Azra Akšamija and sekou cooke STUDIO will present on their respective work on March 31 at 6:30 P.M.; more information can be found here.
Since founding the Future Heritage Lab at MIT in 2016, Azra Akšamija has worked with countless refugees, advocating for the cultural and emotional needs of the displaced through art, design, and architecture. Akšamija herself experienced forced displacement, fleeing Bosnia in the 1990s to settle in Austria, where she went on to study architecture at the Graz University of Technology. She continued her education in the US, eventually earning a Master of Architecture from Princeton and a PhD from MIT, where she is currently tenured.
As the director of MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology program, Akšamija contributes to the evolving discourse of socially engaged art and design by rethinking the complex relationship between artist, designer, curator, and institution. She uses her scholarly background in art and architectural history, with a specialization in Islamic societies, and training as an architect and artist to investigate how social life is affected by cultural bias and by the destruction of cultural infrastructures within the context of conflict, migration, and forced displacement. Her research begs the question: “Where does one insert the preservation of heritage during a time of crisis?”
The answer is shown in practice through the work of the Future Heritage Lab, which comprises a global network of collaborators using design methodologies to uncover, unpack, and ease the unfathomable impacts of forced displacement. As the director of the group, Akšamija has worked extensively with the inhabitants of Jordan’s Azraq Refugee Camp. Documenting refugee-led design interventions in the camp—a vertical garden necessitated by regulations that forbid planting on the ground; a front hall fashioned to protect privacy; a baby swing made from recycled school desks; and a chess set carved from broomsticks—the Future Heritage Lab has helped to shed light on refugees’ agency that challenges standardized humanitarian design, and to highlight the potency of design and architecture in transforming conflict.
This collaboration between the Future Heritage Lab and the refugees of Azraq is documented in Akšamija’s new book, Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp, which debuted in March 2022. Co-edited with Raafat Majzoub and Melina Philippou, the book is in Arabic and English and includes texts by camp residents, humanitarian workers, and researchers who collaborated on the project across cultural and disciplinary borders, as well as illustrations created by a group of MIT students who used photos of refugee inventions to reverse-engineer architectural drawings.