In 1993, the graphic designer Ismet Berbić and his family fled their home in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. When they arrived at a refugee camp in Naesbyhoved-Brody, Denmark, Ismet immediately recognized the Red Cross flag at the center of the camp. This simple, global symbol spurred Berbić to create an identity specifically for their new locale. He began by naming the camp “Sahara” for the sandy ground on which their tents were erected and set about developing a logo and more—a project now revisited and extended by his son Amir Berbić, also a graphic designer.
Sahara: Acts of Memory shows how this story of displacement and exile is also an opportunity to examine the power of graphic design. Ismet used design to construct an empowered identity, organize the refugee community, and reclaim the dignity and collective value of displaced people. For Amir, who lived in the camp as a child, design is the tool that allows him to shape and express his own mosaic of memory.
Ismet’s graphic identity for the camp included name plates for each of the tents; he also reproduced textbooks for the makeshift school that he and his wife, Hika, organized with the residents for their children. While these designs—and the camp itself—exist now primarily as a memory, they are the foundation for Amir’s redevelopment of his father’s project. In this exhibition, he presents a suite of new designs infused by his own sensibility and recollections: a reimagined logo with new posters, textbook covers, tent plans, and site plans for the camp. Sahara: Acts of Memory embeds these new designs in an immersive installation of personal ephemera and original documentary materials that recall the family’s experience in the camp. This exhibition ultimately asserts that design—optimistic, multi-faceted, multi-functional, and multi-generational—can be both a tool for survival and an act of memory.
The exhibition is accompanied by a publication that further illuminates the process and history of the camp and its identity project. In the lead essay, curator Karen Kice situates this collaborative and trans-generational graphic design project within a broader history of modern design, with specific reference to design solutions oriented to refugee communities. Reflections by Joanne Nucho, assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College, and Wendy Pearlman, professor of political science at Northwestern University, provide insights into the dynamics of refugee communities today. An oral history by the Berbić family will provide testimony for their experience as refugees and how this project impacted their lives.