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When London’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened its doors in 1857, its mission was to inspire artists, craftsmen and manufacturers by showing design excellence in its many forms. The museum had amassed a large collection of Islamic art and artefacts, believing the British could learn a thing or two from the principles of geometry, pattern-making, decoration and function exemplified by work from Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria and other places in the region.
Many years on, the Jameel Prize, supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, awards contemporary artists influenced by Islamic traditions of craft and design, and looks further afield for the fruits of contemporary middle-eastern art. Salma Tuqan, the V&A’s curator of Middle Eastern contemporary art and design, says that, for its third competition, the museum received 270 nominations from 34 countries, including Norway, Kosovo, Brazil and Azerbaijan. One who made the final cut is Faig Ahmed, a Baku-based sculptor, born in 1982, who disassembles the structure and design of traditional carpet-making to create three-dimensional works, pixelated patterns and exploding shapes.
While Ahmed’s work definitely shows iconoclastic zeal, carpets are nonetheless what you might expect in a show of contemporary Islamic-influenced work. But Tuqan, herself a Palestinian raised in Kuwait, is keen to point out that it’s not all carpets and calligraphy, even if they inevitably have a presence. Among the 10 artists and designers under consideration for the £25,000 prize are a pair of fashion designers from Istanbul, Dice Kayak, who are showing clothing inspired by Byzantine mosaics and Islamic architectural details; and a “social designer” from Paris, Florie Salnot, who recreates traditional Sarahawi jewellery designs in bottle plastic and spray paint.
There is also Nada Debs, a successful forty-something furniture designer based in Beirut, whose concrete carpet, 9m x 3.5m, is inlaid with mother-of-pearl. “Of course it’s a reference to the flying carpets of The Thousand and One Nights,” says Debs, who grew up with her Lebanese parents in Kobe, Japan. “The concrete refers to the heaviness we now have in the Arab world.”
I meet Debs in Beirut – a city in the grip of both arrested and rampant development. While developer Solidere is throwing up chichi apartment blocks that Qataris and Saudis are enthusiastically buying (though not living in), other corporate money is less keen to invest in this unsettled place. The day we visit the workshop in Ouzai, a mostly Shia suburb in the south where Debs has many of her pieces made, two bombs go off outside the Iranian Embassy not far away and there are more than 20 dead.
“It’s this uncertainty that makes us grab all the opportunities we have,” said Debs with a shrug. “It’s hard to plan ahead sometimes. But I can get things made here, and you couldn’t do that in London these days.”
Another designer, Najla El Zein expresses the same thought when we meet for lunch that day. Her poetic “Wind Portal”, 5,000 spinning paper windmills installed at the V&A during the London Design Festival in September, was made with some reluctance in Manchester. “They didn’t want to take any ownership,” she explained. “But artisans here get really involved.”
Through her artisan-made pieces, Debs has reconciled her Japanese upbringing and her Muslim roots. “It’s east meets east,” she says, showing me Zen-like boxes with marquetry decoration and brilliantly hued resin mirrors inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Typographer Pascal Zoghbi’s work is also a reconciliation, but of Arabic script with state-of-the-art digital production. Zoghbi works for international companies such as Wolff Olins and Google, and corporate clients, newspapers and magazines all over the Gulf, as well as teaching at the American University of Beirut.
A tailor’s son from a village outside the city, Zoghbi, 33, presents a fascinating new elision of east and west. Although his Dutch typography teachers at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague had no ability to read Arabic, they evaluated his work on Dutch principles of balance and proportion. “They weren’t affected by the meaning of the words because they couldn’t read them,” says Zoghbi, who has gone on to create highly nuanced work. “This one is very light and elegant,” he says pointing it out. “It’s called ‘Hamasca’, which means to whisper.” At the V&A, Zoghbi is showing favourite letters from his assiduously crafted fonts as a striking black-and-white wall collage.
While Zoghbi’s stay in Holland clearly informed his work, travel has also altered the vision of Nasser al-Salem. A Saudi who lives in Jeddah, he was tutored for 13 years in the classical strictures of pure calligraphy by a master in Mecca. Then, in 2009, al-Salem attended the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. “I was shocked, amazed,” he says. “I realised there was freedom, there were concepts to be explored rather than just systems to be learnt.” Now his work is a radical reinvention of what calligraphy can do, both literally and conceptually. One piece at the V&A shows a line travelling across graph paper; it suggests both the tracing of a heart monitor, and a believer’s prayer: in the spirit of the prize, a display of cross-pollination and successful porosity between different worlds and positions.
Jameel Prize exhibition, V&A, London December 11-April 21 2014. vam.ac.uk