Contemporary Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition


The fifth biennial Jameel Art Prize exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a display of talent from artists around the world who are inspired by Islamic art and design.

The Jameel Art Prize has become one of the most prestigious awards for contemporary artists and designers, and is one of the few awards in the global art world that focuses on Islamic art.

The prize was founded by the Dubai and Saudi Arabia-based organization Art Jameel in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum ten years ago after the completion of the museum’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. The museum, better known as the V&A, has focused on the practice of design from its establishment in the 1850s and claims to be the first institution in the world to start purposefully collecting Islamic art, in the belief that the patterns and designs of  Islamic arts and crafts could serve as a catalyst for improving British design.

Seeking to highlight a wide range of work, the Jameel Art Prize casts a wide net each time it has run, allowing not only an interesting mix of different art media to be shown side by side, but also successfully showing how Islamic design philosophy continues to take new forms. The prize has stimulated a larger creative conversation and opened opportunities for collaborations among artists, curators and museums such as the V&A.

Marina Tabassum Prayer Hall Bait ur Rouf Mosque Dhaka-Bangladesh,2012 (Photo: Sandro de Carlo Darsa).

At a moment when both museums and academic institutions are seeking to redefine and expand what was once a narrowly defined concept of Islamic art, the Jameel Art Prize sets out to support and explore the relationship between Islamic art history and contemporary art practice. It awards a prize of £25,000 (currently worth about $32,800) to a winner chosen from a short list of finalists, who themselves were selected from a field of hundreds of applicants nominated by artists, designers, curators and cultural figures from around the world.

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Two Top Winners

This year the top prize was jointly awarded to an artist from Iraq and an architect based in Bangladesh.

The winning artist, Mehdi Moutashar, was recognized for abstract pieces inspired by Islamic geometry and calligraphy, as well as the geometric abstracted style he encountered when he first moved to Paris in the 1960s.

The architect, Marina Tabassum, was honored for her design of a mosque built in Dhaka in 2012 called Bait ur Rouf, which incorporates a traditional building style and materials to create a gathering place for the community.

The other finalists were Kamrooz Aram, an Iranian artist based in New York; Hayv Kahraman, a Kurdish-Iraqi painter who lives and works in Los Angeles; Hala Kaiksow, a Bahraini fashion designer; Younes Rahmoun, a Moroccan multi-media artist; Wardha Shabbir, a Pakistani painter; and the Naqsh Collective, founded by two Jordanian sisters and designers, Nisreen and Nermeen Abudail.

This year’s edition of the Jameel Art Prize marks several firsts: It is the first time the top prize has been split between two finalists and the first time it has been awarded to an architect. This year is also the first time nominations for work from Bangladesh, Bahrain and Jordan have been offered.

Some 375 entrants from around the world submitted recently completed artworks or projects to this year’s competition.

The selection of the artists for this year’s short list of finalists “expands our horizons of what modernity and contemporaneity truly mean, and enriches our understanding of a truly globalized art world beyond its current confines,” Salah M. Hassan, a member of the prize jury, said in a news release. Hassan is a professor of African and Islamic art history at Cornell University, in New York.

Installation from Jameel Art Prize exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Photo: V&A).

Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, served as chair of the prize jury. Other members of the judging panel were Tanya Harrod, an independent design historian living in London; November Paynter, director of programs at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art; and Ghulam Mohammad, a Pakistani artist who was winner of the Jameel Prize 4.

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A Thought-Provoking Exhibition

The jury’s selection of eight works was thoughtfully presented in an exhibition curated by Tim Stanley, the museum’s senior curator of art from the Islamic Middle East, and Salma Tuqan, its curator of contemporary art and design from the Middle East. Their presentation allows visitors to understand the nfluence of Islamic art on each artist’s individual approach, and highlights how each artist is part of a larger artistic dialogue.

Short videos on each artist and their practice are shown at the entrance of the exhibition, and are well worth watching for the insights the artists offer about their points of inspiration.

Thought-provoking pieces from the exhibition include Kamroom Aram’s Ephesian Fog (2016), part of a series of works in which he encourages viewers to question how museums have historically presented Islamic art.  Aram’s work shows how a notion of antiquation was imposed on Islamic art, removing its contemporary relevance. Inspired by works in the Islamic galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Aram successfully reinterprets Islamic design in a mixed-media work that juxtaposes small objects against a wall painted in bold shades of Christmas red and green. The viewer is forced to consider how Islamic geometry and abstract geometric forms in contemporary art share more in common conceptually than has been previously observed.

The Naqsh Collective’s shortlisted piece, Shawl (2015), is a large sculptural creation that’s neither a piece of furniture nor a simple art object, but a plane on which rests the possibility of both. Made of walnut wood, it is inspired by the patterns of Palestinian embroidery, which have been laser-cut into the wood. The work evokes the cross-stitched patterns on a shawl that has been lovingly long-used and worn. In some places, the motifs are clear to the eye; in others, they are so shallowly etched as to appear flat and almost erased.

Two works from the series Ancient through Modern(2016)MultimediaCourtesy of the artist and Green Art Gallery, Dubai.

The motif of Palestinian embroidery has been used repeatedly by Palestinian and other Arab artists to allude to the Palestinian struggle, but here, it pays homage to the rich cultural heritage of the Palestinian people by suggesting that this tradition can maintain a contemporary and cultural relevance, a reminder that the Palestinian people are un-erasable.

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Younes Rahmoun’s exhibition piece presents clusters of traditional Moroccan woven caps resting on a light source, all pointed in the direction of Mecca. Displayed in a specially constructed room in the center of the exhibition, the work subtly alludes to the notion of a sacred space of prayer and worship.

Many of the works in the exhibition are privately owned and on loan to the museum. The museum does, however, try to acquire some works from each prize, the curator Salma Tuqan explains, “as they demonstrate the connection between history and tradition to contemporary society through the innovation and interpretation of contemporary practitioners.”

“The works also echo the V&A’s motivation to find interesting approaches to highlight historic objects in our collections and make them relevant and engaging to our audiences,” Tuqan says.

Perhaps we might see Rahmoun’s piece displayed in the future alongside the V&A’s famous Ardabil Carpet, which the museum describes as the world’s oldest dated carpet and one of the largest.

The Jameel Prize has demonstrated that the patronage of Islamic-inspired art can initiate conversation and learning in new audiences about Islamic-inspired artists and designers from the Middle East and South Asia, through its focus on developing and nurturing talents in the region and among artists in diaspora.

The current exhibition will be on display in London until November 25. After that, it will  travel to the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai which is set to open to the public in mid-November.





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