Finding Inspiration in Islamic Traditions

By Deepa A
Indian Freelance Writer

1001 Pages by Afruz Amighi
A plastic sheet is unlikely to be considered a thing of great beauty. But in the hands of a skilful artist, the sheet – a material used in the construction of refugee tents – morphs into an intricate work of art that astonishes and captivates the viewer. This is the effect that the Iranian-born artist Afruz Amighi achieves with her work 1001 Pages, which was recently awarded the first Jameel Prize in London.

Presented  by the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, the Jameel Prize, worth 25,000 pounds, is an international award for works of art that have been inspired by Islamic traditions. Over 100 nominations were received for the prize, and nine were eventually shortlisted. The shortlisted works, including Amighi’s prize-winning work, are currently on display at a temporary gallery at V&A.

The Exhibits

On a visit to the gallery, one is immediately struck by the diversity of the works on display, a testimony to the varied influences of Islamic traditions. The exhibits range from jewels to photomontage to wood and screen prints; some works reflect on contemporary realities while others seek to illuminate the past.  

Amighi’s work draws on the Islamic tradition of using artificial light, as one sees in shadow puppetry, for instance. She has used a stencil burner to hand-cut designs on a thin sheet of plastic, which is suspended from the ceiling. An overhead projector throws light on the sheet, casting a shadow of multiple patterns on the wall.

As Mark Jones, chair of the judging panel and director of the V&A, said in a press release, "Afruz Amighi has created something new, something that is skilful but which transcends that skill. The work is both striking and subtle, as well as being beautiful. Its use of projected light and shadow loosens the viewer’s focus on the created object, marking a passage from the material to the immaterial."

Amighi, who lives in the USA, makes use of various elements in Iran’s culture, as seen in the country’s rugs, old miniatures, photographs and drawings. The viewer is immediately drawn, and challenged, by the complexity and intricacy of the images in Amighi’s work. The shadows seem to suggest her own absence from the country where she was born, a dislocation that also offers her a unique perspective – of an outsider who is nevertheless an insider in many ways. 

Looking Out, Looking In

Susan Hefuna’s works have been inspired by the mashrabiyyahs or the latticed windows in traditional houses in Cairo, through which women can look out without being seen. Her striking piece in wood illuminates patterns on the white platform on which it is mounted, and paying homage to the practice of inscribing short religious texts in Arabic or Coptic on the mashrabiyyah screen, Hefuna uses modern inscriptions in her work.

Hassan Hajjaj’s work is a powerful commentary on the survival of traditional elements in the face of external challenges, possibly resulting from globalization. His multimedia installation, Le Salon, recreates the atmosphere of a souk through recycled materials. The piece, the artist has said, "highlights the power of the image and branding, juxtaposing the iconography of contemporary culture and consumerism with classical references". Therefore, logos of Western brands appear on traditional items while the writing itself is in Arabic, pointing to the importance of calligraphy in Islamic tradition. Hajjaj, who was born in Morocco, lives in London and Marrakesh.

Contradicting its title, Hamra Abbas’ work Please Do Not Step – Loss of a Magnificent Story takes the extraordinary measure of forcing viewers to walk on what is essentially a work of art. The piece is composed of a floor covering, and the words are written in a font that uses delicate, geometrical Islamic patterns. A description of the piece, exhibited by the work, quotes Abbas as saying, "The work is inspired in part by the feelings of displacement, at personal and collective levels, that have arisen from the increasing anti-Islamic sentiment in today’s world."

Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s work Ya Ali Madad.
The Power of Imagery

Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s work, two acrylic and silk screen prints on canvas, combines Arabic script – used for more than a millennium in Iran – with photography, which came to the country before 1850. In Ya Ali Madad, the background pattern is created by repetitions of Ali’s name while the screen prints themselves are based on old photographs of two wrestlers holding hands, surrounded by a court intellectual, a dervish, a general and a mullah. The wrestlers represent aspects of Iranian culture that are being lost, and through Ya Ali Madad, Hassanzadeh, who lives in Teheran, seeks to remind people of the "beauty, strength and honor" of the wrestlers.

Seher Shah’s drawings in graphite on paper are drawn from Islamic patterns and geometric designs, and her ‘Interior Courtyard’ series moves from Granada and New Delhi to Zanzibar and Brussels. Born in Pakistan, Shah lives in Europe and the US.

Reza Abedini’s work comprises posters that reflect the importance of calligraphy in Iranian culture; one of the most striking aspects of his work is the manner in which he combines a human form with the text, giving life to words and cultures. Abedini, who was born in Iran and works in Iran and in the Netherlands, is credited with playing an important role in the resurgence of Iranian graphic design.

Camille Zakharia’s Division Lines series includes collages that make use of street markings.  His designs are influenced by Islamic carpets and tile mosaic, and his collages deal with issues of identity – he left his birthplace over 23 years ago – and diaspora. In his Markings series, he reflects on "how we try to live in harmony within defined spaces set by the other."

Sevan Bicakci’s collection of five rings evokes Istanbul’s cityscapes, and is inspired by tradition without being bound by it. One finds the representation of an entire Ottoman mosque on the body of a single ring, as in the case of Suleymaniye, which shows the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. The work Saray Burnu highlights the domed mosque of Ayasofya and the sea wells of Topkapi Palace while Kosk is an ode to the garden pavilions of Ottoman palaces. He uses a range of techniques such as engraving, calligraphy and micro-mosaic setting for creating these rings.

The winning and shortlisted works are on display at the V&A till September 13, 2009.
The Prize as an Inspiration
The Jameel Prize is sponsored by entrepreneur Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel. According to a press release, he conceived the idea for the prize after providing financial support for the renovation of V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which opened in July 2006. To be awarded every two years, the prize aims to "raise awareness of the thriving interaction between contemporary practice and the rich artistic heritage of Islam, and to contribute to a broader debate about Islamic culture", says a press release.

Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid, who is the Patron of the Jameel Prize, said she supported the prize’s aim of exploring the cultural dialogue between Islamic art and contemporary practice. She said, "I hope the Jameel Prize will inspire a new generation of artists, designers and engineers to further this dialogue."

The winning and shortlisted works are on display at the V&A till September 13, 2009. The exhibition will then travel to many cities, including Riyadh, Istanbul, Casablanca, Damascus and Beirut. The V&A’s Jameel Gallery has an extensive collection of Islamic art from around the world.

Add comment

Security code