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Saudi Artist Ajlan Gharem Wins 2021 Jameel Prize

Gharem’s bold and ambitious architectural installation saw him collect the £25,000 prize at a recent virtual ceremony…

Ajlan Gharem. Photograph Abdullah Almusharraf

Saudi Ajlan Gharem bested seven other shortlisted finalists to win the Jameel Prize, the world’s leading award for contemporary art and design. For the sixth edition of the Islamic-tradition inspired Prize, the Riyadh-based multidisciplinary artist and mathematics teacher came up with “Paradise Has Many Gates,” an installation explores how Saudi communities understand and articulate their culture amidst globalisation and changing power dynamics.

Gharem’s work, which is in line with the Prize’s debut thematic focus, contemporary design, is true to the design and function of a traditional mosque. However, “Paradise Has Many Gates” is made of the cage-like chicken wire used for border walls and refugee detention centres. While the material provokes anxiety, it also reveals a transparent mosque that is open to the elements. The installation’s transparency challenges the political authority that can underpin religion, plus it seeks to demystify Islamic prayer for non-Muslims, tackling the fear of the other at the heart of Islamophobia. The artwork that triggers conversation and inspiration is welcoming to everyone and is usually accompanied by a public programme that invites people of all backgrounds to meet and spend time together.

Along with the other finalists’ pieces, Gharem’s “Paradise Has Many Gates” is on display at the “Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics” exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum. It is represented in the free exhibition, curated by the V&A’s Jameel Curator of Contemporary Art from the Middle East, Rachel Dedman, in collaboration with V&A Senior Curator for the Middle Eastern Collection, Tim Stanley, through large-scale photographic prints, video and a recreation of the mosque’s dome. And it will be there until November 28, before touring internationally with the others. 

Installation view of Kallol Datta's work in 'Jameel Prize Poetry to Politics' at the V&A, 18 September-28 November 2021 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This year, the eight finalists, hailing from India, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UK, were shortlisted for the prize from over 400 applications. With diverse practices ranging from graphic design, fashion, typography and textiles to installation and activism, the finalists engage with the personal and the political, interpreting the past in creative and critical ways. The works in the exhibition address global events and lived realities, and the legacies of language, architecture and craft.

“We were incredibly impressed with the work of all finalists, selected for their innovative and imaginative projects with strong links between Islamic traditions and contemporary design. As this year’s Jameel Prize winner, Ajlan Gharem’s work speaks to global conditions and the experience of migrants, as well as being particularly resonant in its local context,” Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and chair of the jury, said. “This edition of the Jameel Prize celebrates contemporary design and 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. We also commend the use of the installation as a space for cross-cultural connection and community gathering.”

Installation view of Jana Traboulsi's project in 'Jameel Prize Poetry to Politics' at the V&A, 18 September-28 November 2021 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other members of the esteemed, independent jury include the joint-winners of Jameel Prize 5, Iraqi artist Mehdi Moutashar and Bangladeshi architect Marina Tabassum. British author and design critic Alice Rawsthorn and Emirati writer, researcher and founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, also helped choose Gharem as the winner.

2021’s eight finalists: Golnar Adili, Hadeyeh Badri, Kallol Datta, Farah Fayyad, Ajlan Gharem, Sofia Karim, Jana Traboulsi and Bushra Waqas Khan.

About Ajlan Gharem
Multidisciplinary artist Ajlan Gharem explores how Saudis articulate their culture and is particularly interested in Saudi culture in a world of increasing globalisation and constantly changing power dynamics. In a climate of rapid development across the Gulf, and a cautious Saudi response, the Khamis Mushayt-born creative focuses on the balance of power between the individual and the state and on his generation’s ability to create change.

Ajlan, who teaches maths at Al Sahabah Public School in Riyadh, received an undergraduate degree in Mathematics at King Khalid University and continues to apply this analytical training to his art practice. The co-founder of Gharem Studio has been involved in numerous group exhibitions, including three in London: the Brunei Gallery, Asia House and The British Museum. He has also participated in Houston’s Fotofest Biennial and the Vancouver Biennale. In 2011, he was selected by the Crossway Foundation to travel to London to meet with museum curators and artists and collaborate with the British Museum, Tate Modern and Penguin Books.

About the Jameel Prize
Launched in 2009, the Jameel Prize was founded in partnership with Art Jameel after the renovation of the V&A’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, an outstanding presentation of the rich artistic heritage of the Islamic Middle East. The Prize aims to raise awareness of the thriving interaction between contemporary practice and the great historical legacy of the region. It has also contributed to a broader understanding of Islamic culture as well as its place in the contemporary world.

Through the past five editions, the Jameel Prize has received applications from over 1,000 artists from over 40 countries, exhibited the work of 48 artists and designers and toured to 16 venues globally. The first five iterations of the Jameel Prize shaped an overall understanding of the role that Islamic tradition can play as an inspiration for art and design.

Installation view, 'Jameel Prize Poetry to Politics' at the V&A, 18 September-28 November 2021

Now a triennial Prize, the sixth edition sees the beginning of a new era. Future Jameel Prizes will be dedicated to a single discipline, with the 2021 take focusing on contemporary design. This year also welcomed submissions via open call for the first time, alongside its traditional nomination system.

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