Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics exhibition showcases Islamic creative traditions at London's Victoria and Albert Museum

Jameel Prize 2021: Finalist exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum [Photo Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum]
6 min read
20 October, 2021

Many of the works of art by the eight finalists of the Jameel Prize for design inspired by Islamic tradition either make a political statement or pay tribute to a loved one who has made an impact on the designers’ lives.

Their unique creations are brought together in a fascinating exhibition Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum which includes graphic design, fashion, typography, textiles, printmaking and architecture. 

In an 18 minute video, each designer (Golnar Adili from Iran, Hadeyeh Badri from the UAE, Kallol Datta from India, Farah Fayyad from Lebanon, Ajlan Gharem from Saudi Arabia, Sofia Karim from Britain,  Jana Traboulsi from Lebanon and Bushra Waqas Khan from Pakistan) describes his/her work and its message.

Art Jameel supports artists and creative communities. Founded by the Jameel family philanthropies, the organisation is headquartered in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and works globally. There were 400 entries for the £25,000 Jameel Prize.

Jana Traboulsi’s Kitab Al-Hawamish [Karen Dabrowski]
Jana Traboulsi’s Kitab Al-Hawamish [Karen Dabrowski]

“We’re ten years and five editions on, and the Jameel Prize has established itself,” said Rachel Denman from the V&A who curated this year’s edition. “We felt we wanted to make two changes. The first was to give it a thematic focus. This year, it is design, but it could change according to the medium or ideas in the future. And the second was to open to more practitioners, to make it more democratic and to reach people who before had been underrepresented in the prize.”

The winner was Ajlan Gharem whose installation Paradise Has Many Gates, references the eight gates to heaven described in the Quran. The artwork replicates the design of a traditional mosque but is made of the chicken wire used for border fences and refugee detention centres.

Ajlan Gharem's "Paradise Has Many Gates", the winner of the 2021 Jameel Prize [Karen Dabrowski]
Ajlan Gharem's "Paradise Has Many Gates", the winner of the 2021 Jameel Prize [Karen Dabrowski]

“My work focuses on the balance of power between the individual and the state, and more particularly, on my generation’s ability to create change,” Gharem explained. The cage structure is commonly used to keep the unauthorized out, or the imprisoned in. The installation may evoke feelings of imprisonment despite being transparent.

Muslims and non-Muslims are invited to commune inside the mosque and question their relationship with sacred spaces and reflect on how behaviours can differ between different cultures and generations. In the Quran, it is said that there are eight gates to paradise. The aim of my installation is to make people think about how in our societies, we all can find the gates that will lead us to paradise.”

The work of Farah Fayyad, Sofia Karim and Kallol Datta is an artistic reflection on political events.

In October 2019 thousands of people took to the streets in Beirut to protest against government corruption and a growing economic crisis. Fayyad a graphic designer fascinated by Arabic calligraphy and passionate about screen-printing installed a manual screen-printing press at the heart of the protests and printed political slogans and artworks by local designers onto protestors’ clothes free of charge. The spontaneous project used design as a mode of political and social engagement in a public space.

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Sofia Karim uses designs on samosa packets as a form of resistance to campaign against the imprisonment of her uncle the photographer Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh. He was charged with tarnishing the image of the nation after making provocative comments in an Al-Jazeera interview. The designs also feature the peaceful, women-led mass protests held in December 2019 in the Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, against the Indian government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (the act offers amnesty to immigrants from three neighbouring countries to India, but excludes Muslims).

“I began to make samosa packets which tell a story and I hope that one day I will disperse them on the streets,” Karim explained. “This is a form of protest and a form of resistance. The news will come directly to the people rather than being filtered through the state media.”

Kallol Datta a clothing designer from Kolkata who grew up in the UAE and Bahrain and became fascinated by clothing from Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent experiments with pairing and layering pieces from abayas, hijabs and caftans to create dynamic silhouettes on the body.

Kallol Datta's multilayered, multitextured clothing designs [Karen Dabrowski]
Kallol Datta's multilayered, multitextured clothing designs inspired by the Indian subcontinent [Karen Dabrowski]

“Each layer of a garment has a different meaning,” Datta said.  “My work tries to show that clothing has been used as a tool by the dominant majority to oppress and subjugate minorities. When elected officials occupying the highest political offices in the country single out a particular caste, ethnicity or religion on the basis of their clothing donning an item of clothing becomes a political act.”

Golnar Adili and Hadeyeh Badri used their art to reflect on a loving relationship with a family member and to tell a personal story. An artistic dialogue is established with the person who has passed away and the designers pay tribute to the relationship through the artwork. The repetitive laborious process these projects required enabled the designers to work through their grief.

Hadeyeh Badri used the loom to weave tapestries memorialising her aunt, Shahnaz who died from Parkinson’s disease.  She was her aunt’s carer and wove texts and drawings from her aunt’s diary into bright tapestries, using the curvature of the thread to shadow that of Arabic script; other tapestries pick up the colour palette of dull greens and blues of hospital stays.

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“In my work, I use her handwriting and quotes from her diary to say things back to her and I want to continuously have a conversation with my aunt to remember her. For me, weaving is the closest thing to an embrace because when you weave you are working with your whole body and for me weaving united gesture, memory and touch, “Badri said.

The project shared resonances with Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter an installation by Golnar Adili about her late father, an activist in Iran. He made photocopies of all of his letters – as if he was hoping someone would find them, she says – and she pored through them after he died. She noticed that the "yes" – the last letter of the Farsi alphabet –  differed in the length and the angle of their slant, and began to scrutinise the letters as if they were an “emotional graph” giving insight into the emotions hidden between the lines.

Golnar Adili's "Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter" [Karen Dabrowski]
Golnar Adili's "Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter" [Karen Dabrowski]

She traced each ye onto Japanese paper, and then meticulously cut them out, arranging them in a line on twig-thin wooden sticks. The work has the air of elegant fragility, like a carefully balanced disposition hiding its ready potential for collapse.

“My father as an activist had to leave Iran. I wanted to know my history, I wanted to know his history. I wanted to know exactly what happened and I wanted to process this. For me it was a process of healing,” Adili said.

Jana Traboulsi’s publication Kitab Al-Hawamish reworks the layered character of historic Arabic manuscripts in innovative contemporary form.

Bushra Waqas Khan creates elaborate miniature dresses which use affidavit paper as the source of their patterns. As affidavit paper is closely associated with items of value and property by using it for her dresses Khan challenges patriarchal culture and the notion that women are possessions to be owned.

Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics is on at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum until 28 November 2021.

Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July.

Follow her on Twitter: @KarenDabrowska1