The Jameel Prize exhibition has opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum here, gathering the works of ten nominees for the £25,000 ($36,160) biannual award for artists and designers "inspired by Islamic traditions of craft and design." The premise is clear: to showcase a fruitful dialogue between contemporary art and a particular artistic heritage, with one winner to be announced on September 12. Such a direction seems limiting at first — why force contending artists to look backward and at a specific religion? — but the idea that art is only worth its salt when freed from all constraints is a modernist myth. Think of Western religious painting. Picturing St. Jerome, Caravaggio had very few options: he had to represent an old man, dressed in red, writing out the Bible. And yet he produced one of the most striking images of dedicated labor among the turmoil of human passions. Constraints can be productive.
The artists selected for the Jameel Prize aren't in quite the same situation as Caravaggio was when commissioned by Cardinal Borghese. For most nominees, the Islamic artistic tradition has been internalized long before the prize, and it re-emerges in this exhibition, transformed. Noor Ali Chagani studied Mughal, Persian, and Indian miniature painting. But instead of trying to emulate the work of his predecessors, he applies miniature's principle of reduction to sculpture. His "Life Line" (2010) is a brittle piece of fabric built with hundreds of tiny handmade bricks, alluding to notions of protection and shelter — the house as a second skin. "Infinity" (2009) looks like an endless succession of miniature brick walls pierced in their middle, evoking the many obstacles one has to go through in a lifetime.
Chagani's sculptural proposition expands the possibilities of miniature art His practice is bold, inventive, and it stays clear from commonplaces. This can't be said of Soody Sharifi's own take on the same technique. In her digital print "Frolicking Women in the Pool" (2007), the artist collages fully veiled women on a blown-up Persian miniature, the covered-up 21st-century ladies contrasting with the original works' naked nymphs. Babak Golkar's "Negotiating the Space for Possible Coexistence No.5" (2011) is also disappointingly predictable. Golkar uses geometric carpet motifs as blueprints for 3D architectural constructions: Bedouin lifestyle meets Abu Dhabi's high-rises.
Carpets and ornate fabrics are no doubt one of the most ubiquitous oriental clichés. And yet here, they are also the starting point of the most poignant piece in this exhibition: Aisha Khalid's "Kashmiri Shawl" (2011). Hanging from the ceiling, this black pashmina appears embroidered with golden threads. On closer examination, the paisley motifs turn out to be the heads of thousands of gold-plated pins, which stick out on the other side as if ready to lacerate the skin of the potential wearer. The simplicity of the idea makes it all the more efficient. The piece is a punchy and politically-loaded one-liner, gesturing towards the continuing conflict in Kashmir.
The Jameel Prize is supported by Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, a philanthropic branch of the Saudi Abdul Latif Jameel Group, the world's largest Toyota dealership (with an estimated value of $3 billion). The Jameel family has been involved with the V&A since 2006, when it funded the renovation and redesign of the Islamic gallery, now the Jameel Gallery. The prize is a spinoff from this initiative. Three Jameel Prize pieces are displayed in the collection of ancient Islamic art: Bita Ghezelayagh's felt costumes decorated with metal trinkets, Rachid Koraïchi's Sufi banners, and Hazem El Mestikawy's labyrinthine sculpture, all of them effortlessly blending in with the precious artefacts. The Jameel Prize has made its point: Islamic art isn't just something of the past.
To see some of the art contending for the prize, click the slide show at left.