inventions created by displaced Syrians in Al Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan. These inventions highlight the social, cultural, and environmental responsibility of design to address the cultural and emotional needs of people who have lost their home, history, and identity. Refugee inventions can teach us how to rethink humanitarian aid–to approach the refugee assistance not just by providing makeshift shelters, but by creating civic spaces where crucial social healing, innovation, creativity and cross-cultural interactions take place.

The exhibition title alludes to the name of the standardized T-Shelters in Jordanian refugee camps that are made of corrugated steel. It also references histories of textile architecture of the MENA region, especially the Ottoman portable palaces and the living tradition of the khayamiya. The T-Serai also stands for the “Textile Systems for Engagement and Research in Alternative Impact,” an acronym speculating a culturally sensitive approach to humanitarian intervention. The T-Serai takes the form of a tent made of modular tapestries using recycled clothes sewn in a reverse appliqué technique. Through the up-cycling of discarded clothes, the T-Serai explores how the surplus of global textile industry could become a resource to support threatened communities. The tapestries can be used to personalize, dignify, and insulate the standardized refugee shelters, facilitating storage and vertical gardening for a population on the move. They can also be used to set up tents for storytelling and other social gatherings animated through multi-sensory experiences. Through the design of motifs, creators can record their personal stories to preserve their cultural memory.

Various versions of the T-Serai tents are produced through creative collaborations across borders, involving diverse groups: from Syrian refugees in Jordan, to students in the USA, UAE, and Europe. The T-Serai exhibition in Sharjah includes the work of MIT students created in Azra Akšamija’s course “Foundations in Art, Design and Spatial Practices” during the Spring 2019. The course introduces the theoretical, ethical, and practical tools to create artistic interventions in fragile environments. This fall, FHL will educational and artistic workshops in Jordanian refugee camps aimed at supporting the preservation of the migrants’ living culture. Deploying T-Serai system as a means for self-expression and self-determination, commissioned productions will result is textile environments that can facilitate social gatherings and cultural activities of the displaced community, which will remain property of their makers.

After Sharjah, the T-Serai will tour international exhibitions, continuing to raise awareness about the social and environmental cost of our consumer lifestyle. The multidirectional knowledge exchange between project participants of different generations and backgrounds offers a possibility for connecting at the time of growing divides. Through the deployment of T-Serai tapestries in T-Shelters in spaces of confinement, such as the refugee camps, individuals can influence and appropriate standardized solutions of humanitarian architecture to enact civic life. In so doing, the T-Serai challenges the economy and life as bios approach of the established humanitarian aid system by proposing a new paradigm: to position culture is an essential human need, vital actor of cultural resilience at times of conflict and crisis.

The T-Serai exhibition opened on 25th September, and will run through 7th December, 2019.



Concept and artistic direction: AzraAkšamija

Research team: Azra Akšamija, Natalie Bellefleur, Lillian Kology, Zeid Madi, Melina Philippou.

Prototype development and fabrication: Azra Akšamija, Natalie Bellefleur, Lillian Kology.

Fabrication assistance: Lyza Baum, Joseph Burnhoe, Graham Yaeger.

Participants of Azra Akšamija’s course “Foundations in the Arts, Design, and Spatial Practices,” MIT Department of Architecture, Spring 2019: Cherie Miot Abbanat  (Communication-Intensive Component Instructor),  Jaya Eyzaguirre and Yaara Yacoby (Teaching Assistants); Students: Zidane Abubakar, Lisbeth Acevedo Ogando, Erika Anderson, Alexander Boccon-Gibod, Landon Buckland, Jierui Fang, Alejandro Gonzalez-Placito, Alice Ho, Effie Jia, Seo Yeon Kwak, Daniel Landez, Christopher Larry, Yi Yang, Annie Zhang.

T-Serai Workshop at the American University of Sharjah produced in collaboration with Alya Alzaabi, Rebecca Beamer, Isabela Marchi Tavares De Melo.

T-Serai Workshops in Al Za’atari and Al Azraq Refugee Camps in Jordan conducted in collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council and CARE-Jordan.

Special thanks to: Ulrike Al-Khamis, the Akšamija family, Zlatan Filipovic, Raafat Majzoub, Kevin McLellan, Dietmar Offenhuer.

Institutional support: Sharjah Museums, the MIT School of Architecture and Planning