Ajlan Gharem has been announced as the winner of the sixth edition of the Jameel Prize, the £25,000 award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. Gharem was chosen by the prize’s jury for his architectural installation Paradise Has Many Gates.
“Ajlan Gharem’s work speaks to global conditions and the experience of migrants, as well as being particularly resonant in its local context,” said Tristram Hunt, V&A director and chair of the jury. “Gharem’s work is notable for its innovative use of material and ambitious scale. The transparent wire frame references border fencing but has the effect of demystifying the mosque for non-Muslim viewers.”
Gharem is a multidisciplinary artist (and maths teacher) based in Riyadh; with his brother Abdulnasser Gharem – himself an established artist – he is a co-founder of Gharem Studio, something of a community for networking and discussion as well as a space for the artists’ personal production (“we are trying to create a dialogue and platform, and also be an incubator”).
Ajlan Gharem says his work explores how Saudi communities understand and articulate their culture in a time of increasing globalisation and changing power dynamics, and the Paradise Has Many Gates installation exemplifies this. It has the architectural form of an Islamic mosque; but it’s made out of chain-link fence, commonly used to keep the unauthorised out or the imprisoned in. At the same time it means the mosque is transparent and open to the elements.
Paradise Has Many Gates (right, with Gharem) is a powerful and worthy winner, for there’s much to be read into its form and structure. you can see it as a commentary on the struggle between religious constraint and democratic freedom, especially for a younger generation that might value exposure to ideas and knowledge above closed, restrictive traditions. What role should religion play?
And because you can see into and through the structure, the installation also seeks to demystify Islamic prayer spaces, tackling the fear of the other at the heart of Islamophobia. One of the impressive benefits of its installation at the 2018 Vancouver Biennial was an accompanying public programme that invited people of many backgrounds to meet and spend time together at the installation, including historic collaborations between Islamic and First nation weavers and designers that led to two exhibitions.
You can’t currently see the installation anywhere, as far as we know. The curator, Rachel Dedman, told us that there isn’t a single version of Paradise Has Many Gates. “When it is installed in different places, it is built from local materials … The installation is meant to be produced afresh in the different places it is invited to.”
The sixth edition of the Jameel Prize introduced a thematic focus, contemporary design – which had not been previously considered as eligible. Eight finalists were shortlisted from over 400 applications. As well as Ajlan Gharem, they are: Golnar Adili, Iranian-born Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist; Kallol Datta, a multidisciplinary designer from Kolkata; Farah Fayyad, a graphic designer from Beirut; Sofia Karim, Bangladesh-born London-based architect and artist; Jana Traboulsi, Lebanese artist, designer and educator; Bushra Waqas Khan, Pakistani printmaker; and the UAE’s own Hadeyeh Badri, alumnus of SEAF and Tashkeel, co-founder of Möbius Design Studio in Dubai.
With diverse practices from graphic design and typography to fashion and textiles, installation and activism, the finalists all address global events and lived realities, and the legacies of language, architecture and craft in Islam. As Art Jameel director Antonia Carver noted: “Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics welcomes both the personal and the political as drivers of change. This year’s finalists have presented works that engage with this theme critically and deeply, all while paying great attention to aesthetic consideration”.
Their work will be on display in the exhibition Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics at the V&A in London from 18 September to 28 November 2021 – entry is free but you’ll need to book in advance.
Paradise Has Many Gates won’t be there in its entirety; at 10m high and with a footprint of 3 x 6.5m it would dwarf the show, but it will be represented in the exhibition through large-scale photographic prints, video, and a recreation of the mosque’s dome using local materials in the spirit of the installation.
Thereafter the exhibition will be touring internationally, though we’re told it won’t be coming to Dubai.
The international jury also included the joint-winners of Jameel Prize 5, Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar and Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum; the noted British author and design critic Alice Rawsthorn; and Emirati writer, researcher and founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi.
Pictures from the exhibition: