Jameel Prize: In conversation with Marina Tabassum and Wardha Shabbir

In the lead up to the fifth edition of the international award for artists and designers employing Islamic traditions, we met Wardha Shabbir and joint winner Marina Tabassum at the Victoria & Albert Museum

 Marina Tabassum, Bait Ur Rouf Mosque Prayer Hall

Marina Tabassum, Bait Ur Rouf Mosque Prayer Hall

The Jameel Prize, a partnership between Dubai-based Art Jameel and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is a £25,000 prize for contemporary artists and designers employing Islamic traditions. The exhibition demonstrates the variety of fields – textile and fashion design, architecture, painting, mixed media, among the shortlisted artists. Highlights include Naqsh Collective's (Nisreen and Nermeen Abu Dail of Jordan) 2015 Shawl, made of walnut wood, paint and brass, which unifies traditional Arabic aesthetics in a contemporary fashion, as well as Iraqi Hayv Kahraman's The Translator from her 2015 series How Iraqi Are You?, based on the style of Persian miniatures, which raises themes of gender, othering, and diaspora. The exhibition includes a screening of videos for each artist, thoughtfully filmed in their studios and surroundings, including narration on their work. Wardha's video here

At the launch of the exhibition, Clove spoke to two of the artists: Wardha Shabbir, who trained in Islamic miniature painting at the National Arts College in Lahore, Pakistan, and employs the traditional art in contemporary installations, and Marina Tabassum, the first architect shortlisted for the Jameel Prize and the first joint-winner, who is based in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Tabassum's entry for this prize, Bait ur Rouf mosque, appeared in Clove 0I’s feature about Bangladeshi modernism.

Wardha Shabbir: ”It's about creating an objective experience, but it all comes from where I am rooted”

 Wardha Shabbir,  Two Pillars  2017

Wardha Shabbir, Two Pillars 2017

CLOVE What was the process for you of moving from miniature painting to installation work? It appears that, with your recent work in 2017, Maps of Skin and Spirit, you moved back towards two-dimensional painting – could you talk about that? And what does the title mean?

WS The process of evolving a miniature painting into an installation helps me to experiment with this unique art form in a non-conventional manner. I want to have a multidisciplinary approach to my work, so I work in different mediums. In doing so, I am trying to evolve my own understanding of miniature painting, as well as trying to study and deconstruct it, challenging my own learning each time.

I have always been interested in making experiences for the viewer, rather than just a painting or creating a piece of art. In doing that, space is very important. Along with the installation itself, there are other elements that make the  experience more interesting. I try to control the temperature of the space and incorporate sounds throughout. It becomes a surreal experience for the viewer, where one loses themselves in order to find themselves again in the space. I want to hold the finger of the viewer and bring them into my world by immersing them in a sensory experience. You may refer to my solo show, Of Trees and Other Beings, in which I converted the whole gallery into a grey cube and displayed the paintings on different eye levels, including peep holes to a video projection. The drawing from one painting seeped into the wall and connected with the other works, rendering the space one complete work.

Maps of Skin and Spirit was a two-person show: for “the skin”, Dua Abbas Rizvi painted figures and skin; for the “the map” I painted organic geometric pathways, although two-dimensional, I was still focused on the concept of space through the notion of the spiritual path, siraat

CLOVE Your work definitely has an imaginary element to it, but it's also grounded in natural scenery. Tell me about this dynamic.

WS The references for my work come from my surroundings. The city of Lahore, where I live, has played an important role in my practice. The light, the selection of colours, the compositions, the subject – everything is coming from those surrounding. What I feel and experience, I interpret into a visual form to share with the viewer. I go on walks and sit in different gardens and places to absorb what is happening around me, both mentally, spiritually and physically. I share my experiences with the viewer by making another experience for them, to open new horizons and new ideas.

All the trees and pathways in my painting are the foliage of Lahore, which was the traditional school within the realms of other miniature schools during the 15th and 16th centuries.

CLOVE The colour, particularly yellow, as well as the visuals in your work are often derived from your surroundings in Lahore. Do you aim to represent Lahore or to create a more objective experience for your viewers?

WS It's about creating an objective experience, but it all comes from where I am rooted. The colour yellow is the colour of light I see around and within my installations. I don’t want to trap or enclose light in a boundary, so I give a floating effect to the paintings through this colour. Yellow also helps to attract the viewer from a distance in order to bring them closer to the immense detail present in my work. Every time you look at the painting and every time you see a new detail it is making a new story or weaving the threads of the past.

CLOVE What elements of Islam are employed in your work, and are they intentional?

WS How the dot evolves into line, and then into a geometric pathway of self-discovery, is evident in my practice. The dot – nuqta – symbolises infinite life and God himself in Islamic art, while the shape that multiplies into a pattern illustrates the infinitude of geometry in Islamic art. My work develops on and around the path – siraat – through the contemporary utopias I create with mythological figures, similar to miniature paintings in Islamic manuscripts. The tree-lined path in my work suggests organic geometry, symbolic of Islamic garden design. The association of paradise with a walled, separate garden comes out in my work through the carefully contained foliage. However, the possibility of opening up to a path allows for a journey to self-discovery and connection between the human and the divine.

 Wardha Shabbir,  A Cube  2017

Wardha Shabbir, A Cube 2017

 Wardha Shabbir,  A Wall  2017

Wardha Shabbir, A Wall 2017

Marina Tabassum: ”Architecture for me is almost like cooking –  if you want to be authentic to a place you need to find the real ingredients”

 Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Daylight in the Court

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Daylight in the Court

CLOVE What are cultural and historical aspects of a location you factor into your design, and how do you begin that research?

MT It varies from location to location, programme to programme. Generally, when you arrive at the site, the context gives you a lot of information. It is about the place, especially the geo-formation and the climate, but also the people who live in that area and their history – how they came there and the culture that was created, especially the local, unique cultures. Locating and then understanding these things is where we start and are the ingredients to our work. In a way, architecture for me is almost like cooking – if you want to be authentic to a place you need to find the real ingredients – the spices and all the things you’ll cook with. This research is an important part of the design phase.

CLOVE Can you talk about the factors that contribute to your choice of material, particularly the use of brick?

MT I use a lot a lot brick because two-thirds of Bangladesh is a delta, the largest in the world: the Ganges delta. Being a delta, we only have earth or mud as material, so from, say, the second century, Buddhist monasteries were all made with baked bricks. This tradition of working with brick is historic and in a way it's the only permanent material we have. Otherwise you have to go for earth, which vernacular houses are made of, and that is much more impermanent. For any permanent architecture the material has always been brick: it is easily available and cheap to work with.

Bangladesh has a culture of construction, so we have really great masons who we’ve built great relationships with. The sourcing depends on the location, and we try to source good quality brick close to the site. I absolutely love brick – the way it washes, the light. It gets so vibrant, it is so timeless, it doesn’t age as quickly as other materials, especially industrial materials, and when it does age it does so quite gracefully and beautifully.

Having said that, brick is not the only material I work with. I helped design the Swadhinata Stambha (Tower of Light) in the centre of Dhaka which commemorates Bangladesh’s freedom in 1971 and is built with glass. Glass was used not as a material but as a medium – the best way to depict light is through glass. At the moment, we are designing Panigram, a resort in southern Bangladesh, and we are using earth and bamboo, so there is this flexibility of using material depending on the site and the location.

 Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Community

Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, Community

CLOVE Your installation at the current Venice Architecture Biennale, Wisdom of the Land, honours the uthan (the "lived space"). How do you achieve respect for tradition with modern architecture?

MT The Venice Biennale installation is based on the Panigram resort, a boutique eco-resort, where we are involving residents of the local village who are building the project in its design. The installation talks about wisdom –  as architects we're trained in formal education where vernacular traditions are always secondary. When I studied, we never researched it or learned much about it. When I went to the Panigram site and saw the surrounding virgin farmland and vernacular architecture I thought, how do you design something here?

Brick is definitely not the material for this location, so we went to the local people and asked them about their own way of living and tried to involve them. As we started connecting with people, we saw that there is so much wisdom that comes with living with nature. It is such a symbiotic relationship – that was quite inspiring. There is so much to learn, so we formed a relationship. We helped them in their own residences – as designers, we gave them small technical details to enhance their lives, such as a device that helps remove smoke from the stove from the home. It became a connection where we learned from their wisdom, and we provided some design advice. The installation at the Venice Biennale took elements from that experience and displayed it in a courtyard – in the delta, the courtyard is a free space where anyone is welcome to come and sit and just chat. It is a beautiful, communal space for social connection.