Ramadan Pavilion at Victoria & Albert Museum: A celebration of Muslims’ lived experiences in UK and Beyond

Ramadan Pavilion at the Victoria and Albert Museum is a Celebration of Muslims’ Lived Experiences in the UK and Beyond

By Tamreez Inam

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2023, 5:26 PM

On a sunny April afternoon at the V&A in London, visitors to the Exhibition Road courtyard are greeted by the sight of a whimsical brightly-coloured structure in the form of an abstracted mosque. People are taking photos of its purple arched doorways and mihrab, pink and red patterned minaret, or sitting inside under its yellow dome and blue and green beams, while children play and run about.

The inaugural Ramadan Pavilion is a public art installation situated in the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design. It is the world’s first of its kind purpose-built architectural structure and the first time such a celebration of the lived experiences of Muslims during Ramadan has taken place at the V&A opening it up to visitors of all communities.

Designed by architect and writer Shahed Saleem, the Ramadan Pavilion takes inspiration from the V&A’s Prints and Drawings collection and Saleem’s vast experience of designing and researching mosques across the UK. It builds on a previous partnership between the V&A and Saleem for the 2021 Venice Biennale where responding to the theme ‘How will we live together?’, they created an exhibition titled ‘Three British Mosques’ exploring multiculturism, hybridity and immigration.

According to a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain almost 90 per cent of Britons have never visited a mosque. The Ramadan Pavilion hopes to change people’s perceptions by presenting the mosque as a space for prayer, exploration, reflection, as well as play.

“The design of the pavilion is driven by a desire for an open structure that allows people to move into and through it freely. They should not feel any discomfort or strangeness when entering it, even though it is an unusual object” said Shahed Saleem.

The bright colours of the installation against the austere white V&A courtyard are its most striking feature. According to Saleem, “The colours are intended to be bold and welcoming, and to show that Muslims can represent themselves in a joyful and playful way, showing confidence and optimism.”

He further added that he wanted the space to be inclusive, especially for women.

“Women are normally excluded from main prayer spaces in mosques, which are often the most spatially and visually impressive. They therefore might not see the mihrab, mimbar or stand under a dome or even feel that they are in the centre of the space. With the Pavilion anybody can explore all the architectural elements of the mosque without these separations, so it is a new experience and a new way of being in a mosque.”

The Ramadan Pavilion brings attention to the core values and traditions of Ramadan through architectural expression, experimentation and an associated public arts programme including talks on themes of religion and spirituality and workshops for all ages. It is funded by the V&A and the Ramadan Tent Project, a UK charity with a mission of bringing communities together and developing understanding of Ramadan through the annual Ramadan Festival as well the Open Iftar, the UK’s largest community event in Ramadan. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the project and it was celebrated with 30 open iftars in iconic locations across 10 cities in the UK, including two at the V&A. The project is also supported by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation,

Visitors have included Londoners and international tourists, but also Muslims from across the UK who have travelled to see the installation and take part in the public event programme which has been a real celebration of their own lived experiences during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

Shaheen Kasmani, the lead curator of the public prorgramme said, “The theme for this year's Ramadan Festival is Belonging. As a curator, I wanted to create a space within a space that was open to everyone where people feel they belong, especially those from minority communities." She added, "It was also important to make it intergenerational, so to have something for children and young people as well as families.”

The Ramadan Pavilion is not an exoticised structure speaking to the experience of the ‘other’, but very much an expression of British Islamic Architecture and a reimaging of the place of the mosque in contemporary British society. One of its major achievements is in bringing the mosque and the experience of Ramadan to an iconic London location making Muslims feel represented and at the heart of the cultural mainstream rather than at the fringes. ‘These projects will change the way people perceive and experience Muslim culture,’ said Shahed Saleem, ‘but also how Muslims relate to the V&A, where their heritage is so substantively represented’.

Dr Sofia Rehman, a writer and independent scholar of Islam and gender who delivered a talk at the Ramadan Pavilion on 15 April on her book A Treasury of A’isha, commented on her experience, “I went to college on South Kensington so the local area was well known to me and my friends. We would venture into cafes and libraries of every kind but institutions like the V&A didn’t always feel quite as accessible for a young British Asian Muslim girl. To now see the Ramadan Pavilion there was so affirming and a sign of how far communities have come and a testament to the efforts of the Ramadan Tent team who have worked tirelessly for 10 years on this project. Having my own book event there felt like a historic moment.”

In a similar vein, Zeba Talkhani, author of My Past is a Foreign Country and The Most Exciting Eid, said, “The V&A is one of my favourite museums and it’s heartening to see this year’s Ramadan Pavilion in its courtyard and the openness and joy with which visitors are interacting with it. I had the pleasure of attending the open iftar held at the museum and it was so special to break my fast in the Raphael hall and feel my full self being accepted and represented in a space that means so much to me.”

The Ramadan Pavilion opened on March 4 and will be on display till May 1, 2023. Commenting on the public’s reaction Saleem said, “The pavilion has had an incredible response, which is wonderful for me to see. People seem to be energised and excited by it and children love playing in it. I've enjoyed seeing how people have played in it and also made drawings and photographs. It's great to see that it has functioned as a place of prayer as well as a space for recreation.”

In terms of what’s next for the Pavilion, Saleem was tight-lipped but hinted at life for the Pavilion beyond Ramadan, “We are currently exploring some exciting options for where the pavilion can go next, so stay tuned.”

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