CLAREMONT, CA — Sahara: Acts of Memory, on view at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, explores how graphic design can transform the way we understand and relate to others. Split between two galleries, the exhibition reinterprets the experiences of graphic designer Amir Berbić, who, with his parents and younger brother, spent over a year in a Denmark refugee camp after the war in Bosnia displaced them from their home in Sarajevo. To instill a sense of community and belonging in their new environment — the families lived in tents set up on a sandy plot of land nestled within the Danish countryside — Berbić’s father, Ismet, named the camp “Sahara” and designed a logo of a yolk-yellow rising sun against pyramidal forms. 

The name and logo appeared on a welcome sign near the camp’s entrance, all in an effort to build a cohesive identity in the face of dehumanizing circumstances. (In addition, Ismet created signs with names of the residents for each tent, reclaiming some humanity stripped by the identification numbers they were given.) Along with Berbić’s mother, Hika, the two also ran a school for the children at the camp and organized social gatherings. 

One of the museum’s galleries recreates the dimensions of the tent the Berbićs lived in with two other families. Gray lines mark out the exact placement of bunk beds, lockers, and a communal table. Berbić designed the room from memory. The walls are plastered with ephemera from their year in Sahara — newspaper articles detailing Ismet’s branding of the camp; drawings that Ismet created in his makeshift studio; and a Danish television interview with Hika and Ismet about being forced to leave Sarajevo and their new life in Sahara. Memory becomes embodied in this room, as Berbić attempts to sift through his own history of movement and change.

Installation view of Sahara: Acts of Memory at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, November 11, 2021–February 27, 2022 (photo by David Hartwell)

Berbić was prompted to revisit his father’s design work when he came across media images of Syrian and Iraqi refugees seeking asylum in European countries in 2015. Like the numbers given to refugees at the camp, these images often spread toxic narratives about people dispossessed of their homes and livelihoods more than they humanize the people and their experiences. In response to the present crisis, Berbić created posters and textbooks that draw on his childhood in Sahara, memories that counter the hostile rhetoric surrounding refugees. 

One series of posters reimagines various social events held at Sahara, including an open house, a fish dinner, and a protest for Bosnia. The designs are dynamic and vivid, much like how we may imagine the people who lived there. In “Disco Night” (2021), those swirling patterns evoke the euphoria of dancing all night under pulsating lights. A series of textbooks recall the school organized by Hika and Ismet; though, instead of geography or math lessons, its pages are filled with lyrical memories of the artist’s childhood. For Berbić, honoring the memory of Sahara demonstrates the transformative power of design and creation.

Installation view of Sahara: Acts of Memory at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, November 11, 2021–February 27, 2022 (photo by David Hartwell)
Installation view of Sahara: Acts of Memory at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, November 11, 2021–February 27, 2022 (photo by David Hartwell)

Sahara: Acts of Memory continues at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College (120 West Bonita Avenue, Claremont, California) through February 27. The exhibition was curated by Karen Kice.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Title IX celebrates 50 years, the trouble with pronouns, a writer’s hilarious response to plagiarism allegations, and much more.

Allison Conner

Allison Conner's writing has appeared in Bitch, Full Stop, Triangle House Review, and elsewhere. She writes about movies and books at loosepleasures.substack.com