The Jameel Prize, Victoria & Albert Museum | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
The Jameel Prize, Victoria & Albert Museum
Biennial award for art inspired by an Islamic aesthetic
Hadie Shafdie, Iranian-born and now living in America, uses phrases and words taken from mystical Sufi poetry, incantations of sequences of the names of the divine. She handwrites and prints the devotions, usually spoken or chanted, on thousands of tiny scrolls in a broad spectrum of beguiling colours. The paper is rolled into circles of varying sizes, with the Farsi script almost entirely hidden, and tightly packed into wall-hanging glazed wooden vitrines. The resulting two pieces – 22500 Pages and 26000 Pages, both created this year - are captivating, echoing in stasis the physical act of ecstatic recitation, expressing something of Sufism, the mystical and esoteric forms of Muslim worship. No whirling dervishes here, although they too are Sufi.
These are among the pieces in various media on exhibit from the 10 shortlisted artists and designers for the 2011 Jameel Prize, which will be announced on 12 September. The Jameel family donated the wherewithal for the magical transformation in 2006 of the gallery housing the prize exhibits of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Islamic collection. Two years ago they initiated a competition to take place every other year: £25,000 for an artist or designer whose work is inspired by an Islamic aesthetic. The artists themselves may come from anywhere in the world, and any ethnic or religious background. Their personal faith (or lack of it) and family is irrelevant; what is crucial is their ability creatively to reinterpret for today any aspect of the arts of Islam, and in any material.
The shortlist is chosen from hundreds of artists nominated worldwide by a broad group of experts who each may suggest up to five names. There is a changing panel of judges, this year including Afruz Amighi, whose hauntingly beautiful hanging 1001 Pages - made from plastic of the kind used for temporary tents in refugee camps, perforated with a fascinating and mesmerising repetition of symbolic Islamic forms - won the Jameel Prize in 2009, and is now in the permanent collection of the V&A.
It is particularly appropriate that this celebration of contemporary Islamic art should be at the V&A, which in the 1850s became the first museum in the world systematically and purposefully to collect Islamic material. The arts of Islam were seen by far-sighted scholars as a crucial part of the V&A’s mission to show the world’s finest art as examples to raise the standards of design in Britain. The systematic use of repetitive forms, and the extraordinarily imaginative exploitation of particular and at times restrictive visual vocabulary for brilliant effect - and profound impact - was indeed inspirational.
There are some witty subversions of history. Soody Shafiri’s Fashion Week (2010) (pictured above) digitally manipulates a large-scale photograph of a centuries-old Mughal miniature featuring a cheerfully ceremonial crowd of men and women in a palace courtyard, digitally inserting contemporary women in conventional, conservative Muslim dress on a catwalk in a palace courtyard, surrounded by the painted crowd of Mughal men and women. Shafiri’s Frolicking Women in the Pool (2007) finds several fully clothed swimming figures added to their demure, naked counterparts from a 14th-century miniature: rather innocent shades of the Chapman brothers. In the enormous wooden mock-ups, Migrant 1 and Migrant 8 (2010), the Iraqi Hayv Kahraman gently subverts the “archaeology-awareness” playing cards (I joke not) issued to American soldiers in the hope that irreplaceable vestiges of the cradle of civilisation (Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Hellenistic empires, anyone?) might survive yet another invasion. Her Lion of Babylon (2011) is a richly ornamented and decorative mythical creature, spewing out folded cards each bearing a portrait - the title a reference to a type of tank used by Saddam, and the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
There are big, impressive and affecting embroidered blue-and-white banners hanging in the Jameel gallery itself, by Rachid Koraichi, from an Algerian Sufi family, using Arabic calligraphy and a host of symbols from wheels to abstracted organic shapes, stylised eyes, hands, stars, moons and crescents in blazingly impressive designs (pictured left). It is an elaborate yet distilled homage to 14 masters of Sufism. The youngest artist on view, Noor Ali Chagani, who graduated from art college in Lahore three years ago having studied Mughal painting, now uses as his material of choice miniature terracotta bricks. In Lifeline, what appears to be a textured shawl, the colour of the red earth of the subcontinent, is made up of thousands of threaded tiny bricks, flung to the ground in disciplined profusion.
Turner Prize this isn’t, with no conscious attempt to shock on view. What is fascinating is the way, however, that within the restraints of the criteria individual personality does shine through. The restrictions seem to stimulate the possibilities of various media and message. This select group of artists, from octogenarians to twentysomethings, from North America to Iran, Tunisia to Pakistan, show in diverse ways an ability to use the past to produce original, idiosyncratic and meaningful work. They build on tradition and history – and the more you know the more you see, but I can testify to their appeal to the less informed too - to make something meaningful and new in the here and now.
- The Jameel Prize at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 25 September
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