I met with Azra Aksamija to the occasion of the press presentation of one of the most compelling exhibitions I saw recently: “Penelope’s labour – weaving words and images” a contemporary tapestry retrospective presented at the Cini foundation in Venice (http://www.cini.it/en/event/detail/1/544).
My heart and brain started to tick with
excitement while listening to Azra’s introduction to her “Monument in Waiting”: my imagination wandered with her on the ruins of damaged or destroyed mosques in Bosnia, an intellectual voyage she undertook in order to complete her doctoral studies in Islamic architecture at the MIT. This interview is the result of a discussion we continued over the internet.
– In “Monument in Waiting” you have reconfigured the motives of the traditional Bosnian kilim (flat-weave carpet) to very precisely document the systematic destruction of Islamic cultural heritage. Tapestries are storytellers and yours is telling the story of 9 destroyed mosques out of the hundred plus you have visited and the over 1200 that were destroyed during the war (author’s note: there were also about 200 churches destroyed or heavily damaged, predominantly Catholic and few Orthodox ones). Let’s start our journey on the field of war destructions with the Ahmici, Umolijiani and Zvornik mosques and how their story is illustrated in your work.
The stories of these and other mosques in my kilim are encoded into the pattern. The three borders of the kilim surround the central composition with the “tree of life” motif, the metaphor of the paradise garden and eternal afterlife. This tree motif tells the main kilim story. Each tree branch carries symbols that represent abstracted data and stories about the investigated mosques. The tree leafs are filled white, indicating the intensity of destruction (from light damage to total destruction) and manner of renovation (from reconstruction true to the original to building anew with different appearance). Legends and personal stories collected in interviews are represented by the bird motif, which is set in the ends of the tree branches. In the traditional kilim iconography, the bird can have various meanings — from good luck, bad luck, happiness, joy, love, to power and strength. Birds are also carriers of messages. In this kilim, the story of the Ahmići mosque, for example, is represented with the symbol rendering two birds standing in the same nest, designed in reference to the community’s split over differences in dealing with memories of war. The Umoljani Mosque, which had not been destroyed, is portrayed with a white bird. Finally, the story of the Begsuja Mosque, is depicted with a symbol of a bird that has a pig’s nose under its feet…
The case of the Ahmići Mosque(1991) is an interesting one. It was destroyed
on 16th April 1993, when this village was attacked by Croat nationalist forces. The village had two mosques and hundred-fifty houses that were all destroyed that day, one hundred and sixteen Muslim inhabitants of Ahmići were killed in this process. The images of the destruction of the Donji Ahmići mosque in the media and stories about brutal torture of the inhabitants received worldwide coverage. The process of reconstruction of houses and religious monuments started in 1998 with
the organized return of refugees. The rebuilding of the two destroyed
mosques produced an internal conflict within the local Islamic community: one side urged for the preservation of the Donji Ahmići mosque ruin as a war memorial, while the other favored a quick reconstruction with less visible reminders of the massacre. Subsequently, two mosques were built on the ruins of the destroyed ones, each serving one side of the divided community. With the recent appointment of a shared imam, however, the two groups managed to settle their differences. Yet, the only visible reminder of those killed in 1993 is a modest marble cenotaph in the courtyard of the Donji Ahmići mosque.
The mosque in the village of Umoljani, Mountain Bjelašnica is located south of the main village core and tells us another touching story. This small village mosque became known to the wider public in 1993, when it survived the attack on the village by the Serbian and Montenegrin armed forces. It is the only roofed edifice from all thirteen regional villages that remained untouched and unburned in August 1993. From that time on, the mosque is mentioned in different contexts and legends. One common story regards the reasons why Serbian nationalist radicals spared this mosque, when they burned down every other building in the village. The members of the jamaat (congregation) answer such questions simply: “The mosque was saved only by the prayers of our grandfathers and grandmothers.” Another story, told by a 93-year-old village inhabitant and former imam of Umoljani, is that the mosque was spared because, some time before the war, the local imam helped saving the sick child of a Serbian man. Some people in the village say that this Serb saved this mosque.
Finally, the story of the Begsuja Mosque (1776, destroyed 1992, rebuilt in 2004) in the city of
Zvornik,today a part of the Serb Republic, epitomizes in many ways Bosnia’s history of war and the difficulties of refugees’ post-war return. The mosque was entirely destroyed in 1992 and all the ruin material was taken away on some unknown place. Subsequently, a parking lot erected on the site and some fragments of old tombstones. From the three mosques in the city, all of which were destroyed in 1992, only the Begsuja Mosque has been restored since the Dayton Accord, and today it serves approximately two thousand jamaat members. So far, the Islamic Community has not succeeded in making headway towards the reconstruction of the other two mosques, being blocked by legal, physical and financial obstacles. Though
Zvornik is leading in terms of the returnees’ numbers in Eastern Bosnia, the process of refugee return to the region is very difficult. The imam of the Begsuja Mosque reported that Muslims in Zvornik shared the fortunes of their Serb fellow citizens, but that the latter continued to attack Begsuja Mosque in accordance with nationalist propaganda. The record of incidents on the mosque includes stones being thrown on the mosque, windows being broken, walls sprayed with graffiti, garbage placed in front of the mosque’s entrance, and the announcement posters of the Islamic Community being torn down. One of the worst acts against the jamaat occurred at the very start of the Begsuja’s reconstruction when, according to the imam,, someone had placed a dead pig onto the mosque’s foundation. The idea behind all these insults and obstacles in Zvornik is to show returning refugees that they are not welcome back.
– Your kilim is unfinished on the top – there were also some items like prayer beads and low tables that we not there for the inauguration but they are part of this art work, isn’t. Why?
The top of the kilim is intentionally left unfinished to indicate the continuing process towards closure through therapeutic means such as weaving, and that working to restore the architectural and emotional devastation in Bosnia-Herzegovina could become an endless process. The initiation of this process is visually communicated through the motif of the growing “tree of life”, to which new branches with new stories can be woven. Yet, these stories would need to encompass all the destroyed mosques, churches, and all other lost monuments in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the completion of this project remains utopian, the ritual hanging of the 99 prayer beads onto the kilim edge symbolically launches the process.
The attaching of prayer beads to the kilim is something that I introduced in this artwork as a form of ritual program that transforms the traditional kilim into a monument. At the opening of the exhibition in the Stroom Gallery in The Hague, where the piece was produced and first exhibited, I had invited the visitors of the exhibition (some of which were employees of the ITCY) to “ritually launch” the carpet’s function as a monument by attaching the prayer beads on the fringes at bottom of the carpet. In order to do this, the visitors had to kneel down in front of the carpet/monument, thereby symbolically kneeling down in front of the stories depicted at the carpet.
It is a common practice in the tradition of kilim weaving that the weavers (mostly women) thread some personal objects into the carpet as a form of personal prayer or amulet. These objects may range from a knob, to fragments of clothes, or even hair. The weavers include them into their weaving in hope that their whishes may come true (i.e. that they get married or give birth to healthy children). In this project, the prayer beads represent a form of embodied prayer and embodied collective memory of the individual mosque community; they also stand for the prayer to find peace and justice after what happened in the war. The project is entitled “Monument in Waiting”, because the kilim it is waiting to be displayed in the ITCY one day in the future, where it will actualize its function as a monument.
– After Venice, you would love your “Monument in Waiting” to be displayed in the ICTY ( the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia http://www.icty.org/) in the Hague. What meaning does it have to the little Azra who had to flee her country because of the war? Is Bosnia on the path of recovery?
Since this artwork was motivated by a very difficult reality — the atrocities and injustices that affected people of all ethnic groups and denominations in Bosnia during the war — my work begs the question of whether coexistence in the region will ever be possible again. How can people live side by side in light of their recent history and their still open wounds? Can art and architecture help nurture the process of recovery of a peaceful coexistence?
As much as art and architecture represent a sphere of “contamination” from which nationalists have drawn their ideological inspiration, they can also provide the sources of “decontamination” that can contribute to the recovery of Bosnia’s history of peaceful coexistence. Though many have given up on this idea — understandably so, given the extent of violence they have suffered — there are many hopeful examples that testify to the fact that the nationalists have not entirely achieved their goal. While doing my fieldwork, I found it very promising to encounter the new generation of Bosnian imams, who were often well educated and cosmopolitan, as well as open to acknowledging the complexities that weigh heavily on Bosnia’s long history of cross-cultural exchange. I believe that the challenging task for the makers of public art and architecture in Bosnia is to research and make visible what was destroyed in the war, and in a subsequent phase, create projects that would function as a mediating ground between cultures.
– How did you come to the idea of implementing your research on mosques in a tapestry and what were the challenges you encountered?
I chose the kilim as a medium for the depiction of my research about mosques and the war in Bosnia, because hand-woven carpets represent a visual form of both personal and collective storytelling. As a carrier of the regional ethnic, religious, and/or national identities, the traditional Bosnian kilim also represents a synthesis of the Islamic, and pre-Islamic nomadic material culture with the varied cultural traditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While kilims are usually used as furniture or decoration, they can be also used as prayer rugs. As an architectural device to enable Islamic ritual prayer in any space the kilim in this project stands for a mosque.
While the project’s content drew directly from my dissertation research, the fieldwork that I conducted in Bosnia for this piece also informed my dissertation. Beside the time-consuming travel and archival research, the most difficult, but also most interesting part of the process were interviews that I conducted with members of local mosque communities, survivors of the war, who have generously shared with me their touching and often tragic personal stories. This part of the project was emotionally difficult for me.
Another more technical challenge was to learn about the history of the kilims, the meaning of their symbols and the very weaving technique and process, which I needed to know in order to be able to create a meaningful design that is consistent with the logic of the medium. In this regard, I am deeply indebted to Amila Smajović, an artist and a kilim expert from Sarajevo, who was advising me in the process of creating the kilim’s pattern. Amila’s kilim manufacture “STILL-A” (http://www.stilla.ba/), which employs refugee women as weavers, was commissioned for the hand-weaving of the piece. The weavers were also involved into kilim design by providing me with critical input and advices during the design phase.
MORE ABOUT AZRA ASKAMIJA’S WORK:
On her website http://www.azraaskamija.net
A portrait of hers on “Meet the Artists” blog http://ruxandrabp.wordpress.com (soon available)