Art Radar has a look at the Jameel Prize 5 exhibition at the V&A in London.
The Jameel Prize recognises artists who explore traditional Islamic influences through contemporary art. Worth GBP25,000, the Prize is open to contemporary artists and designers from all around the world and entry is by nomination, recommended by a wide range of specialists.
Much has been said and written about the importance that Western art institutions and museums expand their scope to contemporary art and design practices that go beyond the hegemony of the West that still persists. And yet, little has been done to challenge the way that institutions approach non-Western practices – if at all; more often than not, the Western canon remains a truth claim, resulting in a marginalisation and exoticisation of art practices that do not draw from euro-centric art history, craft or religion. Often, this art is read and presented through a western lens. Modernist views and power structures remain unquestioned.
The Jameel Prize’s objective is to challenge this. A collaboration between London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Art Jameel, the prize is awarded biannually since 2009. Worth GBP25,000, and aims at recognising contemporary artists and designers who are inspired by the history and ongoing heritage of the Islamic tradition. Making these practices visible strives to support an understanding of the place Islamic culture has in the world.
The V&A itself began collecting Islamic art over 150 years ago with the objective to inspire British design, while Dubai-based organisation Art Jameel supports artists and creative communities by collaborating with local and international institutions and founding heritage institutes, supporting restoration, and launching educational programmes in order to develop cultural networks.
Open to international participants through nomination, Jameel Prize is accompanied by an exhibition, showing the work of the artists and designers who have been shortlisted. Now in its fifth iteration, the prize was, for the first time, awarded to two joint winners on 27 June 2018: artist Mehdi Moutashar and architect Marina Tabassum. The six other finalists whose works is being shown at the V&A are Kamrooz Aram, Hayv Kahraman, Hala Kaiksow, naqsh collective, Younes Rahmoun and Wardha Shabbir, selected by the jury out of 375 nominations.
The judging panel was chaired by V&A’s Director Tristam Hunt, joined by Tim Stanley and Salma Tuqan, curators of the museum’s collection of Islamic Middle Eastern art, as well as independent design historian Tanya Harrod and November Paynter from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto. Part of the panel were also winner of Jameel Prize 4, Islamic miniature painter Ghulam Mohammad, and Salah Hassan of Cornell University, who stressed the finalists’ diversity, and their aptness in interacting with the current discourse on contemporary art while still showing their cultural connections.
The artists prove a critical awareness and engagement with the hegemony of modernism in the western art tradition, and know to position themselves through their work, showing that contemporary art and design in the Islamic tradition is rich and diverse.
Entering the V&A’s Porter Gallery, the viewer finds the garments by Bahrain-based fashion designer Hala Kaiksow. She was born 1990 in Bahrain, and is working in Manama, where she runs her own sustainable womenswear label. Her mannequins wear the sculptural pieces from her Wandress-collection (2015) like an armour, made from hand-woven fabrics and held in natural colours, like wool and denim, but also materials like latex.
They are contemporary collages of shapes found in traditional workwear and garments from all over the world – Kaiksow’s Arab heritage, but also places as far as rural Japan, or the clothes of the nomadic Berber people. Shepherd’s coats are combined with patterns based on Islamic geometry and kimonos. The extensive research behind her work is demonstrated in a book of collages, sketches and notes. Clothes are understood as part of identity – often from cultures that place women in their centre, valuing their craft. Kaiksow also pays close attention to the qualities of the fabrics she is using, both in its natural state, but also in the ways it is and has been processed for generations, such as the tradition of dyeing fabrics with indigo, or the local weaving culture in Bahrain. In fact, while she taught herself to weave, she now collaborates with local makers that are part of Bahrain’s weaving culture, ensuring sustainability. Slowing down the making process, reusing and mending: these are values that have continued throughout history, and Kaiksow stresses that “it still makes sense to make garments that live with you throughout your life.”
Turning left from Kaiksow’s work, visitors are be confronted with Hayv Kahraman’s paintings. Born 1981 in Iraq, she studied in Florence, trained in a system that was built on the hegemony of European art history. This is what Kahraman seeks to challenge in her art: living and working in Los Angeles, she asks at times uncomfortable questions regarding gender, migration and the diaspora. She actively engages with non-western art and techniques, foremost Islamic art, but also Japanese woodblock printing, and contrasts this with forms taken from the Italian Renaissance. Her work demonstrates a confident use of Islamic patterns, thick brushstrokes and a familiarity with the materials she works with, which incorporate a non-traditional engagement with the canvas in cutting and weaving it.
The Translator (2015), oil on beige linen, from the series How Iraqi Are You?, is inspired by ancient Arabic manuscripts, reviving history from the diaspora, but also recalls Kahraman’s mother, working as a translator for refugees in Sweden. The other work on show, House in Gaylani (2014), an oil on wood, is based on her childhood home in Baghdad, the floorplan of the traditional house showing the spatial segregation of gender.
Following along the walls of the gallery, visitors come upon Marina Tabassum’s work, one of the winners. Born in 1969 in Bangladesh and having studied architecture at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, she is now the head of Marina Tabassum Architects, a practice based in Dhaka, where she lives and works. The company is built on a global architectural language that engages locally in a holistic approach, encompassing climate, material, site, culture and history.
Her entry for Jameel Prize, the Bait ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, realised 2012 in a densely inhabited part of the city, demonstrates this: a place of worship and community, its architecture also brings the traditional brickwork used in mosques in Bengal in 14th-16th century into the present. This not only happened for aesthetic reasons: “My buildings need to breathe,” she says, which means that the brickwork is not only used for aesthetic reasons: the climate, local customs, light and ventilation play an important part in planning. She engages with the materiality of light, which creates an atmosphere allowing the building to become a space of spiritual encounter.
In the exhibition there are an architectural model and floor plans, showing engagement with geometry and the simplicity of the shapes Tabassum used to create the mosque, while photographs give a sense of the light making its way through the openings of the building, imbuing the space with its glow.
Just like Hayv Karakan, Kamrooz Aram (born 1978 in Shiraz), challenges the western canon from a position of having known both worlds: the Iranian artist lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His work questions the modernist view of Islamic art being mostly decorative. Focusing on the formal way of exhibiting art objects from the past in Western art galleries in museums, he thematises the way that those objects are isolated and being put in new, contemporary context, often interpreted from a western perspective and not allowing them to speak their history.
Aram emphasises that objects are more than just decorative: even in their isolation, they can still contain meaning. The way they are installed is part of this, and his work aims at making this visible, formally mirroring a museum display as if in a mise-en-abyme. The architectural installation Ephesian Fog (2016) shows an attunement to formal qualities of both object and the way it is exhibited. Ancient Through Modern 26 and Ancient Through Modern 28 (both 2017) contain postcards demonstrating how the representation of historic museum objects through photographic means changed our understanding for them.
In the centre of the exhibition, displayed in a low chamber creating an intimate setting, is installed Younes Rahmoun‘s Tâqiya Nôr [HatLight] (2016). Rahmoun, who was born in Tetouan, Morocco, in 1975, is strongly influenced by his faith, as his work demonstrates. Working in diverse media, from installation to drawing, but also new technologies, he references the geometry, patterns and numbers found in Islamic art. To him, odd numbers, such as 3 and 7 cannot be divided and reference infinity. All parts of his work relate to Islam, especially to Sufi mysticism.
All this is to be found in Rahmoun’s work in the exhibition: not only is the installation oriented towards Mecca, but the 77 hand-knitted hats, a piece of clothing signalling modesty, are all different and stand for the infinity of iterations of Islam. Made by a local craftsman, they cover electric lights, so they glow from the inside. The wires form a tree–like structure create ten groupings, as if to say that despite the differences within a faith, ultimately it is a religion that is shared.
After the abstact works of Mousashar’s, visitors encounter Wardha Shabbir‘s work. Born 1987 in Pakistan and trained as a miniature painter in the Islamic tradition in Lahore, where she still lives and works, her aim is to bring this tradition into the contemporary. The process of making art to her is spiritual, from an emotional engagement with colour and working with time and silence to feel the innate energy of the process, leading to a self-awareness that life and creation both call for constant decisions that she reflects in her painting.
Her work in miniature painting takes its roots in South Asian manuscripts depicting paradises, and she intensely engages with the idea of the Islamic garden. From this, she created her own language and symbolism – hedges that are trimmed into geometric shapes represent self-imposed boundaries that still allow for pathways along them, while the dragonflies stand for fleetingness.
The display engages with the museum space, when the floral pattern contained in the frames seem to spill over and are continued on walls and floors. Drawing is no longer confined to paper, aware of the third dimension, allowing the viewer to experience the works with the magnifying glasses provided.
The exhibition closes with naqsh collective, which consists of Amman-born sisters Nisreen and Nermeen Abudail, architect and graphic designer respectively. While Nisreen Abudail still resides in Amman, Nermeen lives in Dubai. Like Hala Kaiksow’s work, naqsh collective’s work is based on intensive research into visual traditions, visualised in a sketchbook. They engage with the tradition of embroidery, like that of Palestine, which is about passing on techniques, developing one’s own visual language and finally a way of storytelling. Embroidery is a way to conserve and communicate identity. But it is also a point of departure for naqsh collective. In their work, embroidery is, through contemporary techniques, such as laser-cutting and digital translation, transported into the present. Asking how the patterns can be conserved in everlasting materials, they began to embroider building materials, like stone and wood, resulting in a development of a contemporary visual language, “taking care” of the tradition living on.
The sculptural piece in the exhibition, Shawl (2015), is based on a well-worn garment, symbolising the hardship of the Palestinian people, and is made from walnut wood embroidered with brass elements and finished by hand, to attain the quality of smoothness that a fabric shawl would hold.
Jameel Prize 5 is on view from 28 June to 25 November 2018 at Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL, UK. The exhibition will travel to Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai next spring.
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