From carpets made of concrete, to the detailed beading on an evening jacket inspired by the ornate architecture of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, The Jameel Prize, whose finalists are currently display at the V&A museum, makes for exciting viewing. Established in 2009 the Jameel prize is an international competition for art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, this year receiving entries from as far flung destinations as Kosovo, Algeria, Norway and Brazil with the £25,000 prize awarded to Turkish sisters and fashion design duo Ece and Ayse Ege, who go by the name Dice Kayek, for their collection of garments entitled Istanbul Contrast. The pieces are visually stunning, and indeed they do draw the eye as the visitor enters the room. Combining powerful structural form with incredible intricate detail the architectural influence is evident- hovering without a wearer they provide the gallery space with its own personal skyline.
However the true enjoyment of this exhibition lies not only with the work of the winners but in the collective talent on display by all ten of the finalists, and the manner in which they both nod to the traditional design practices of Islamic culture and also subvert and adapt them, bringing to the exhibition as a whole a unified feeling of both historical recognition and the freshness of innovation as the artists and designers on show use their work as a mean of communicating highly contemporary messages.
In many ways it seems fitting that the V&A, the location of one of the greatest collections of Islamic art in the world should act as the home for this prize, indeed it takes only a quick wander around the museum’s permanent galleries to see that today’s artists and designers whose work is influenced by Islamic culture have available a rich surviving material history for inspiration should they chose to use it. Ideas surrounding tradition appear to be at the forefront of many of this year’s entries. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the work of Faig Ahmed who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and still lives and works there today. Exploring the traditional craft of Azerbaijani rug making, Ahmed uses digitally developed designs to bring three-dimensional, sculptural elements to his carpets – the object which he describes as probably the most stereotypical of the east. The traditional patterns of the carpets are interrupted by his highly contemporary graphics which play with the eye like pixelated optical illusions to create these provocative and lively pieces.
Ahmed is not the only artist to use the carpet as their focus. In the centre of the exhibition space sits of the work Concrete Carpet by Nada Debs, a furniture and product designer who was born in Japan and now works in Beirut, Lebanon. Stretching across a large section of the gallery the piece takes the form of a large carpet, yet on closer inspection is actually divided into 28 smaller panels all made from a light weight form of concrete each one featuring a different letter from the Arabic alphabet, fringed along the edges with stainless steel beading. With its prominent central position and the manner in which the subtle mother or pearl inlay catches the light, it is almost impossible not to draw comparisons with the vast Ardabil carpet which lies, as if in state, in the gallery just across the corridor. This sixteenth century carpet is one of the world’s oldest and largest examples and is (rather poetically) only lit for ten minutes on the hour and half hour marks in order the preserve its delicate colours.
For some of the finalists every day materials and substances play an important role in their work, with the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary. With the work of French artist Laurent Mareschal, it takes a second look to realize that the beautiful geometric floor tiles, made up of a warm palette of yellows and oranges, are actually formed from a variety of spices meticulously stenciled into patterns. Palestine has acted as an inspiration for his work which is concerned with ‘the impermanence of our lives’. In a short film created to accompany the exhibition, Mareschal describes his work as ephemeral, often his installations are designed as site specific, lasting only a short time before the fine layers if dusty spices are swept away, their powerful scents intended to provoke memory.
Unexpected materials are also key within the work of designer Florie Salnot. The finalist’s entry Plastic Gold showcases her work with the Sahrawi women in the Western Sahara who are based in refugee camps on desert sites in Algeria. Working within the tight limitations of restricted available resources Salnot devised a technique for making jewellery using only simple tools, hot sand and spray paint. Using this method discarded plastic bottles are totally transformed into finely worked necklaces and bracelets. Salnot then used these plastic pieces as inspiration within her own designs, echoing their shapes in her necklaces made from leather and metal. Exquisite as these are, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Salnot’s entry is the story behind it, and the development of new techniques.
All in all the offerings by this year’s finalists, selected by a panel of judges including architect Thomas Heatherwick, V&A director Martin Roth, and the 2011 winner of the prize Rashid Koraïchi, make a vibrant and thought provoking exhibition which is well worth a visit, rooted in centuries of traditional craft but producing pieces which are infused with the kind of originality typical of some of the most talented artists and designers of today.
 http://www.vam.ac.uk/channel/things/art/laurent_mareschal_jameel_prize_3/ [Accessed 02/02/14]
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2014. All Rights Reserved.