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Fusing Contemporary Art and Traditional Culture | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Hadieh Shafie
22500 Pages, 2011 (Jameel Prize 2011)
Courtesy of the artist

Hadieh Shafie 22500 Pages, 2011 (Jameel Prize 2011) Courtesy of the artist

Hadieh Shafie
22500 Pages, 2011 (Jameel Prize 2011)
Courtesy of the artist

Rachid Koraïchi is one of the most prominent contemporary Arab visual artists, and has achieved international recognition for his use of Arabic calligraphy. He offers a modern slant on ancient, sometimes forgotten, artistic practices, and conveys a kind of spiritual up-lifting, a glimpse into eternity, through his refined, exquisite art. In a series entitled Les Maîtres Invisibles (The Invisible Masters), Korïachi uses calligraphy, symbols and ciphers from a range of languages and cultures to explore the lives and legacies of the 14 great mystics of Islam.

Algerian-born Koraïchi won the 2011 Jameel Prize for a selection of embroidered cloth banners from Les Maîtres Invisibles. The judges felt that the series perfectly matched the aims of the Jameel Prize through the quality of its design and its reliance on traditional crafts. They particularly admired how he has made his great spiritual and intellectual lineage accessible to all through the graphic language he has created out of his artistic heritage. The exhibition that resulted from the 2011 prize is set to wrap up its two-year tour of Europe and the US at the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas. The finalists were equally culturally diverse, coming from Iran, Pakistan, Italy, Iraq, Egypt and the US.

The work aims to show that the world of Islam, in contrast to contemporary perceptions of crisis and violence, has another side entirely, evident in the tolerant and sophisticated writings of great Muslim thinkers and poets such as Rumi and Ibn Arabi. These masters, whose fame has spread to the West, left an imprint on successive generations; their message is just as relevant today as when first recorded. One of the most well-known of the 14 Sufi masters featured in Les Maîtres Invisibles—with whom Koraïchi is connected by a similar mystical vision of love—is the 13th century poet, traveler and founder of the order of whirling dervishes, Jalaluddin Rumi. In another series, Koraïchi takes the movements of the circling dancers and solidifies them into fluid steel sculptures expressing moving meditation.

Rachid Koraïchi Les Maîtres Invisibles, 2008 (Jameel Prize 2011) Courtesy of the October Gallery

Rachid Koraïchi
Les Maîtres Invisibles, 2008 (Jameel Prize 2011)
Courtesy of the October Gallery

Koraïchi’s name is a transliteration of the Arabic Quraishi, indicating his descent from one of the oldest Sufi intellectual families in North Africa, whose roots can be traced back to the 8th century. Sufism’s deeply humane character respects intellectual curiosity, toleration of diversity, and freedom of expression. For generations, Koraïchi’s family have practiced the contemplative study of the Qur’an, and while honoring this legacy, as an artist Koraïchi does not feel limited by it. In fact, he reinvents and invigorates Islamic tradition.

As a small boy, Koraïchi was fascinated by the Arabic calligraphy in the old books in his home, whose illuminated pages had flourishes of Arabesques—books that were all the more tantalizing because they were kept away from children. At the age of three, before his regular school day began, he attended a zawia, a traditional school for Qur’anic study. His formal art education began at the École des Beaux-Arts in Algeria; he moved to Paris in 1971. There, he studied at several institutions, including the École des Arts Décoratifs. Having lived in Paris and interacted with a cosmopolitan art world, his approach is modern and international; he uses an arresting array of mediums. These include installations and performance art, along with various metals, ceramics, textiles, carpets, murals, painting and print-work such as etchings and lithographs.

Algerian poet Jamel Eddine Bencheikh has described Koraïchi’s work as “writing passion”—a personal alphabet which is simultaneously aesthetic and ideological, in which letters become symbols and signs. Glyphs and ciphers are drawn from ancient cultures, some imaginary, others real. He uses the shapes of Chinese and Japanese ideograms, for example, or Berber and Tuareg Tifinagh characters and magical squares. In effect, he has developed a language all his own, a script of graphic, political, intellectual and spiritual power. Media, like gold thread embroidery on silk and black steel sculptures, embody the word and become his own sacred calligraphy.

Koraïchi’s elaborate installation, The Path of Roses, was included in two Venice Biennales and was shown in Ankara and Morocco, at London’s October Gallery and at the British Museum; part of the series was acquired by the Museum. It consisted of several different elements, including embroidered silk textiles, steel sculptures and ceramic ablution bowls in which floated roses, inscribed with texts by Rumi. The Path of Roses was concerned with the Islamic concept of Safar (travel and transcendence) and traced the journey of Rumi from present-day Afghanistan Turkey, where he founded the Dervish order and met another Sufi mystic, Ibn El Arabi. For both Rumi and Koraïchi, the aesthetic and the metaphysical cannot be separated—after all, great art is always about transformation.

THE JAMEEL PRIZE is awarded every two years for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition, encouraging the exploration of long-established practices of Islamic art, craft and design within a modern framework. The resulting exhibition, which is about to tour the US, demonstrates that artists can and do use these Islamic traditions in ways that are vividly relevant to today’s world. The prize also promotes wider debate about the role of Islamic culture in a time of significant change in the region.

Although the brief is very specific—“art inspired by Islamic tradition”—the Jameel Prize is truly international, and not restricted to Muslims or those from the Islamic world. Entry is by nomination, and 270 nominations were received for the third edition of the biennial prize whose winner will be announced later this year. This was whittled down to a shortlist of ten artists and designers by a panel of judges at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. (The GBP 25,000 prize sponsored by Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives is certainly worth winning.)

The V&A’s director, Martin Roth, says: “This, the third Jameel Prize, has continued to attract nominations from around the world, and for the first time the shortlist features work from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and India.” The works on show range from Arabic typography and calligraphy to fashion inspired by the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, and from social design and video installation to delicate and precise miniature drawings.

<strong>Nasser Al-Salem</strong> Kul, 2012  (Jameel Prize 2013) © Nasser Al-Salem and Athr Gallery

Nasser Al-Salem
Kul, 2012(Jameel Prize 2013)
© Nasser Al-Salem and Athr Gallery

Nasser Al-Salem is a Saudi calligrapher who works specifically with the Arabic written word. He will show two works, “Kul” and “Kul I,” which reflect both his use of mixed media and the tradition of ink on paper. The title, meaning “all,” ‘everything” or “infinite,” is represented repeatedly to create an endless ripple effect that is not only associated with the abundance of God’s creation but suggests deeper interpretations. Nasser’s practice is a personal form of devotion, but he also hopes to prompt viewers to re-think their definition of Arabic calligraphy and to dispel the notion that it is limited to the category of Islamic art and craft. He sees calligraphy as having far-reaching conceptual potential and an influential role to play in contemporary artistic practice.

“It’s a very exciting time for artists working in Islamic art tradition,” said Zaha Hadid, who is the patron of the Jameel Prize and widely regarded as one of the world’s most innovative architects. “There’s a real spirit of innovation and creativity in the air. Their work now goes beyond established painting, sculpture, and calligraphy to explore new media and reflect the diverse cultures and histories of the region. For millennia, the Islamic arts and sciences have bridged the cultural divide between East and West, teaching us that these worlds are not mutually exclusive, but rather layered upon each other and profoundly interlinked.”

The Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition runs from May 24 to August 11 at the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas.
The winner of the Jameel Prize 3 will be announced at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England, on December 10, 2013.