Heritage, Reverence, Candor, Grace: Azra Akšamija at Spannocchia

Heritage, Reverence, Candor, Grace: Azra Akšamija at Spannocchia
by Taliesin Thomas, 1st year IDSVA student

Azra Akšamija is a Sarajevo born artist and architectural historian. Akšamija graduated from the Faculty of Architecture at the Technical University Graz, Austria in 2001, she received her M.Arch. from Princeton University in 2004, and her Ph.D. from MIT in 2011. In her multi-disciplinary practice, Akšamija investigates the potency of art and architecture to facilitate the process of transformative mediation in cultural-political conflicts—as such Akšamija’s work provides a framework for researching, analyzing, and intervening in contested socio-political realities. Her recent work focuses on mosque architecture, the representation of Islamic identities in the West, spatial conciliation of identity politics, and cultural pedagogy through art and architecture.

We had the honor of welcoming Akšamija to Spannocchia Castle as part of our summer residency. As a scholar-artist, Akšamija not only embodies the ethos of the IDSVA spirit, she also exemplifies the role of creator as cultural influencer. She offered an honest and refined presentation on the complicated realities of war, heritage, and belief systems that define our modern age. Her morning presentation “Sacred Place/Political Sacrilege” was a look at the politics of cultural memory as it concerns the destruction and restoration of mosques in Bosnia-Herzgovina between 1992 and 2012. Akšamija spoke of the agency of architecture as instruments of war and shared candid details concerning the architectural casualties of conflict during these difficult years. Although the material itself was sobering, Akšamija’s careful presentation was an exemplar of graceful scholarly disclosure. The results of her rigorous investigation were beautifully represented in a custom carpet project that reflects both the intensity of these cultural-political struggles but also the open-ended process of healing that she is helping to advance. Akšamija’s work in this area is truly admirable.

During our afternoon session Akšamija shared additional perspectives about her investigations in the areas of heritage and history, elaborating on her interpretations of the constructs of national identity. She is deeply devoted to the art of mosque architecture, and her latest works, such as wearable mosque designs, illustrate her ability to integrate cultural sensitivity and serious scholarship into art practice. Her wearable mosque designs reflect the “performative” nature of architecture and the role of the mosque as a multifunctional space. With these utilitarian and fashionable mosque outfits for women, Akšamija’s ideas about the role of the mosque today also suggest an evolving language of architecture as it concerns shared multi-referential objects and twenty-first century paradigms. Akšamija elegantly translates her understanding of these complexities with unforgettable poise and demeanor. Her visit to Spannocchia was truly a memorable highlight of our time in Europe.