Azra Akšamija


Photo courtesy of MIT, credit: Dietmar Offenhuber.


From a conversation between Azra Akšamija and Janeil Engelstad

November 2011


Janeil Engelstad (JE): Artists working with social concerns and with communities bring to projects their own intentions and objectives that they would like to accomplish. Ideally the artist’s mission dovetails with needs of the community. There are practical and ethical considerations that have to be made with this work and often those concerns shape the outcome. How did these things work or come together for you when you were producing Monument in Waiting?


Azra Akšamija (AA): At the beginning Monument in Waiting was not intended as a community project, rather I wanted to make accessible some of the material that I produced for my PhD dissertation. (Entitled “Our Mosques Are Us: Rewriting National History of Bosnia-Herzegovina through Religious Architecture”, the dissertation examines how Bosnian Muslims construct their identity through the process of mosque building and restorations following the systematic destruction of religious architecture during the 1992-1995 war in the region.) I did a lot of research about the eradication of the community through the destruction of the community centers, such as mosques and churches, and this was the starting point. I wanted to make the material public and accessible for people who don’t have a voice and were affected by the war.


At the same time, I was invited to produce a new work for an upcoming exhibition about monuments at the Stroom gallery in The Hague, so it was an opportunity to work with this material. For the exhibition, I wanted to choose iconic buildings that were representative of this war story. My objectives were at first to collect information because we are still at the point after the war where people don’t really know what was destroyed, why, and to what extent. I focused on only on Islamic architecture because this is my field of interest and expertise. But the piece is open to have churches added to it.


The communal aspect of the project evolved as I was traveling through Bosnia doing additional fieldwork. When I would tell people what I was doing, as an artist, everyone wanted to speak with me, which is quite different than giving an interview to an architectural historian. History is very contested field in Bosnia today. Different national parties are trying to write their own history and people are afraid of that manipulation. But working as an artist really opened the door for alternative modes of communication. People wanted to contribute and have their story depicted. At that point I didn’t know what the carpet would look like, but this is where I thought to design a piece that would represent a collective testimony through a number of individual stories. The community evolved symbolically, through a collection of the stories. The theme of the carpet talks about the making of community through the process of post-war renovation. So as people are rebuilding their community centers, they are symbolically and physically restoring their communities. In many villages, mosques and churches represent the only form of communal space in the city, because there is not much other public infrastructure. That’s also the place where people debate political issues, where education is happening, where young people hang out. In many villages the Imams organize the youth to rebuild their places of worship together – it is almost like Socialist working actions. This is how Yugoslavia was built after the Second World War. Young people would come together and work and build. This is in a way also documented in the carpet, that process of social recovery after the war.


JE: The carpet holds many different meanings within its symbols and design that are not obvious to the viewer.


AA: The carpet is coded with cultural references, facts and symbols that represent personal stories. In the center I placed the motive of the tree of life. On the one side of the tree there are little abstract leaves that are either solid white or not. The color-coding stands for the intensity of the destruction of the monument and on the other side the manner of renovation. You cannot know this. You are aware that there is some code in the way that the leaves are colored, but you cannot know what this means without having the legend. For the version of the piece that was exhibited in the Venice, I made a video as a legend, which explains how to read the pattern and the stories depicted in form of the symbols. So on the one hand the pattern is abstract information, but it is also a gateway to a larger archive. It is a kind of visual motivator to actually go and look for more information.


It was important for me, with this piece, to document what has happened and not necessarily go into analysis, which I did in my PhD dissertation. The piece is like a map of what has been and currently is happening in Bosnia. We are still at the stage of mapping. There is still a total denial of that war history and the destruction.


JE: There is the denial within the international community and the denial within Bosnia. How do you see this denial, whether it is from the outside or internal, shaping the individual and collective identity of Bosnian Muslims?


AA: The answer to this question is very complex, as there are many different forms though which the denials can take shape. On the one hand, there is a denial on the part of nationalist extremists in the region that genocide and the “ethnic cleansing” has taken place at all. Though some of these extremists have been called to responsibility and legally prosecuted for this by the ICTY in The Hague, many war criminals are still free and many still live in Bosnia, side by side with the people whom they had imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps. Imagine a victim walking on the street and encountering their torturer. These victims are still waiting for justice. 


Some manifestations of this denial can be observed though art and architecture -- for example, when victims are denied construction of monuments to war victims, when nationalist extremists erect monuments to celebrate war criminals, or when returning refugees are denied the right to reconstruct their homes and places of worship. Another form of denial can be observed in the way how war history has been presented to public, both regionally, in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and to the worldwide audiences, often lacking any objectivity, concrete numbers and facts, and promoting the wage idiom of “every side had victims and committed war crimes”. While this might be true on a very general level, we do need to address the specificities of victim hood and destruction in order to get a full picture: not every side committed a systematic form of killing and destruction and also now all people form a signal ethic group can be put into the same pot with war criminals.  While all ethno-national groups in Bosnia experienced significant war losses, Bosnian Muslims suffered the greatest human and architectural casualties.  We need to speak in clear facts and differentiate more carefully the individual and group responsibilities for war crimes.


On the other hand, there is a denial on an international level too. The only internationally recognized genocide in Bosnia is Srebrenica, but there were many other cases of mass murder of non-Serb population that were not yet internationally recognized as a form of genocide.


In my dissertation, I have examined how Bosnian Muslims deal with the history and trauma of war though the process of mosque building and rebuilding, and what this process can tell us about transformations of their religious, cultural, political and architectural identities. The stylistic diversity of contemporary mosques in the region, I argue, reflects competing visions of Bosnian Muslims identities in the post-socialist period. I contend that the extent and the genocidal nature of war violence against Bosnian Muslims has transformed the meaning of the mosque from that of a place of worship and of a signifier of religious-ethnic identity to that of the ethnic body of the Bosniak nation.


JE: How is the identity of Bosnian Muslims, after going through this transformation, different from the Yugoslav period?


AA: Under Tito, Muslims in Bosnia were recognized only as an ethnic community until the late 1960s, when they were recognized as a national group called Bosnian Muslims, a name that still had a religious connotation (Serbs who are largely Orthodox Christian have a national name, Serbs. Croats, who are primarily Catholic, where not called Bosnian Catholics, but called Croats).


During the war, in 1993, Bosnian Muslims changed their national name to Bosniaks, which marked a secularization of their national identity. Within the post-war reconstruction religious architecture that identity is now subject to search and re-discovery. Do you renovate your mosque in the same way that it looked before the war? Or do you reinvent its appearance and with that also reinvent the image of yourself? And what are you saying about yourself once you renovate it in a different way? What I argued in my dissertation is that there are many different competing versions of Bosnian Muslims’ identity –the quest for identity as it is reflected in mosque architecture has been prompted through the war destruction and prosecutions, which were executed based on religious and ethnic identity. People were killed because they had a Muslim name even though they might not have been religious.


In fact, before the war, Bosnian Muslims were among the most secularized Muslim communities in the world. This has changed after the war due to a number of different reasons. The war has made many more aware of their identity - because people were prosecuted based on their religious or ethnic affiliation. Another point is that religious life in general has witnessed a revival after the fall of socialist Yugoslavia. This is a phenomenon that Bosnia shares with other post-communist countries, where religions have filled the ideological vacuum after the end of Communism. While religious life was suppressed in Yugoslavia, many are now more explicit about their religion because is now also possible to be religious. Finally, there are also foreign influences. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and some other Islamic countries have donated humanitarian aid for renovation of mosques, and also for building universities and religious schools. At times, the donors are bringing in their own ideological agendas, which are also having an effect on the transformation of the Bosnian Muslims identities. There are rebuilt mosques that look like transplants from Istanbul and are homage to the grand Ottoman period in which Islam was established in the Balkans.


So there are many things going on and there is confusion about what Bosnian Muslims identities were, are and should be. Additional challenging factor is that the peace agreement signed in Dayton in 1995 de facto legitimized the territories that were created through ethnic cleansing. Bosnia used to be a completely mixed country in terms of demographics. What the “ethnic cleansers” have achieved is that now you have neatly separated ethnic territories with 90% majorities of one ethnic group. The Dayton Peace Agreement was necessary to end the fighting and killing, but at the same time the territorial and demographic constellations created in the war were frozen with the idea that someday the internal boundaries will change. A provision in the agreement stated that people could return to the territory from which they were expelled and retrieve their private property. While these provisions may be implemented, this does necessarily means that things will go back to the pre-war state of affairs. The process of return is more difficult in some regions than in others. You may have a right to return to your hometown and get your property back, but you may not get a chance to find a job there, because the job market is often determined by ethno-national politics.


So the way that people are rebuilding and their motivations are affected by the local politics and what ethnic group is in the majority in a particular area. Even though a peaceful coexistence was not always consistent throughout history, coexistence of different ethnic groups and their mutual fertilization is one of the chief cultural achievements of the region. Churches, mosques and synagogues, which were standing next to each other for centuries, were witness to the fact that a constructive coexistence was the prevalent condition. That it is exactly what nationalist extremists wanted to destroy. The destruction and killing of people during the war was so devastating and brutal – one of the goals and effects of the war violence was to prevent people of wanting to live together in the future. After all that happened, it is very difficult for people to even imagine a functioning coexistence. The conflict has continued through religious architecture because mosques and churches are the most visible symbols of ethnic and religious identity in public space. People mark their territory by building a large religious structure. Politically this is why it is important to reflect upon that history now.


JE: So one of the organic things that developed in the project is that you ended up having conversations with people because you discovered that they wanted to talk. In the process of the interviews and in the process of the weavers working on the construction of the rug did you notice if they underwent any change from having the opportunity to reflect and share their stories?


AA: It’s difficult to measure because I have not done any feedback. That is maybe something that still needs to be done. Also, I did not ask personal questions, rather I was talking about their communities through architecture.


The weaving of the rug was organized through a weaving workshop. Some of the weavers were traumatized in the war, so I didn’t ask them anything, as it could have harmed them. My initial idea was to involve them in the process of the pattern development and so I went to the workshop with this purpose. I had to first learn how to weave. When they were teaching me how to weave we became a bit closer. Many of these women come from very traditional settings where they are completely dependant on their husbands. The workshop gives them ability for emancipation and to bring money to the family, but still they are afraid to say things. I would ask them, “So what do you think about this pattern?” and they would say “Oh we will make it exactly how you want. You make the sketch and we will make whatever you say.”


So I made something just to start the dialogue and they started to give feedback. Comments like, “These war patterns are fine but this doesn’t look very good or is not doable.” Or, “If these patterns are to stand for the Bosnian War, the war was concentrations camps, barb wire, and grenades. These are the three components.” So I redesigned the pattern, but their critique was very subtle and very technical. In the end, they really liked the project and it made them proud to be part of a communal statement.  This was giving them more meaning rather than just weaving for money.


JE: How has producing this project impacted you as someone who had to leave Bosnia, during the war, as a teenager?


AA: All through the project I am dealing with my own identity and coming to terms with this new Diasporac life. I started my dissertation not necessarily to become a historian, but rather to write a book about what has happened in Bosnia and to understand why this happened to us and who we are.


When I look back at my work, even the work that is not related to Islamic identity, it is all about conflict and seeing in conflict not only negatively, but also as some kind of force from which new, creative things can emerge. This has helped me to deal with my own experiences during and after the war.