The Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem won the sixth annual Jameel Prize (2021), a prize dedicated to contemporary art inspired by Islamic culture and tradition. Organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Jameel Prize stems from the desire to establish a dialogue between the various fields of Islamic art (architecture, calligraphy, painting, textile and ceramic production) and the techniques and languages of contemporary culture. Given this perspective, the artists of the previous competitions have expressed works of art markedly inspired by the principles of abstraction, giving evidence of the ability to project an artistic experience which exalts human spiritual values in the heart of profanity.
Gharem alternates work as a mathematics teacher with the creation of art with a strong social impact. In 2015, defying the conservative traditions of the Arabian Peninsula, he installed, in the desert near Riyadh, the work Paradise Has Many Gates, a structure made of steel tubes and wire mesh fencing that resembles the architectural form of a mosque. The work has been exhibited in several cities in Bahrain, the United States and Canada. It was recently included in the Vancouver Biennale and installed on what was once an Indian reservation.
The artist has created an open and transparent place of prayer, with metal mesh inserts reminiscent of the images of detention centers for prisoners and refugees. He has created a space that evokes the breadth of spiritual experience and the constriction of political and religious ideologies. The effect Gharem creates plays on contradictions and liminality.
The installation-mosque evokes thoughts of Guantanamo, as well as familiar places of worship, adorned as it is with precious carpets and rich chandeliers, showing the borders between coercion and freedom, repression and poetry.
Clearly in the Islamic tradition with its minaret and dome, the installation, with all its lightness and simplicity, appears to the viewers as a place of welcome and yet of confinement. The artist has conceived it as a space of sharing and provocation. It is as welcoming as the heart of a praying person and as inhospitable as the grim abode of ideology.