When the Jameel Prize launched at the Victoria and Albert Museum 10 years ago, it was one of a number of satellite projects by the charitable foundation Art Jameel. The award bestowed £25,000 ($34,200) to support contemporary work inspired by Islamic arts and culture, showcasing contemporary work in the major London design museum.
The remit has remained but the stakes have since changed: Art Jameel has opened a permanent, flagship site in Dubai, with another to open in Jeddah later this year and engagement with contemporary Arab art and design has increased both across the Gulf and in London. Now, rather than a tool of advocacy, the Jameel Prize has shifted towards looking at visual production in depth.
“We’re 10 years and five editions on, and the Jameel Prize has established itself,” says Rachel Dedman, from the V&A. Dedman curated this year's edition, Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics.
“We felt we wanted to make two changes. The first was to give it a thematic focus. This year, it’s design, but it could change according to 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 realignment has paid off: this year’s Jameel Prize exhibition feels more cohesive and urgent than in past years. While earlier shows offered a chance to explore projects across a variety of disciplines, the sharper focus here allowed thematic proclivities to emerge in current approaches to design.
One of these is the incorporation of personal stories. A number of designers used their craft as a way to honour family members – and even through the repetitive, laborious processes their projects entailed, to work through grief as well.
Hadeyeh Badri from Dubai used the jacquard loom to weave tapestries memorialising her aunt, Shahnaz, for whom she had been the caretaker. She wove texts and drawings from her aunt’s diary into her bright tapestries, using the curvature of the thread to shadow that of Arabic script; others pick up the colour palette of dull greens and blues of hospital stays.
The project shared resonances with Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter (2016), an installation by Golnar Adili about her late father, an activist in Iran.
He had 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 – each differed in the length and the angle of their slant, and began to scrutinise them as if they were an “emotional graph”, possibly giving insight into the emotions hidden between the lines.
She traced each on to 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.
Other works questioned whether design could really make a difference in confronting the social and political conflicts facing the Arab world.
In autumn 2019, Lebanese graphic designer Farah Fayyad took to the streets in Beirut. Putting their skills to work, she and her colleagues designed logos and slogans in order to seed messages through the crowd. They brought out a silkscreening press and printed the designs on T-shirts and tank tops that people brought along: an image of The Egg, the former cinema that became a fulcrum for the protests, with a message reading, “The revolution has hatched”; the word “Fekko,” meaning “leave us alone”; the repeated words “hameeha harameeha”, a play on thieves and protectors that refers to the corruption of the ruling class.
The project offers a textbook case of the political possibilities of design: the production of something at once legible and visually exciting, useful and beautiful, and marshalled in the service of the public. But the stark facts of life in Lebanon right now cast doubt on the efficacy of the protests and even the joyous, culturally cool way they were conducted.
When the V&A approached her to exhibit the work, she made a short film to accompany it, reflecting on the protests. “Why did this political uprising feel like a street festival?” she asked. “Why are we celebrating?”
The political realities of life assumed a large stage across the exhibition, tucked away as it is among the apparently immutable monuments and artefacts of the London museum.
“Having this small change of the open call didn’t just lead to more applicants,” says Dedman. “We also have a much younger group this year, and a lot of the energy and passion in their work is reflected in their commitment to political realities.”
Architect Sofia Karim was inspired by the vernacular design for samosa packets in India and Bangladesh: that is to say, folded up bits of scrap paper. In Bangladesh in particular, one of the sources of excess papers is court circulars, owing to the overloaded justice system in the country.
Rather than seeing the packets as disposable, Karim realised they provide a unique means of circulating information directly to the public. She began seeding material through the packets, in a project she calls Turbine Bagh: images of past protests movements or of persecuted minority groups.
When her maternal uncle, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, was detained, she printed information about his case and used that for samosa packets, distributing them on the streets of Dhaka.
The winner of the prize this year, which also included Indian fashion designer Kallol Datta, Lahore-trained artist Bushra Waqas Khan, and Lebanese graphic designer Jana Traboulsi, was Ajlan Gharem. The Saudi artist won for a simple but beautiful idea that he has used to connect communities: a mosque made out of chicken wire, Paradise Has Many Gates (2015).
“People can see directly into the mosque, making this space that so many are fearful of, transparent," says Dedman. "It is his way to combat Islamophobia.”
Represented here as photographs, the structures have appeared internationally since they were first proposed. In the 2018–2020 Vancouver Biennale, Gharem inaugurated the mosque by inviting in members of the Canadian indigenous peoples' First Nations community.
The groups sang and played drums together in a ceremony that recognised how the land had originally belonged to the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh tribes. Afterwards, Musqueam and Squamish weavers produced five enormous panels on a jacquard loom, linking together the story of the appropriation of their ancestors’ land and the trials of migration in the Middle East: a collaboration showing the unexpected but real potentials for art and design.
Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics runs at the V&A until Sunday, November 28