Art’s Islamic Influence

The wide influence of Islamic traditions on contemporary art can be gleaned from the fact that the third edition of the Jameel Prize, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) received nearly 270 nominations from thirty-four countries as far afield as Norway, Kosovo, Brazil and Azerbaijan. The nine finalists currently on show in the exhibition capture the gamut of artistic techniques that are either traditionally associated with Islam or have been interpreted in contemporary ways, including homages to miniature painting, calligraphy, rug-making and weaving, to name just a few.

The third edition of the biannual prize, which will be on display at the V&A until April, seeks not only to determine a connection between ancient Islamic art and contemporary art, but also to evoke questions about the role of Islamic culture in the modern world.

The latest winner of the prize is Dice Kayek, a Turkish fashion label established in 1992 by sisters Ece and Ayşe Ege. The duo, who live between Istanbul and Paris, were the first fashion designers to be nominated for the award. Their garments were inspired by Istanbul and showcase Byzantine and Islamic architectural details that are a hallmark of the city’s monuments. The skirts are reminiscent of the tulips that were so beloved by the Ottomans, and the pleating and beading on their dresses bring to mind the lead domes of the mosques and the city’s jewel-like Byzantine mosaics.

Perhaps it was the surprise association of Islam with haute couture that worked in favor of Dice Kayek, as some of the other finalists on display are equally captivating. There is Faig Ahmed, a Baku, Azerbaijan-based sculptor, whose deconstructed carpets are both beautiful and witty. Faig’s carpets start off in the traditional manner, but then (d)evolve into three-dimensional works with warped and pixelated patterns emerging from the original designs. Similarly, Lahore-based artist Waqas Khan uses the technique of miniature paintings to contemporary effect by drawing fields of dots so tiny they need a magnifying glass to be seen and which are revealed to be abstract patterns when enlarged.

The exhibit also showcases new attempts to achieve the opulence associated with the old Islamic courts. Rahul Jain’s work with Indian weavers has produced glittering golden silks with fantastic patterns of birds and animals. Laurent Mareschal’s display is an installation of floor tiles that are actually made of spices and are reminiscent of the rangoli technique—a traditional decorative folk art of the Indian subcontinent.

The works on display at the exhibition are, of course, artistic and inventive, a key example of which is Pascal Zoghbi’s research into inventing new Arabic fonts for the 21st century. But there are also those that have political bite. Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi uses a traditional calligraphic convention of arranging texts in impressive wheel-shaped compositions to put together a video. In it, these circular structures form the wheels of a noisy locomotive that hurtles forward relentlessly, pointing to the dystopian world that is being created in the process. French-born artist Florie Salnot’s [I]Plastic Gold[/I] jewelry showcases traditional jewelry designs made out of discarded plastic bottles found in Algerian refugee camps; often one of the very few materials available to displaced peoples across the Western Sahara.

In its totality the Jameel Prize exhibition is an excellent collation and reminder of the many exiting ways in which traditional Islamic art and traditions continue to remain relevant and continue to inspire across the world today.

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