Lebanon Pulse

Middle Eastern artists give traditional art a modern twist

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Article Summary
Bahraini weaving, Palestinian embroidery and Iraqi miniatures are among the traditional art forms being reinvented and adapted by the Middle Eastern artists competing for the fifth edition of the Jameel Prize.

Hayv Kahraman was 10 when her family fled Iraq. As a refugee growing up in Sweden, she worked hard to assimilate into her new homeland, mastering Swedish and trying to avoid speaking Arabic. The process of distancing herself from Iraqi culture continued as an adult, when she spent four years studying art in Italy.

“I was indoctrinated into believing that white European art history was what I needed to strive for. So I visited all the museums, I made copies of Old Master paintings. … I was in that space, believing that what I needed to do was to mimic that in order to succeed,” she told Al-Monitor. “Looking back at it now, it was as if my mind was colonized.” 

This process of mental colonization and Kahraman’s gradual re-establishment of her links to her homeland are expressed in “The Translator,” an oil-on-canvas work capturing a group of dark-haired women that blends Renaissance painting techniques with the colors and flattened perspective of traditional Oriental miniatures. It is one of two works by Kahraman that will be on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum from June 28 to Nov. 25 as part of an exhibition showcasing the work of eight finalists competing for the fifth edition of the Jameel Prize.

Launched in 2009, the biannual prize is a collaboration between the museum and Art Jameel, a nonprofit art organization based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The prize celebrates the work of contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic traditions of art, craft and design. 

Kahraman's work is shortlisted for the prize this year alongside Iranian multidisciplinary artist Kamrooz Aram, Bahraini fashion designer Hala Kaiksow, Iraqi abstract artist Mehdi Moutashar, Jordanian-Palestinian sisters Nermeen and Nisreen Abudail — who together form the Naqsh Collective — Tunisian multidisciplinary artist Younes Rahmoun, Pakistani miniature painter Wardha Shabbir and Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum. 

In keeping with Kahraman’s characteristic explorations of identity, belonging and women’s experiences and roles, “The Translator” is based on Kahraman’s mother, who worked as an interpreter for the Swedish government and Arabic-speaking refugees.

Hayv Kahraman's work "The Translator," one of the projects that will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Part of a series titled “How Iraqi Are You?” — inspired by the Maqamat al-Hariri, a 13th century illustrated manuscript from Iraq — contextualizes the experiences of Kahraman and her mother within a historical framework, reflecting on how stories of everyday life in 12th century Iraq might revolve around tales of migration and diaspora were they to be written today. 

Kahraman is based in Los Angeles, while Moutashar, the other artist of Iraqi origin who is shortlisted this year, has lived in France since the 1960s. He will be exhibiting minimalist abstract works inspired by Islamic geometry and Arabic calligraphy. He combines drawing and painting with sculpture, giving his artworks mathematical titles such as “A Square and Three Right Angles” and “Two Folds at 120 Degrees,” inspired by the angle at which a traditional Arabic calligrapher must hold his pen.

Artists must be nominated by a global list of art experts and are then invited to apply for the prize, a system designed to ensure that each edition includes entrants from diverse backgrounds and encompasses a broad range of media and practices.

Kaiksow, who launched her eponymous fashion line in Bahrain in 2015, is inspired by the traditional Bahraini practice of handweaving. She creates fabrics with a contemporary twist, combining natural fibers such as cotton and linen with manmade materials, including latex and Kevlar, usually used to create bulletproof garments.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kaiksow will be showing five pieces from her 2015 graduate collection, “Wandress,” inspired by traditional garments, including an early 20th-century Iranian shepherd’s coat, 19th-century Japanese farmer’s trousers and traditional Bahraini garments such as the "thobe al-nashal," which she has re-envisioned as a jumpsuit. 

“I try to look at cultures from around the world and I’m inspired by all kinds of different crafts and handworks,” she told Al-Monitor. "We try to be sustainable in our creative process. … We use mostly natural dyes, especially in our last collection, which was made using different types of plants and trees that were pulverized and then used as extracts to color our fabrics. Our whole emphasis is on trying to get the feeling and soul of handwork back into garments, so all the garments are hand-finished."

Nermeen Abudail, a Palestinian graphic designer who launched the Naqsh Collective with her sister Nisreen, an architect, in 2010, has also sought inspiration in traditional textiles. They will be exhibiting “Shawl,” a wood-and-brass panel measuring almost four meters (13 feet) across and two meters (6.5 feet) high, covered with intricate motifs based on Palestinian embroidery.

Their aim is to transmute embroidery from an art form that is ephemeral, lasting only as long as the thread and cloth from which it is made, into something more permanent. “Shawl” highlights both the secret language of embroidery and the importance of the traditional garment, which can be used to cover the head, wrap a baby or collect olives from the garden. 

“We have used patterns called palm trees, flowers, amulets, Road to Damascus [an L-shaped pattern] — the ladies used to embroider that on their dresses when they emigrated from Palestine to Damascus so that whoever sees her dress would know that she came from Palestine,” Nermeen Abudail told Al-Monitor. “[Embroidery] was a beautiful communication tool. For example, a widow would only embroider her dress with black and blue, and if she remarried she would then add red.”

One of the more religiously inflected works in this year’s exhibition is an installation by Rahmoun. “Hat-Light” features 77 handmade hats from the historic souk in Tetouan, Morocco, made by a local craftsman using recycled wool. 

Rahmoun has created a sprawling installation in which the hats are suspended just above the ground, emitting light from a hidden source. He chose to use the hats because — like humans — they all share the same basic form, but on closer inspection each one is unique.

“The idea is to have villages or groups of hats, and the hats represent human beings,” he told Al-Monitor. “The form of the dome represents the body and the light represents the soul.”

Inspired by the Sufi tradition of representing the human connection with the divine through light, the hats are all linked to a single cable, the shared source of their illumination. Like many of Rahmoun’s works, the installation is oriented toward Mecca.

Tabassum’s shortlisted project is a mosque built in Dhaka and inspired by Bengali mosques built between the 13th and 16th centuries, while Shabbir is presenting two miniature diptychs inspired by the art of Islamic gardens. Aram is exhibiting works that aim to challenge the Western view of art history and its interpretation of art from the Islamic world.

The winner of the Jameel Prize will receive 25,000 British pounds ($33,400) and will be chosen by an international jury of art experts, whose decision is to be announced June 27. The works of all eight finalists will tour museums globally in 2019.

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India Stoughton is an award-winning journalist based in Beirut. She has contributed to publications including Al Jazeera, The Economist, 1843 Magazine, The National, The Daily Star and The Outpost. She specializes in stories about the intersection of culture and politics in the Middle East. On Twitter: @IndiaStoughton

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