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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 Daytime, 2015. Photograph: Ajlan Gharem


Kallol Datta is a clothing designer highly attuned to the political significance of dress, challenging the ways in which clothing is used to define and subjugate different classes and ethnicities in India, amidst growing Islamophobia. These are but a few examples of the ways in which our finalists are engaging with the political alongside the poetic.

Kallol Datta, Look 4, Volume 1, 2018. Photograph: Siddhartha Hajra


Poetry to Politics is devoted to contemporary design inspired by Islamic tradition. Why design? You also wanted to open out the prize to underrepresented artists. Do you think these aims were achieved and why was that important?

On several levels this edition of the Jameel Prize marked a new chapter for us. When I arrived at the museum in 2019 we had enjoyed five successful editions of the Prize over 10 years. It felt like change was in the air. One key thing I proposed was to give the Prize a thematic focus. It seemed like an opportunity to make a more cohesive and dynamic exhibition and to support disciplines that had been underrepresented in the Prize so far. Design became our first focus because it hadn’t been so prominent up til now, and it felt like the right moment to give the discipline its own space – while stretching the boundaries of how it is defined – and curate a tighter exhibition. Although we have eight very different finalists, there are clear lines of enquiry, shared strategies and thematic ideas that run across and through their practices. Looking at design gave us licence to have more fun with the exhibition design too, so we did away with white walls and neutral space in favour of something more immersive and bold.

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


The second change I proposed was to open applications to the Jameel Prize out via an open call, alongside our traditional nomination system. The Prize is – as ever – open to creative practitioners of any background, based anywhere in the world. But our former nomination-only approach meant the process was private, and not easy to access. The open call enabled a fresh level of visibility and transparency in the process. Everyone submitted their application the same way, and nomination made no difference to being accepted (the jury wasn’t informed), so these just became two complementary modes of reaching people. It seemed to work as we received a record number of applications this year, more than 400.

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


The artists explore both human connections, the idea of community and how design can make a difference in confronting social and political conflicts. What overall message and emotions do you hope audiences will derive from the exhibition this year?

A curator cannot control and shape too much what people feel, but I hope there is a lot that audiences find compelling, fascinating, and moving about the work on show. I think the power of the exhibition is that it does this by turns. There are some artists’ whose work is really about story-telling, where the work holds a narrative that is deeply moving, human and affecting. But you move from encounters with the personal to work addressing bigger political issues, which involve empathy and solidarity and feeling something for a context you may never have reckoned with before. I love that the exhibition does both things.

As I’ve said, I’m really proud of how political finalists’ practices are. I gravitate towards art and design that is engaging with the lived realities of the world, with the stickiness of the present. This is material that feels most relevant, active and alive to me. And it’s that sort of material that I’m proud to show at the V&A. I hope what people take away is an awareness of design’s potential impact in the world. We end the exhibition with the work of Farah Fayyad, a graphic designer from Lebanon. Among other things we show a video she made, called Why are we celebrating? In the video she tells the story of how her screen-printing project came about during the Lebanese uprisings of 2019, of the euphoria and joy and excitement of those heady first days of the revolution. But she is also very frank about her ambivalence now, and the way the project has evolved in hindsight – that it means something else to her now. Looking back, she asks why this uprising felt like a street party, and whether what was needed was blood and not ink? For Farah there is both an understanding of the power and agency art can have on the world, and its limitations – the point at which where the world gets too big for it. This was for me a really powerful way to end the exhibition, and captures the complexities of design and its relationship to the world.

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


Drawing on your experience as a curator, what does the future of Islamic art exhibitions look like to you?

I feel strongly there isn’t such a thing as contemporary Islamic art. The Jameel Prize is dedicated to contemporary art and design inspired by elements of Islamic tradition – this is a crucial distinction. The Prize showcases and celebrates the ways in which elements of Islamic art, history, and heritage offer a wellspring of inspiration for creative and critical practices in the present. Our finalists this year, for example, are scrutinizing Arabic book-making, the mosque, the veil, and Islamophobia, among many other things. The award, as I’ve said, is open to artists and designers of any background, from anywhere in the world. Being Muslim is not a prerequisite, and even for contemporary artists who do happen to be Muslim, their religion or cultural background is almost never the element of themselves that defines the work they produce.

What is exciting about the Jameel Prize and its future is that we get to introduce the V&A’s diverse audiences to contemporary practices from the Middle East, South Asia and all over the world. The majority of our finalists have not shown in the UK before, and to be able to display engaged, critical, moving work, through both the exhibition and our public programming, is great. I know that diverse curatorial programming is increasingly on the agenda of institutions all over the world, as well as in more agile private institutions: in the UK this is already happening at the British Museum, Tate, the British Library and the Mosaic Rooms, among others. The future looks bright.

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