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Art review: the Jameel Prize show at the V&A

19 October 2018

Jonathan Evens views the Jameel Prize art show at the V&A

Sandro di Carlo Darsa 

The prizewinner Marina Tabassum designed the Prayer Hall, for Bait ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2012

The prizewinner Marina Tabassum designed the Prayer Hall, for Bait ur Rouf Mosque, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2012

THE Jameel Prize is an international art prize for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic tradition. As it is awarded every two years, this being the fifth edition, and, as eight artists were shortlisted with work including architecture, collage, fashion design, installations, painting, and woodcuts, this exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to explore contrasts and differences between art inspired by the Islamic tradition and that inspired by the Christian tradition.

Calligraphy, geometry, and pattern traditionally feature significantly in Islamic art. The latter two feature here but, as the judges note, this year’s outstanding shortlist displays real diversity, including beauty, spirituality, complexity, humour, and humanity. Within this diversity, we find much that resonates with expressions of spirituality within the Christian tradition — in particular, use of light and journeys.

Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Imane FarèsYounes Rahmoun, Tâqiya-Nôr (Hat-light), 2016, multimedia installation  

The painted organic geometric pathways of Wardha Shabbir draw on the ideas that underlie the Islamic garden, and focus on the notion of the spiritual path (siraat): a point of connection with Christian notions of pilgrimage and the path that we take through life. Her display includes two diptychs. The first A Wall (2017) is a metaphor for the boundaries that we draw around ourselves and that we need to cross, while the dragonflies flying around it represent the situations or people we encounter as we pass through life. The second is Raasta (2017), which means “pathway” in Urdu, and is symbolic of a journey to self-awareness and the search for a connection with the divine. The marvellously detailed paintings are bathed in yellow, the colour of light, giving them a floating effect.

Marina Tabassum designed the visionary Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Built in 2012 in a densely inhabited part of the city, its design was inspired by mosques built in Bengal in the Sultanate period (13th to 16th centuries). This building makes wonderful play with geometry, abstraction, light, air, and water, to be both an animated and contemplative space. The prayer hall, with walls of porous brick and light streaming in from skylights casting dappled patterns on the floor, allows the space to remain lit during daylight hours while introducing a strong sense of spirituality.

A circle within a square, the prayer hall uses light to mark the qibla in a similar way to the creation of crosses through light apertures in contemporary churches. As the prayer hall is rotated within the central cylinder to face towards the Kaaba in Mecca, a vertical slit in the wall then provides the qibla as a light line on the floor. Four voids outside the circle, yet within the square, act as courtyards and are a further source of evocative light effects. An architectural model of the mosque and photographs introduce this marvellous building, which brought Tabassum a part-share in the prize, together with the abstract artist Mehdi Moutashar.

Courtesy of Ms Sameera Raja/Photo © Usman JavedWardha Shabbir, A Wall-1, 2017, paper, opaque watercolour  

Light also features in the practice of the multimedia artist Younes Rahmoun. His work references the patterns, geometry, and numbers found in Islamic art, and, in particular, the rich tradition of Sufi mysticism. Rahmoun is showing Tâqiya-Nôr (Hat-light) (2016), an installation made up of 77 hats in coloured wool, all with different patterns, each of which cover a light bulb. Arranged in ten groups in parallel rows, they are all linked to one cable. For Rahmoun, the 77 hats in ten groups allude to the innumerable subdivisions of the Islamic faith in their different groupings, which are, though, all part of one religious community.

This installation has synergies with an installation by Anna Sikorska at St Martin-in-the-Fields of cracked clay lanterns lit by light bulbs from a single electric cord, which illuminated the idea of the church as linked individuals having the light of Christ within.

These points of connection between use of light and pathways demonstrate a universal element to visions of the spiritual, while, at the same time, building appreciation of their specific and individual applications within this varied, creative, and life-affirming exhibition.

“Jameel Prize 5: Shortlist Exhibition” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 25 November 2018. Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk

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