Sharjah Museum celebrates cultural heritage in times of conflict

Tapestries are produced through workshops aimed at fostering transcultural exchange and collaborative design with displaced communities.
Sunday 24/11/2019
Recycled fabrics on display at the T-Serai portable palace.	   (SMA)
Across disciplinary borders. Recycled fabrics on display at the T-Serai portable palace. (SMA)

SHARJAH - The role of cultural heritage in conflict is highlighted at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation in an exhibition featuring a portable “palace” made of recycled fabric using the art of reverse applique.

The T-Serai, an acronym for Textile Systems for Engagement and Research in Artistic Impact, is part of Sharjah Museums Authority’s (SMA) celebration of the heritage of the MENA region, featuring the work of Bosnian-Austrian artist and architectural historian Azra Aksamija. The exhibition is on display through December 7.

Hailing from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aksamija moved to Austria during the 1990s civil war then to the United States to do her doctorate studies in Architecture and the History of Islamic architecture. She is the director of the Future Heritage Lab (FHL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“A lot of my research is in examining the role of cultural heritage in conflict and crisis. Cultural heritage has become an instrument of war. In the 1990s Bosnia, cultural heritage was systematically targeted,” Aksamija said.

This pattern, she said, can be seen in the conflict in the Middle East.

“What I am doing now is I practise art and design and I work through the lens of heritage and also through the methods of contemporary art and co-creation, trying to support the living cultures of people affected by these wars through participatory methods.”

During the past three years, FHL has been operating a series of transdisciplinary collaborations aimed at addressing the cultural, educational and emotional needs of refugees. One project is implemented at the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, in collaboration with the humanitarian aid organisation CARE.

For T-Serai, Aksamija and her team of lab collaborators and students produced intricate designs using the reverse applique technique over six months, referencing a textile craft that was extensively used during the Ottoman Empire and in the Egyptian Khayamiya.

The exhibition showcases the installation in the form of a portable palace for transcultural futures inspired by the tent traditions of the MENA region and developed with support from SMA.

“The exhibition reflects SMA’s humanistic mission to advance the knowledge about the cultural and scientific achievements of Islamic societies and aims to assess the potential of art and architecture to transform conflicts and connect people across cultural and disciplinary borders,” Aksamija said.

The tapestries are produced through workshops aimed at fostering transcultural exchange and collaborative design with displaced communities and can be assembled to form mobile cultural shelters.

Overproduction of the global textile industry is seen as a resource for new forms of cultural preservation: T-Serai tapestries can be used for storage, insulation and recording personal memories. The textiles are also used to set up storytelling tents that activate textile motifs from various regions towards immersive social gatherings and knowledge sharing across borders.

Produced across the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, the creation and use of the T-Serai allows for the establishment of civic spaces in conditions of containment and cultural deprivation.

A discussion on the opening night examined the role of art and architecture in transforming conflicts and bridging cultural divides.

T-Serai, Aksamija explained, is a “system of modular tapestries.”

“We can deploy them in different ways for various uses… The point here is not to provide something functional. I work in contemporary art. The point is to critique the existence of refugee camps. I don’t think we should be having them. This is not the best solution for the refugee crisis,” she said.

“Since we have them, we cannot abolish them right now but how do we inform humanitarian design from the perspective of the people who live there? What are their cultural and emotional needs that are also just as important as having food and shelter above your head?”

The project, which was developed with seed funding from SMA, was mainly concentrated in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.

“SMA is delighted to have commissioned this extraordinary work that experiments with the convergence of contemporary art and traditional Islamic design,” said SMA Director-General Manal Ataya

“We hope the exhibition encourages artists to experiment with different materials and ideas, as we are committed to bringing new forms of artistic dialogue to inspire our audiences.

“It is important for SMA to always promote the connections between traditional and classical Islamic arts with that of contemporary approaches to Islamic art and design.”

Aksamija’s work has been exhibited in leading international venues. In 2013, she received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for her design of the prayer space in the Islamic Cemetery Altach, Austria.

In the support of living cultures. Azra Aksamija inside the T-Serai portable palace on display at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation.     (SMA)
In the support of living cultures. Azra Aksamija inside the T-Serai portable palace on display at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. (SMA)
Through the lens of heritage. A view of the T-Serai portable palace on display at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation.                       (SMA)
Through the lens of heritage. A view of the T-Serai portable palace on display at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation. (SMA)
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