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Amir Berbić finds identity in design

By Kim Catley

In 1993, when Amir Berbić was 13 years old, he fled his home in Sarajevo along with his parents and his brother Isak. They landed in a refugee camp in Næsbyhoved-Broby, Denmark, where they lived for more than a year.

During that time, Berbić’s father, a graphic designer, created a visual identity for the camp. He named it Sahara, nodding to the sandy grounds and the triangular tents of the camp. The brand was an act of resistance—an effort to reclaim his own identity. He also designed signs for other tents in the camp, signifying the occupations of the residents.

“What very often happens is that refugees are solely identified by being refugees,” says Berbić, now dean of VCUarts Qatar. “They’re often depicted through wide-angle photographs and video footage as indistinguishable masses of people.

“My father was working very hard to resist that depiction, by being a designer and doing what he does best in this situation. All of this feeds into one’s identity, one’s feeling of dignity, in a moment that was quite challenging.”

More than 20 years later, as Berbić saw images of Syrian refugees and migrants along the Southern U.S. border, he began reflecting on his own experiences as a refugee. He was reminded of the sense of being categorized, but also feelings of safety and community.

In an effort to reconstruct his own history, Berbić looked to the same tool his father used to process their experience: graphic design. Berbić redesigned the Sahara logo and expanded the camp’s visual identity. He used design to record his memories of living in the refugee camp, as well as the recollections of his parents and brother. He designed posters for events that took place at the camp as a way of remembering them and textbook covers for the camp’s self-organized school. The design relies on juxtapositions of memories with found imagery and writing, interweaving fact and fiction.

Berbić’s work eventually formed the basis of a new exhibition, Sahara: Acts of Memory, which opened Nov. 11 at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The exhibition is curated by Karen Kice.

While Berbić’s work often involves questions of identity and place, Sahara is his first project that uses design to explore concepts of memory, history, and storytelling. He has previously designed for publishing and editorial clients, and for cultural organizations and museums. While Sahara is a deeply personal project, he says the fundamental elements are often the same as his more client-based projects.

“Graphic design is a practice working with images, words, forms, and content, and organizing them to convey meaning, to present information or to tell a story,” he says. “It’s a function of what [those elements] are applied to, whether it’s for commercial purposes in advertising, or in editorial design, or in branding.

“I have worked in design education for a long time and much of my design work actually arises from an academic perspective—it is driven by ideas rather than the parameters of a client. In the case of Sahara, the application is speculative; it exists in the sphere of critical design, but it also asks questions about the power of design to tell a story about a certain experience.”

While Sahara was an exploration of identity, it was also an exercise in balancing the many elements of Berbić’s identity—most notably those of designer, professor, and administrator. Berbić began work on the project in 2015. At the time, he was also working as a professor, an associate dean and chair of graphic design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Then, in 2019, he was named dean of VCUarts Qatar.

He says it takes a special, concerted effort to carve out time and energy for his own design practice—but it’s also crucial that he does.

“As a professional calling, I’m a designer and educator first, and then an administrator,” he says. “I want to continue to practice as a designer. But it’s also something that is needed in order for me to be relevant and to be able to advocate on behalf of the disciplines and the school that I represent.

“It’s not easy to connect all of these worlds, but I think it’s necessary. This exhibition and finding time to do this work makes me feel optimistic that I can continue to have those worlds come together in the future.”

Lead Image: Sahara: Acts of Memory at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College in Claremont, California.