Calligraphy Inspires London Exhibit of Islamic Art

REVIEW

JAMEEL PRIZE EXHIBIT, VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON (through April 21, 2014)

The Victorian & Albert Museum is focused on design and decorative arts.  According to the V&A website, the Jameel Prize “ is an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. Its aim is to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.”

In addition to viewing the exhibit, I attended a panel  discussion at King’s College, London, about the exhibit.  The panelists I quote here were:

  • Tim Stanley (Curator, Victoria and Albert Museum)
  • Reedah El-Saie (Director, MICA Gallery)

According to Tim Stanley, the history of the V&A is bound up with Islamic design from the beginning.  In the 1830’s, Britain realized it had industry, but no design education.  Owen Jones, the author of the classic Grammer Of Ornament, was a Welsh architect who travelled to the Middle East in the 1830’s.  He published a work about Moorish ornament on the Alhambra, which led to his involvement with the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Government School of Design and the creation of the V&A Museum.

The Jameel Prize, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, began in 2006.  Curators, gallerists and art historians from around the world recommend artists for participation.

Reedah El-Saie, Director of Mica Gallery, said  the strongest unifying theme in the exhibit is calligraphy, which brings the past into the present.  She pointed out, “Calligraphy is the strongest tradition of Islamic art.”  As a gallery director, she says that calligraphy sales in auction houses are huge—“booming.”  She said that her gallery can’t keep up with the demand.  Forty percent of the collectors of Arabic calligraphy served by Mica Gallery are from the non-Islamic world.

The V&A website has wonderful videos about each artist, but I will mention two here:

NASSER EL SALEM:  He presents the world “Kul” (all) in hand-written, contemporary calligraphy: black ink on white paper, very stylized, both modern and traditional.  Next to it, a devotional phrase is created by the peaks on a heart monitor.  As Ms. El-Saie pointed out, “The heartbeat shows Islamic art is alive—the past is so relevant to the present—it is a living organism.  You can’t separate Islamic calligraphy from the Divine message in which it’s rooted.”

PASCAL ZOGHBY is a font-designer.  Arabic fonts are very new—they were only created in the 18th century.  Zoghby created a huge concrete carpet, similar to tatami mats from Japan (his birth-place) and also traditional Islamic carpets.  Each panel of “carpet” contains Arabic letters in fonts by his design.  Each section has one letter that is inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  The “fringe” on the “carpet” is made from strings of steel ball-bearings.  He incorporates the play of hard materials against expectations of softness, and puts letters where we would not expect to see them.  One could say that the letters  underfoot are our foundation.

In addition to the Jameel Prize, I observed Islamic ornamental design as an influence in the current fashion collection of designer Roberto Cavalli, in the shop windows of Knightsbridge.

(also see this review on The Culture Trip )

Peacock fan in S. Asian collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Peacock fan in S. Asian collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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