Another Way of Looking: Influences from Islam
main gallery: May 21 to June 26, 2010
Azra Aksamija, Flocking Mosque, 2008, textile and mixed mediums
What the conflicts over the newly planned mosques in countries such as Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Italy, and United States have in common is the attitude that it is acceptable to build a new mosque, as long as it does not look like one. Notwithstanding the fact that Muslim citizens in these countries have a legal right to build their places of worship, such an understanding of the mosque as a specific building type very much goes against its fluid architectural concept and its multifaceted formal possibilities. While a lack of understanding and knowledge is evident in such debates, the increasing public visibility of Muslims in Western Europe and the United States conditions an increasing fear of and preoccupation with the “other.” Ongoing debates over cultural and religious pluralism in the West also reveal the xenophobic and orientalist thinking that often informs these discussions.
By what creative means might one integrate Muslim diasporas in the “West” into these discussions? Can art inspire and empower increasingly alienated Muslim communities? In what ways can an artistic and architectural representation of an Islamic community contribute to better cross-cultural understanding?
Over the past four years, these questions have inspired me to develop a series of art projects that I have called the Wearable Mosque – clothes that can be fashioned into minimal prayer spaces. A wearable mosque is a portable religious device through which I have tried to explore the form of the mosque as a framer of individual and collective identity, and in this context, deconstruct the prevalent image of the Muslim as an alien “other.” My Wearable Mosque projects can ca be understood as intercultural communicators that can accommodate the ritual prayer of at least two worshippers. Their design is not uniform and the form they take in different settings is meant to express both the multilayered identity of the person wearing these mosques and the cultural context in which they are located. These ‘individual facades’ represent the specific experiences and needs of diasporic Muslims living in different geographical, cultural, and political contexts. This emphasis on the representation of individual -- rather than collective -- identity is particularly important to the work, since the project aims to question the common assumption that “Islam,” the “Middle East,” or the “West” are monolithic structures.
Questioning the conceptual foundations of the mosque, the Nomadic Mosque and the Flocking Mosque open up new possibilities for future design of Islamic religious spaces. Although they represent a novel form of a religious space, both projects conform to Islamic liturgical regulations: the starting point is the “Hadith”, an oral transmission by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century. According to Mohammed every location in the world has the potential to become a mosque through the enactment of the ritual prayer of a worshipper. While the word “mosque” itself comes from the Arabic word “masjid” and means literally a “place to prostrate” in front of God (Arabic “Allah”), prayer can be performed anywhere, at home or in a dedicated space – everywhere except for spiritually impure places.
Nomadic Mosque and Flocking Mosque pick up on this programmatic versatility of the mosque in order to evoke a new interpretation of the mosque as a ritual space that “takes place” through the very congregation of its worshippers, as well as though the spiritual interaction of their bodies and minds with their environments. The pattern of transformable prayer rugs, which collectively stand for the mosque, is continuously recreated though its worshippers. In this way, the individual textile elements allow for a transformation of any secular space into a mosque. The absence of formal definition of the mosque, as the example of the Wearable Mosques renders visible, allows for alternative mosque forms and concepts. Yet such architectural developments can only be possible if both architects and Muslim communities accept the foundational ideological elasticity of Islam that allows for the mosque’s formal transformation and cultural adaptability.
Azra Aksamija is a Sarajevo born Austrian artist, architect, and architectural historian. Her interdisciplinary practice explores representation of Islamic identities in the West, spatial mediation of identity politics and cultural interaction through architecture. She studied architecture at the TU Graz, Austria (Dipl. Ing. in 2001), and Princeton University (M.Arch.in 200). She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Architecture, researching on contemporary mosques in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Azra’s interdisciplinary projects have been published and exhibited in various international venues such as, most recently at Secession Vienna (2007), Manifesta 7 (2008), and Stroom, Den Hague (2009).