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Poetry to Politics, Rachel Dedman Jameel Curator of Contemporary Art from the Middle East at V&A

Rachel Dedman is a curator, writer, and art historian based in London, where she is Jameel Curator of Contemporary Art from the Middle East at the V&A. We talked to Rachel about her role and her latest V&A exhibition Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics.

In 2019 you joined the Victoria & Albert Museum as Jameel Curator of Contemporary Art from the Middle East. What interested you in this role and how do you hope to impact the representation of contemporary Islamic art?

Before joining the V&A I spent six years working as an independent curator based in Beirut, Lebanon. I curated projects for a wide range of organizations, from grassroots art projects to the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit. My practice on one hand involves working closely with contemporary artists – I am drawn to work that feels political in nature, connected to the world and to the urgencies governing life in the Middle East, South Asia and beyond. On the other hand, my work often looks back at the twentieth century in order to revisit narratives and historiographies of modernism. A recent exhibition At the still point of the turning world, there is the dance, for Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works 8 at Sursock Museum, looked at Helen Khal and her generation of artist friends active in the 1960s and 1970s in Beirut. It took their network, their relationships and interconnectedness as the starting point for exploring this complex period. As curator at the Palestinian Museum, my work involved understanding the political histories and potentials of embroidery and dress, as forces for resistance and female agency.

So on several levels the V&A felt like a great fit; the museum’s focus on design, fashion and textiles, as well as art, chimes with my interests, and the collection is extraordinary. The Jameel Curator role offers a lot of exciting opportunities to work on contemporary Middle Eastern art and design – I’ve initiated a Jameel Fellowship programme and begun a series of commissions for Beirut-based artists and writers, as well as making acquisitions, and collaborating with the Friday Late team. It’s a privilege to work somewhere so special.

You have curated Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics for the V&A. What is the idea behind the exhibition’s title?

The subtitle Poetry to Politics emerged after we selected our finalists and the curatorial and design process was underway. We were thinking about the ways in which our eight very different finalists’ works felt connected and these struck us as two themes that echoed across and between their practices.

For instance, several of our finalists take poetry, language and writing as the starting point and the material of their work, often to explore aspects of their personal identity and heritage, as well as universal human experience. I’m thinking here of Hadeyeh Badri’s weavings and Golnar Adili’s installation work – both of which depart from the archives of family members they’ve lost, and which use the traces of their handwriting as a way of ruminating on grief.

Hadeyeh Badri, Layt Al Lathi Bayni Wa Baynaka, 2018. Photograph: Hadeyeh Badri


Golnar Adili, Ye Harvest From the Eleven-Page Letter, print, 2016. Photograph: Golnar Adili


At the same time, the political runs through almost everyone’s work. Two projects in the show are explicitly activist in character – Sofia Karim’s samosa packets engage with the Shaheen Bagh protest movement in India, as well as interconnected struggles across South Asia (and the world), and Farah Fayyad’s spontaneous screen-printing project began during the Lebanese 17 October revolution in 2019. But even beyond these two works, I would argue that all of our designers are engaging with how art and design can make a difference in our world.

Samosa Packet featuring Mehrunnisa, one of the ‘Dadis’ (grandmother’s) of Shaheen Bagh. Designed and made by Sofia Karim using photographs by Harsha Vadlamani. Part of Sofia Karim’s Turbine Bagh project, 2019-ongoing. Photograph: Sofia Karim


Documentation of Farah Fayyad’s screen-printing intervention during the Lebanese revolution, 2019. Photograph: Tony Elieh


The work of our winner, Ajlan Gharem, is a mosque installation made of chicken wire entitled Paradise Has Many Gates. The work explores the architecture of control, recalls the experience of the migrant, and renders the space of the mosque transparent and visible – demystifying Islamic practices when shown in the West (as well as carrying particular significance in Gharem’s native Saudi Arabia).

Ajlan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates