Interpreting the Past

Interpreting the Past

When Indian clothes designer Kallol Datta (b. 1982) talks about the garments he makes, his language is lyrical. Referring to the way fabric travels and “flows”, he could be describing a river. But, for Datta, how we dress is “a political act”. “When garments are layered one on top of each other they change in shape but they also change in meaning,” he tells the V&A. The shortlist of this year’s Jameel Prize come from around the world – India, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK – employing different approaches, from fashion to activism, typography and installation.

Datta is one of eight finalists in the annual award for contemporary design inspired by Islamic art and culture, now in its sixth edition. The overall winner Ajlan Gharem (b. 1985), from Saudi Arabia, will receive £25,000 for his architectural installation Paradise Has Many Gates. Structured like a traditional mosque, the walls are made of an unlikely substance – the steel wire found more commonly in prison or border fences. “The mosque in my work is not a reflection of religion or faith,” he explains in a video interview for the V&A, “but rather the particular form of religiosity which gives rise to extremism and fanaticism.”

Other designers in the shortlist also create juxtapositions through materials. Inspired by 2019 protests in the Muslim neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, against Islamophobic legislation, Sofia Karim (b. 1976) invites artists and activists to express dissent on paper used to create samosa packets. Pakistani artist Bushra Waqas Khan (b. 1986) crafts detailed miniature dresses by hand, decorated with Islamic symbols taken from the affidavit paper used for legal documents issued by the Pakistani state.

Both Golnar Adili (b. 1976) and Hadeyeh Badri (b. 1988), meanwhile, draw on their own personal histories, taking the words penned by close relatives to create intimate artworks. The starting point for Adili’s sculptural work Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter (2016) is a letter written by her father to his lover. Badri weaves quotes from the diary of her aunt, who died, into fraying tapestries. “Weaving is the closest thing I know to an embrace,” she says, “because when you weave, you are working with your whole body … Weaving [unites] gesture, memory and touch.”

Writing also appears in the work of Farah Fayyad (b. 1990) and Jana Traboulsi (b. 1979). Traboulsi examines the formal practices of marginalia in Arabic manuscripts. Fayyad set up a screen printing press in Beirut during mass civil protests that first broke out in 2019. “Our generation has been educated in English and is more used to thinking and writing in English,” she says. “Suddenly after [the 17 October Revolution], everything was in Arabic. It’s what unifies us.” For Fayyad, who has designed a new typeface based on historic Kufic calligraphy, as elsewhere in the shortlist, taking inspiration from tradition is not only about recognising the past but also about looking forward and projecting new ways of being in the world.

Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics runs until 28 November 2021 at the V&A, London. Find out more here.

Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton

Image Credits:
1. Kallol Datta, Ghost Object, Volume 2, 2019. Photograph: Parak Sarungbam
2. Ajlan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates – Daytime, 2015. Photograph Ajlan Gharem
3. Kallol Datta, Shroud, Volume 1 Issue 2, 2018. Photograph Keegan Crasto
4. Kallol Datta, Karate Gi, Volume 1 Issue 2, 2018. Photograph Keegan Crasto