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The Jameel Prize 2009

Jameel Prize curator Tim Stanley, Senior Curator in the V&A’s Asian Department, offers the background to the Jameel Prize after its launch in 2009. By TIM STANLEY

On 7 July 2009 the first Jameel Prize was awarded to the artist Afruz Amighi, who was born in Iran in 1974 but who has lived in New York since she was three. Amighi’s winning work, 1001 Pages, is a beautiful shadow piece, made by cutting a complex design into a large sheet of woven polyethylene with a stencil burner and projecting light through it and on to the wall behind. The design is based on themes drawn from the Islamic art of Iran, and Amighi won the Jameel Prize precisely because her work reflected the aims of the competition’s founder so well. The Prize is awarded for 21st-century work inspired by Islamic traditions of art, craft and design, and Amighi’s work highlights the interaction between contemporary art and design and the Islamic visual heritage. In doing so, it also shows the excellence that can be achieved in following this path.

The Jameel Prize, worth GBP 25,000 and held once every two years, is organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, known as the V&A. The museum has one of the world’s greatest historical collections of art from the Islamic Middle East, the best of which is now displayed in the Jameel Gallery. The redevelopment of the Gallery, which opened in 2006 to a very positive response, was funded by Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, and when it was complete, he proposed that the museum should highlight the way that the Islamic art, craft and design of the past continues to provide inspiration for artists and designers everywhere.

When the V&A began to collect art from the Islamic world in the 1850s, it was the first institution in the world to do so with a purpose. The museum’s mission was to reform design, and it was thought that Islamic ideas about structuring patterns and matching decoration to shape and function could improve British design, as indeed they did. The idea now was to show that this link between the Islamic art of the past and contemporary practice is still very much alive by organising the Jameel Prize. The biennial Prize would be accompanied by a display of work by the short-listed artists at the museum, and this exhibition would then be available for tour.

The V&A accepted the proposal, and the first cycle is now well under way. After the first Prize was awarded on 7 July, the display of work by the short-listed artists was on view at the V&A until 13 September, in the museum’s new Studio Gallery. The next stage is for the show to be taken to venues in the Middle East, the region chosen for the inaugural tour. While it is away, work will begin on the Jameel Prize 2011.

How does the Jameel Prize work?

The first stage in creating the Jameel Prize was to set up a team with the skills to organise the selection process in collaboration with the V&A’s in-house curator. One member was the Barcelona-based curator Camilla Cañellas, who has a sound knowledge of contemporary arts practice, especially in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. She was joined by Ann Jones, who has run other art and design prizes through her London consultancy, ArtProjects and Solutions, and by the artist Yasmeen Al Awadi. Work began in February 2008.

Entry for the Prize was by nomination, and the team invited up to five nominations from a wide range of specialists with a knowledge of the relevant subject – contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. The net was cast wide enough for the names of more than 100 artists and designers to have been put forward by the deadline in July 2008. The Prize is open to artists and designers of any nationality and any creed, and those nominated for the first competition came from countries as diverse as the USA, Germany, Lebanon, Uzbekistan and China.

The nominees were all invited to submit an application based on work produced in the previous five years, and although the Prize had not yet had a press launch and was almost unknown outside the V&A, no less than 75 artists and designers gave a positive response and made a submission.

In the meantime, Zaha Hadid, the internationally renowned architect, agreed to be Patron of the first Prize, and a panel of judges was recruited. Mark Jones, the Director of the V&A, was to chair the panel, and he was joined by six others: the artists Jananne al-Ani and Parviz Tanavoli, Khaled Azzam from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London, the entrepreneur and collector Ali Yussef Khadra, the independent curator Charles Merewether, and Venetia Porter from the British Museum. The panel met in November 2008 to select the best submissions and produced a short list of nine names.

The existence of the short list meant that the Jameel Prize now had a tangible identity, and the V&A was able to begin promoting the award to the wider world. First came a press conference at the museum in January 2009, and other opportunities followed.

The existence of the short list also triggered the second stage in the Prize process: the creation of the Jameel Prize 2009 exhibition. The display was to be a presentation of contemporary art and design to the general public, but it was also to be the basis on which the judges would select the winner. The nine finalists were invited to take part on this basis, showing either the work for which they were short-listed or from the same series.

From photomontage to diamond rings

To be selected, all the work had to reflect the Islamic traditions of the past, but it could be in any relevant medium. Some of the nine short-listed submissions were based on craft skills such as jewellery, turning wood and intricate cut work in paper – or, in the case of the winner, cut work in plastic. Others employed contemporary techniques such as photomontage and screen-printing and show their Islamic inspiration in the visual themes explored.

The work of Camille Zakharia (bLebanon, 1962) fell into this last category. His geometric designs were influenced by Islamic decorative arts, including carpets and tile mosaic, but they were realized as photocollage and photomontage. One work was an artist’s book from the series Division Lines, in which he produced large collages from photographs of street markings. The designs in the artist’s book, completed in 2006, were artfully assembled from the discarded scraps.

In the work of the nine finalists there was an important role for design traditions such as Zakharia’s geometric patterning, as well as calligraphy in the Arabic script. There were reactions, too, to Islamic architecture, both the varying forms of domed mosques and the way that fierce sunlight is filtered by screens. There were celebrations of the past, and statements about Islam’s place in the modern world.

Architectural inspiration on a surprisingly small scale appears in the accomplished work of the Istanbul Armenian jeweller Sevan Bıçakçı (b1972). In the five finger rings he showed, Bıçakçı evokes the Ottoman architecture of Istanbul. Saray Burnu (Seraglio Point; 2005), for example, shows two dominant features of this part of the city: the sea walls of the Topkapı Palace, depicted in micromosaic, and the domed mosque of Ayasofya, carved in deep intaglio into an aquamarine and then painted.

Bıçakçı’s work is based solidly on tradition, but he has introduced new techniques of intaglio carving, layered painting and gem-setting. A different tradition has been exploited by Susan Hefuna (bGermany, 1962), who has long been fascinated by the screens of turned wood called mashrabiyyah that are used to cover windows in Islamic Cairo. They filter light and allow air to circulate, but also allow women to look out without being seen. Her work on this theme included four drawings in ink from 2006, which were worked out on two layers, tracing paper over cartridge paper. Her fifth work was a large mashrabiyyah screen, shown in the round.

The piece is called Ana, that is, ‘I’ in Arabic, and the word recurs throughout the design in both Arabic and Latin script. The designs of traditional mashrabiyyah screens often include pious phrases in Arabic or Coptic, and Hefuna noted that they seem like patterns or abstract images to those who cannot read them. The words, and the screens themselves, ‘act differently depending on who is reading them and in which cultural context.’

Tradition and modernity

The play between tradition and modernity can also be sensed in the multi-media installation created by Hassan Hajjaj (bMorocco, 1961), which is part of his Le Salon series. This he describes as ‘an interactive social space where furniture and everyday objects made from recycled materials reflect the colour and atmosphere of the souk.’ The wallpaper has a triangular pattern based on the road sign warning drivers of wandering camels. The seats are made of upturned Coca Cola crates, with the brand’s name rendered in magnificent Arabic lettering in the classical thuluth style of calligraphy. Photographs show portraits of a man and a woman in traditional dress, but he is smoking a cigarette, and her veil is a rip off of Louis Vuitton cloth.

In both his photography and his installations, Hajjaj has aimed to create a new aesthetic: ‘Through my work I highlight the power of the image and branding, juxtaposing the iconography of contemporary culture and consumerism with classical references. I include and contrast visual elements of both Islamic and European culture.’

A more fine arts approach, and a more nostalgic relationship with the past, can be seen in the work of the fifth artist, Khosrow Hassanzadeh (bTehran, 1963). He was short-listed for his series Ya Ali Madad, the title of which means, ‘Help, O Ali’; this is a prayer commonly used by Iranians to invoke the help of Ali, the first Imam in Shi’ite Muslim tradition. The works from the series are based on an old photograph of wrestlers holding hands and surrounded by figures identified by Hassanzadeh as,‘a court intellectual, a dervish, a general and a mullah. The wrestlers represent many aspects of Iranian culture that we are losing today. … I want to remind people of their beauty, strength and honour.’ The inscriptions on the paintings include the repeated rendition of the name Ali, which seems to surround and protect the figures, in response to the prayer.

In the case of Hamra Abbas (bKuwait, 1976), the judges had been impressed by her series Please do not step, but previous works had been installed on the floor of the display space, and, despite the title, visitors were expected to walk over them, helping to destroy them. So Abbas had to create a new work for the Jameel Prize, and she responded to the challenge by creating Loss of a magnificent story.

A text in English was glued to the floor between the two halves of the display space, so that, again, visitors had to walk over it, in this case to reach the rest of the exhibition. They thereby became outsiders intervening in the area occupied by the work, just as so many Westerners have intervened in the Islamic world over the last two centuries and more.

Each letter of the text was a work in paper collage: strips of paper bearing the legend, ‘Please do not step’, had been assembled into geometric patterns. At this micro-level, then, the work was evidently Islamic in inspiration, but the text, too, referred to the great Islamic tradition of story-telling and told of its loss. The V&A itself contains images illustrating a lost cycle of stories, The Adventures of Hamza, which were whisked away during the period of British rule in South Asia. The work was, then, designed to work on many levels, ‘narratives within narratives,’ as Abbas describes it.

In the room beyond Abbas’s installation was the work of the three remaining finalists, Seher Shah (bPakistan, 1975), Reza Abedini (bIran, 1967) and Afruz Amighi. Trained as an architect, Seher Shah has lived mostly in Europe and the USA. Her three drawings combine large formal elements with intricate drawing on the scale of Islamic miniature painting, allowing her to sweep the world up into them. In the Interior Courtyard series, for example, courtyards in Granada and New Delhi merge with memories of urban spaces in Zanzibar and Brussels, while the Black Cube series ‘focuses on the geometry of the Cube form in its multiple permutations.’ A key reference is the Ka‘bah in Mecca, the great cube that is the focus for Muslim prayer and pilgrimage.

Reza Abedini, who recently moved to the Netherlands, was the strongest of the graphic designers whose work had been nominated. His work reflects the literary and visual traditions of Iran, and in the four posters shown, these traditions were most obviously reflected in his use of Arabic calligraphy. This was combined with the human form, suggesting human beings as the bearers of thought. His other sources include Iranian architecture, and its contrasts of white and ochre brick, for example, provided the main colours for a poster for Sepideh Farsi’s film Khwab-e khak, called Rêve de sable in French, and Dreams of Dust in English (2003).

The far wall of this second room was occupied by the single work of the winner, Afruz Amighi. The work is very beautiful, but its complex design contains strong references to the violence of recent history: a window grill is broken, and the peacock feathers have no eyes, for example. Even the material from which it is made has a link to the polyethylene sheeting from which it was made is a material used in printmaking, but it is also used in the construction of refugee tents.

Taken together, the work of the nine finalists showed how dynamic Islamic tradition can be, and how complex and eloquent the art and design inspired by this tradition has become. The role of the Prize is to give good work of this kind a higher profile. Certainly, it will help to promote art and design inspired by Islamic traditions to potential patrons. More importantly, though, it will provide examples of good practice to craftsmen, artists and designers who are working in this area or would like to be. They will see that these great traditions can have a vivid relevance to the contemporary world.

Author: Editor

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