Artists in their nature are displaced people, mainly from the world around them. But there are some communities or nations, like the Palestinians, who are pushed away from their land and are forced to live in permanent exile. They reside in different parts of the Middle East: Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
Warring tribes like Goths, Vandals, Normans and Vikings were not settled at a specific location, and hence made moveable artworks. Likewise for the art of nomadic people, especially of the subcontinent, who manufacture toys, weave textile and basketry, and make jewellery pieces.
Sadly, therefore, in the art of a nation as cultured and historic as Palestine, what we see is not as much architecture as poetry (Mahmoud Darwish) and novels (Emile Habiby), because they can transport their language wherever they go, and no oppressor can take it from them.
Textile is another manifestation of the creativity of Palestinians. Thus, one of the eight artists and designers shortlisted for the 5th edition of the Jameel Prize this year are two sisters, Nisreen and Nermeen Abu Dail, who comprise Naqsh Collective. The Jameel Prize “was conceived after the renovation of the V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which opened in July 2006 to present the rich artistic heritage of the Islamic world”. It is awarded every two years “for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic tradition”. The Naqsh Collective, concentrating on the embroidery of Palestinian women, has recreated and reinterpreted it in a piece constructed with walnut wood, brass, and paint. Almost like a shawl, the work is a homage to the craft of a people who infuse their stories, histories, observations, and condition in patterns which can be read like a text. The duo of Naqsh Collective, through carving, inlay, colour and relief has collected, combined and composed motifs from different areas, so the artwork, in a way is the map of Palestine; of its people.
Tradition of another kind is investigated with a different strategy in the art of another short-listed artist from Lahore, Pakistan: Wardha Shabbir. Trained as a miniature painter, Shabbir has opted for minimal diction, something unusual among the practitioners of this genre. Having learnt the practice of rendering foliage from past paintings, she shows a number of works in which nature and man-made entities merge. Two pillars resembling gallery pedestals, a cube, two geometric shapes, all covered with leaves, convey a connection and confrontation between the outer world and human introspection. Shabbir had addressed the same issues in her installation from the Lahore Biennale 01, but at the V&A, her work suggests a range of connotations including the history of art, practice of art making and showing art in current circumstances. Along with visually enticing shades of yellow, Shabbir adds layers of foliage drawings in grey next to her frames, on the floor, as well as in between her display area.
This act of not leaving an empty space is a crucial concern for Mehdi Moutashar (one of the two winners of Jameel Prize 2018) who left Iraq in the late 1960s and has since lived in Paris. Drawing his inspiration from Islamic geometry, he negotiates with the language of abstraction. Thus, the work becomes a bridge between colour field aesthetics and patterns on Muslim monuments. In his work at the Jameel Prize, space seems to be a real field of interest and involvement, as the artist tends to conquer, control and cover it employing different means. Through elementary shapes and lines — devices of two-dimensional diction — Moutashar creates an impact of space.
The artist, examining Western art’s notions of a negative space, believes there is no empty space, as God occupies the entire universe and beyond. Thus an artist from the Muslim tradition is not perturbed about filling the blank space, he just rearranges it. In his work, one finds how the artist divides and devises shapes that describe areas which, being more than physical, exist in our ideas too.
The connection of sacred with common is seen in the installation of Younes Rahmoun from Morocco. “His work is inseparable from his religious and spiritual beliefs”, thus the caps (77) used for praying are placed in an order that reminds one of worshippers’ position towards Kaaba. These multi-coloured woollen caps, lit from underneath, allude to religious enlightenment, if only it is achieved. The work refers to the ritual of praying in which diversity and uniformity exist simultaneously.
Worship is also important in the creation of Marina Tabassum (first architect to be shortlisted for the Jameel Prize, and the other winner). She has designed a mosque in Dhaka, which due to its openness, geometric sophistication, and distribution of brick looks like a utilitarian sculpture, besides celebrating “local materials and building techniques, and local customs and climatic conditions”.
The distance between local and outsider, native and foreign, is addressed in the work of Kamroz Aram from Iran. He questions the use, meaning and relevance of pottery and other objects in Western museums, where stripped out of their initial connection and context, these products of cultural imagination are layered with a new, exotic content, reinforcing “Western interpretation of art history, including those covering the Islamic world”.
The Western gaze is not confined to tangible products, but it incorporates views about women from the Orient. Havy Kahraman’s paintings reveal a multitude of representations. Employing sources such as 13th century Arabic illustrated manuscripts, Japanese block prints and Italian Renaissance, she fabricates a narrative of displacement, migration and diaspora. The artist, born in Iraq now lives in Los Angeles. The blend of various traditions is also observed in the work of Hala Kaiksow from Bahrain, who in her designed (and weaved) garments, picks elements from modern fashion, Islamic geometry and Japanese dresses.
The display of these finalists’ works from June 28-Nov 25, 2018 at the V&A museum, reaffirms that tradition is not a static or solitary pursuit, and in Islamic aesthetics function is part of beauty. This reminds one of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who proclaimed that in Islamic art and culture, it was more important to make a perfect fork rather than paint a fresco in a building, because only a few visit Sistine Chapel, whereas a huge number uses a well formed fork.