The Jameel Prize at the V&A: Where Islamic tradition meets contemporary art

12Dec13
Jameel Prize

In the updated version of his book Covering Islam, originally published in 1981, renowned Palestinian writer and intellectual Edward Said voiced concern that “the mere use of the label ‘Islam,’ either to explain or to indiscriminately condemn ‘Islam,’ actually ends up becoming a form of attack, which in turn provokes more hostility between self-appointed Muslim and Western spokespersons.” Said added that what is known in the West as “‘Islam’ defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world.”

Said wrote this passage in 1997. Four years later, Al-Qaeda’s attacks against New York City and Washington DC made this problem of misrepresentation even more acute. The Western mainstream collectively blamed Islamic nations, communities and individuals for the attacks, as well as ‘Islam’ itself, resulting in pre-emptive wars and acts of aggression throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This so-called war on terror heightened the attack against Islam by establishing a deeply flawed ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’ framework that not only distorts Islam and obscures its myriad expressions, but also further entrenches Western imperialism and its global system of violence, inequality and oppression.

Thus today, Said’s concern is as relevant as it was more than three decades ago. This is one of the reasons why the award-winning Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid decided to launch the Jameel Prize in 2009, an international award for contemporary art, crafts and design inspired by the Islamic tradition. The work of the ten artists and designers shortlisted for this year’s prize is currently on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.

According to the V&A’s web site, the aim of the Jameel Prize is “to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.” This year’s exhibition of shortlisted nominations features the work of international artists and designers from Azerbaijan, France, India, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The prize and touring exhibition have been organised by the V&A in partnership with the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALICI) project based in Saudi Arabia. The prize was conceived after the 2006 redesign and redisplay of the V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.

The president of ALICI, Fady Jameel, explains in the press statement that: “Over the centuries Islamic culture has been known for its strong influence. Our aim with the Jameel Prize is to encourage artists globally to continue exploring the roots of Islam and the role of its traditions in the world today expressed through art, whether it is in the form of traditional or contemporary artwork, craft or design.”
Renata Papsch from ALICI further elaborated to MEMO that the prize aims to show Islam, or better put the multiple expressions of Islam, in many different contexts, countering the negative stereotypes while also illustrating how Islamic art today bridges contemporary art and the Islamic traditions. She also noted that many of the artists featured in the exhibition are highlighting the everyday concerns of people who are living in parts of the world that are often hyper-politicised by Western media, discourses and policies.

On Tuesday evening, this year’s prize was awarded to the Turkish fashion label Dice Kayek, founded by sisters Ece and Ayşe Ego. They will share the £25,000 cash award for their collection ‘Istanbul Contrast,’ which features fashion designs inspired by Istanbul’s architectural and artistic heritage. The collection includes three pieces: Caftan, an intricate hand-woven lamé brocade coat inspired by one of the city’s most powerful rulers; Dome 2, a simple but elegant white coat made of folded cotton that embodies the domes and mosques of Istanbul; and Hagia Sophia, a gorgeous satin coat, featuring hand stitched embroidery and ancient glass beads, and inspired by the Byzantine mosaics in the former Greek Orthodox church that was later transformed into an imperial mosque.

Speaking to MEMO, Dice Kayek explained that their aim is to describe the architecture of Istanbul in clothing, while also celebrating the city’s rich diversity. Here, clothing is imagined to be a material expression of one’s personality. Thus in their work, the sisters illustrate how East meets West in Istanbul through creativity, respect and understanding. For example, in their piece Hagia Sophia, the sisters incorporated the wings of Archangel Gabriel, who is revered as an angel in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, into the design of the coat along with French beads from the 1920s and hand embroidery to form patterns that were inspired by one of Istanbul’s most famous mosques.
And the work of the other shortlisted artists is equally impressive. For the first time, an artist from Saudi Arabia is being featured in the exhibition. Indeed two works by the calligrapher Nasser Al-Salem are on display. The first is a pen and ink representation of the Arabic letters Kaf and Lam, which together spell the title of the work, the word Kul, meaning all or every. The artist reproduced the letters on a diminishing scale to suggest infinity and all-inclusiveness. Al-Salem told MEMO that this work is inspired by the following verses in the Holy Qur’an: “Everyone upon the earth will perish; And there will remain the Face of your Lord, Owner of Majesty and Honour.” Through this work Al-Salem aims to show the ephemerality of life as well as offer a critique of our attachment to materialist possessions, while also asserting that God is infinite and eternal.

Al-Salem’s second work is also inspired by a verse from the Holy Qur’an, entitled Guide Us upon the Straight Path. The artist communicated this message by incorporating the Arabic script of the verse into the reading of an actual heart monitor, and then reproducing this screen as a print. Al-Salem described to MEMO that he wishes to illustrate how all humans, regardless of their faith or philosophy, seek to follow the right path in their lives, a desire and commitment which is best represented by the simple beating of our hearts.

Al-Salem further explained that all his work is inspired by the philosophical underpinnings of early Islamic art. His aim is to inspire Muslims to return to the original message of the Qur’an as a source of meditation and prayer. At the same time, he is also fashioning his work as a critique of contemporary practices of Islam, which he believes have deviated from the faith’s traditions of actively engaging with science, philosophy and the human condition.

Another shortlisted artist also developed this theme of a shared universality among humans, but in this case one that is violently fragmented. The work of French artist Laurent Mareschal focuses in particular on how Palestinian lives and experiences have become disrupted and fractured under occupation. To illustrate this, he created an installation of the floor tiles in a Palestinian home that are made out of everyday materials – spices. Entitled Beiti, or my home in Arabic, Mareschal seeks to communicate the lived realities of Palestinians. So, for example, the tiles are worn out in certain areas to reflect that lives are being lived there, as they have been living there for generations, despite Zionist narratives suggesting otherwise. At the same time these tiles are made out of transient materials that reflect the Palestinian experiences of displacement, demolition and exile.

Speaking to MEMO, Mareschal described how his interest in highlighting Palestinian narratives evolved out of his own experiences living in West Jerusalem before the second intifada erupted, during which time he was employed in everyday jobs, for example as a chef or a cleaner, working alongside Palestinians whose narratives he had never heard before. He explained how some of the Palestinians he worked with in Jerusalem dreaded leaving their homes each day for fear that they would be demolished or occupied while they were gone.

At the same time, Mareschal pointed out that he also wants to stress, via both the materials he used to construct the tiles – everyday spices – and the patterns of the tiles themselves, that these are lives that share many of the same human experiences as anybody else. Smell is perhaps our most evocative sense and affects us all in similar ways, while the patterns on the tiles were actually exported to Palestine from Europe, and since then have been imported back again, suggesting a timeless circularity in contemporary life.

While many of the artists featured in the exhibition shortlist countered stereotypes of Muslims and Islam by seamlessly incorporating different faith traditions or illustrating the universality of the human condition, other artists shortlisted for the prize chose to engage in a more localised critique of society. For example Mounir Fatmi from Morocco, whose brilliant work Modern times: A history of the machine features circular compositions of Arabic texts as the wheels of a machine to symbolise the modern dystopia of many urban centres in the Middle East, where ramshackle cities grow without stopping in the face of vast and elaborate prestige projects that symbolise money and power.

The other works featured in the exhibition all reflect different interpretations of how the meeting of Islam, tradition and contemporary art is unfolding in today’s world. They include: Azerbaijani artist Faig Ahmed, who crafted stunning carpets by hand that reconfigure conventional designs in disruptive ways; Lebanese designer Nada Debs, who created a totally different kind of carpet comprising Arabic fonts but assembled like Japanese floor mats; Indian designer Rahul Jain, who reinterpreted classic animal themes intricately woven into silk textiles; Pakistani artist Waqas Khan, whose pointillist miniatures are so precise that he has to hold his breath while creating them; French artist Florie Salnot, who worked with women in the refugee camps of the Western Sahara to convert plastic bottles into traditional golden jewellery using simple tools, spray paint and sand; and Lebanese designer Pascal Zoghbi, who has innovated a collection of Arabic fonts for printing.

Admission to the exhibition is free. The Jameel Prize will run at the V&A until April 2014, and then travel around the world, showing in museums in Russia, Malaysia and Sharjah.

All images are (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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