Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem wins Jameel Prize 6 for cage-like mosque installation

As part of the award, the artist's work will be on view at the V&A in London from Saturday

The sixth Jameel Prize winner is artist Ajlan Gharem from Saudi Arabia, recognised for his work Paradise Has Many Gates, an installation from 2015 of a mosque structure constructed from chain-link wire and thereby resembling a cage.

The Jameel Prize is a collaboration between Art Jameel in Riyadh and the V&A in London. It recognises contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. This year’s prize was announced via a virtual ceremony on Wednesday, with Fady Jameel, chairman and founder of Art Jameel, presenting the award.

Gharem was among eight finalists shortlisted from more than 400 applicants. As part of the prize, he will receive £25,000 ($34,000). A version of his monumental installation, represented through large-scale photographs, video and a recreation of the mosque’s dome, will be on view at the Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics exhibition at the V&A in London. An accompanying public programme will invite visitors into the work, turning it into a space for gathering.

Running from Saturday until Sunday, November 28, the show will also include works by the shortlisted candidates.

Gharem’s installation, which was shown at the Vancouver Biennale from 2018 to 2020, is open to several interpretations. It seeks to provide a transparent and open place for people to witness Islamic prayer and the Muslim faith. It also conjures up images of Guantanamo Bay camps or refugee detention centres in the US, and symbolises the exposure of the inner workings of religious and political authorities.

Paradise Has Many Gates was initially installed in a desert area outside Riyadh in 2015. Gharem took photographs and videos of the structure before dismantling it the next day. “This was my first artwork,” he recalls.

Speaking to The National, he explains how the work aimed to reflect the sentiments of the younger generation in Saudi Arabia, where two-thirds of the population is under 35 years old.

“There are so many of us, but we are guided by the older generation, even in our worship and our beliefs. It doesn’t match our level of knowledge, our lives, which are different from before, so I had this idea [for the work]. It was like a feeling,” he says. “In our Muslim world, our Arab world, it’s difficult to convert issues into a visual thing.”

The work drew criticism, particularly when images of it first emerged on social media. “They said it looks like a jail and it was humiliating the religion,” Gharem recalls. “But I’m talking about religiosity, not the religion."

The artist says that the structure, although imposing on the outside, has served as a place for people of all backgrounds to meet. “This kind of space creates dialogue between people. When you look from afar, you won’t feel the same thing as when you’re inside.

“In Vancouver, people would spend eight hours inside because it was set in the park. Everyone was talking to each other. One person even broke his fast with us inside the space. It was a really good process,” he says.

Born in Khamis Mushait, Saudi Arabia, in 1985, Gharem lives in Riyadh and works as a mathematics teacher. He and his brother Abdulnasser, who is also an artist, founded the non-profit arts organisation Gharem Studio in 2013 to bring young artists in the kingdom together.

The Jameel Prize is Gharem’s first major art accolade.

Awarded every two years when it was founded in 2009, the prize is now given triennially, with the current award and all future prizes dedicated to a single thematic focus. The Jameel Prize 6 was focused on contemporary design.

The jury for this year’s prize included V&A director Tristram Hunt as chair, the joint winners of the Jameel Prize 5, Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar and Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum, as well as Barjeel Art Foundation founder Sultan Al Qassemi and British author and design critic Alice Rawsthorn.

“We were incredibly impressed with the work of all finalists, selected for their innovative and imaginative projects with strong links between Islamic traditions and contemporary design,” Hunt said, in a statement. “As this year’s Jameel Prize winner, Ajlan Gharem’s work speaks to global conditions and the experience of migrants, as well as being particularly resonant in its local context. This edition of the Jameel Prize celebrates contemporary design and Gharem’s work is notable for its innovative use of material and ambitious scale.”

The finalists for this year’s award were Emirati designer Hadeyeh Badri, who works with textiles; Indian clothing designer Kallol Datta, who combines styles from North Africa and West Asia in his patterns and designs; Golnar Adili from Iran, whose work for the Jameel Prize was a spatial installation based on one of her father’s letters, written while he was in exile; Bushra Waqas Khan from Pakistan, a printmaker focusing on miniature garments; Lebanese graphic designer Jana Traboulsi, whose research delves into Arabic manuscript production; Farah Fayyad, also from Lebanon, whose projects fuse Arabic calligraphy and contemporary typeface; and Sofia Karim, the British architect and artist behind the Turbine Bagh project, which tackles the rise of Islamophobia and nationalism in India.

Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics will run from Saturday until Sunday, November 28, at the Porter Gallery, V&A, London

Updated: September 15th 2021, 4:08 PM