Bosnia’s Monument in Waiting
A memorial kilim by artist Azra Aksamija documents cultural genocide during the Bosnian War.
“Monument in Waiting” is the culmination of a historical and archival research project by Azra Aksamija, which uses traditional Bosnian Kilim to document the systematic destruction of Bosniak Islamic cultural heritage during the war.
Whilst all the ethnicities suffered destruction or damage to their cultural heritage, Bosniaks were most heavily targeted and most severely affected. During the war, over 1200 mosques were destroyed, compared to 200 churches (which were predominantly Catholic). Azra Aksamija studied 250 of these mosques for her doctoral studies on Islamic Architecture at MIT, of which nine were then chosen for further, more detailed, investigation.
The “Monument in Waiting” kilim tells the story of these nine mosques. Their stories are encoded into the pattern of the carpet, through the translation of traditional Bosnian kilim iconography into symbols of political and military aggression. Each branch of the central “tree of life” motif, therefore, carries symbols that represent abstract data whereby the leaves of the tree are filled with white to indicate the scale of the destruction and the extent of their renovation or reconstruction.
The birds at the end of each branch also represent stories. The story of the Ahmići mosque, for example, is represented by two birds standing in the same nest, representing the split within the community on how to deal with the memories of war.
On 16th April, 1993, the village of Ahmići was attacked by Croat nationalist forces, who destroyed its two mosques and150 houses, and killed 160 of the villages’ Muslim residents.
Whilst the reconstruction process started in 1998 with the return of refugees, the rebuilding of the mosques produced conflict: half wanted to preserve the ruined Donji Ahmići mosque as a war memorial, whilst the other half wanted a quick rebuild and to minimise the visible signs of the 1993 massacre. Two mosques were therefore built on its site: one serving each side of the divided community.
The Umoljani mosque, on the other hand, is represented by a white bird. The mosque escaped destruction when its village was attacked by the Serbian and Montenegrin forces in 1993, and is the only roofed building from all thirteen regional villages that remained untouched and unburned. One story states that sometime before the war the local Imam helped save the sick child of a Serbian man and that this Serb then helped to save the mosque. However, this is just one of many stories, and the real reason why the Serbs spared the mosque when all other buildings in the village were burned down remains unclear.
The border of the kilim takes inspiration from Afghan war rugs, using traditional local motifs that are transformed into weapons to describe the Bosnian war. The motifs include barbed wire, bombs, and grenades.
The kilim was produced in collaboration with Amila Smajović and her Sarajevo-based workshop STILL-A, which employs refugee women as weavers. This workshop appears to no longer be functioning.
The top of the kilim remains unfinished to indicate the continuing process of gaining closure following the war. The ritualistic hanging of 99 prayer beads to the kilim edge further acts as a memorial.
“Monument in Waiting” was commissioned by Stroom for the group exhibition Since we last spoke about monuments, curated by Mihnea Mircan. I saw it on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018.
The tale of “Monument in Waiting” by Azra Aksamija
I met with Azra Aksamija to the occasion of the press presentation of one of the most compelling exhibitions I saw…