Bridge: A story of an Egyptian artist at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ati Metwaly, Tuesday 16 Aug 2011

Ahram Online speaks with the co-curator and artist of Bridge, a comment on Egyptian society by an Egyptian artist exhibited as a candidate for the Jameel Prize in the V&A Museum in London


The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London has one of the greatest collections of Islamic art from the Middle East in the world. Soon after the museum’s foundation in 1852 they started the collection process. A display called Islamic Art opened in January 1950 in Room 42. This space was specifically designed in the 1890s to display the most important carpet in the V&A's collection. Known as the Ardabil carpet, it was made in Iran in AH 946 (AD 1539-40) and measures approximately 10.5 by 5 metres.

The V&A Museum is one of the hosts of the exhibition from the Jameel Prize 2011, an international award for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic art, craft and design. Its aim is to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.

The prize, which was initiated in 2009, after the formation of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic art inaugurated in July 2006 at the V&A Museum in London, and funded by Mohammad Abdul Latif Jameel, is awarded every two years.

The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art opening followed a three-year-long renovation and re-design, with the Ardabil carpet in the centre of the room. Today, the Jameel Gallery houses over 400 objects, including ceramics, textiles, carpets, metalwork, glass and woodwork, which date from the glory days of the Islamic caliphate of the 8th and 9th centuries to the years preceding the WWI. The treasures are from stretches from Spain in the west to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in the east, taking in important centres of artistic production in the Arab lands, Turkey and Iran.

The Jameel Prize 2011 exhibition is being shown across two spaces at the V&A Galleries 17a and 18a and the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. This is in order to do full justice to all of the works, some of which are very large.


The £25,000 Jameel Prize is an international prize for contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic traditions of art, craft and design. The Jameel Prize aims both to raise awareness of the thriving interaction between contemporary practice and the rich artistic heritage of Islam, and to contribute to a broader debate about Islamic culture.

The judges select the artists and designers they deem best fulfill these criteria and whose work displays innovation, an embodiment of both old practices and contemporary art forms and ingenuity.

“There is no complicated criteria for the choice of works submitted to Jameel Prize,” Salma Tuqan, the exhibition’s co-curator told Ahram Online. “The only criteria are that submitted works must have been made in the past five years and inspired by Islamic traditions.”

This year the ten shortlisted artists and designers span a wide geographical region stretching from North America, to France, Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.  

According to Tuqan it was not easy for the judges to shortlist to ten finalists, given the number of applicants that were of a very high calibre. “We have no set quotas for selection as the Jameel Prize is a global and fair platform. The basis of the judges’ decision was solely on innovative work that showed respect and a deep understanding of Islamic traditions and that demonstrated the ability to use techniques and ideas of the past in ways that are very relevant today,” Tuqan explained.

“The integral role that craft and design has played in Islamic art history is recognised and put into context through the artists’ work. In the hands of the Jameel Prize 2011 artists, material becomes as important as the concept behind the work, whereas, traditionally, some of these materials – such as brick, mirror, glass and carpets – were used to embellish objects, buildings or interior spaces, the materials now become the subject of the work. Decoration is reassessed, revived and imbued with a new meaning.”

The Jameel Prize has an important impact both in London and the other cities that the exhibition has traveled to, broadening people’s ideas of what Islamic art and traditions entail, showing that this has a strong relevance and, furthermore, that it is forward-thinking and innovative.

Tuqan sees that “there has been considerable interest internationally in contemporary Arab art over the last five years and this will continue to grow and develop.”


Among ten shortlisted artists we find Hazem El Mestikawy from Egypt. El Mestikawy presents artwork titled Bridge.

According to Tuqan, El Mestikawy’s work shows a uniquely scientific method and approach. “The judges felt that his work incorporated multiple intriguing layers; the alphabet and the text, and the architectural forms creating illusions of labyrinths; the use of geometric patterns in a modern and technical way.”

Dina Bakhoum, one of the Jameel Prize 2011 judges commented on El Mestikawy’s work stating: “I think the idea of the Bridge through the ‘I’ is very interesting and powerful. ‘I’ am part of the piece, ‘I’ am the bridge, when ‘I’ am not part of the piece there is a gap. If ‘I’ don't form the bridge then the gap will remain. Now it is time for creating bridges through the ‘I’. This is one possible interpretation among many.”

Many of El Mestikawy’s works revolve around cubes and spaces and solid blocks. He resources similar media: cardboard and recycled paper, being his signature, to give form to his expression. Bridge, created between 2009-2010, is “one step in my ongoing conceptual investigation in art and architecture, using the medium of cardboard, glue and recycling paper,” as El Mestikawy states.

Squares and cubes are used throughout his pieces. The square has a particular meaning to the artist: “The square came out of the necessity of being significant - it is not only the purest geometrical form but also a grammatical device from which the work may proceed. The square and its permutations have served as a frame for formal invention. It is the basic organisational framework for my system of construction theory and the mathematical logic-based system through which objects and sculptural forms will grow,” El Mestikawy explained to Ahram Online.

Bridge might give an impression of a labyrinth, which El Mestikawy sees as a purely visual interpretation. “My artwork, Bridge, deals more with the old city structure and the urban design that reflects the closed society. It’s a form of society that is protecting itself from anything approaching it from the outside. The Bridge connects these cities as an open canal, based on what they share and what they have in common, not on what differentiates them.”

When reflecting on the Arab Spring and possible attention that it may draw to Arab artists, El Mestikawy sees that since the mid-1990s there was already interest in Arab artists, mainly due to the contemporary artists from the 1990s generation and their conceptual artworks. A lot of artists participated in and joined many prestigious local and international biennales, exhibitions and art events, earning international recognition based purely on their art.

El Mestikawy sees that “any artwork produced already or anytime soon about the revolution in Egypt for example, will not have any recognition because they are just illustrations or fast reactions to something that is not yet over. Therefore, there is no understanding and no reflection, meaning there is no art.”


After the exhibition at the V&A, the Jameel Prize will travel on an international tour to prestigious venues across Europe and the States. Host museums include the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, California amongst others. The tour is a great opportunity to engage new audiences as well as to create a public programme of workshops, lectures and educational activities in conjunction with the exhibition. The 2009 tour travelled to destinations across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, attracting 49,160 visitors.

In 2009, the work by the winning artist Afruz Amighi was acquired by the V&A to form part of its contemporary Middle Eastern collection. The V&A are committed to continuing and developing relationships with the Jameel Prize shortlisted artists, nominators, as well as judges, even after the completion of the Jameel Prize exhibition and tour.

Also, the V&A has an exhibition called Light from the Middle East, which will open in autumn 2012. The exhibition is the result of a collaborative project with the British Museum, funded by the Art Fund; however this collaboration was formed before the Arab Spring events.


The Jameel Prize 2011 exhibition opened on 21 July and will continue until 25 September 2011. The winner of the Jameel Prize 2011 will be announced at the V&A on 12 September 2011.

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