As the Ramadan Pavilion 2023 was taken down this week, after seven weeks of dominating Exhibition Road Courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, we are left with a growing sense that something in the cultural history of Islam in Britain has shifted.
The pavilion, a bold and brightly coloured installation, was a playful representation of a mosque. The pavilion design is a re-composition of traditional mosque elements; dome, minaret, arched doorways, mihrab (prayer niche), and mimbar (stair and pulpit), each of which is derived from a 19th or early 20th century drawing or photograph of historic Islamic architecture from the V&A’s collection. As such, the architecture of the pavilion is a reinterpretation of the colonial documentation of the Muslim world.
The pavilion was hosted by the Ramadan Tent Project (RTP), a dynamic community organisation that has been hosting Open Iftars—fast-breaking for all, during Ramadan—in high-profile public locations across the UK, and is marking its 10-year anniversary.
The pavilion is a bold and brightly coloured installation which is a playful representation of the mosques in Britain Image: © Matt Rowe
It is this collaboration, between the V&A, RTP and myself that has given the pavilion its transformative potential. Had it been just the museum and myself creating an artistic representation of the mosque in Britain, dramatic though it may have been, I can’t imagine that it would have reached, so far into the hearts of so many.
That door was opened by RTP with its long history of community empowerment which gave the pavilion the cultural validation and social vision it needed, to allow highly diverse Muslim communities to feel that this was a space and a structure made for and about them—for example, one visitor commented that, for once, she feels fully represented in the museum.
Shaheen Kasmani, RTP’s curator for the pavilion’s events, organised a programme throughout the run of the pavilion, which included book readings, networking events, craft and printing workshops, as well as two RTP Open Iftar events, each one attended by approximately 500 people. These events took place within the museum spaces, with the pavilion as a symbolic anchor for them. However, it was the actual use of the pavilion itself that could not have been choreographed, and it has been eye-opening to watch it unfold.
It is a re-composition of traditional mosque elements; dome, minaret, arched doorways, mihrab (prayer niche), and mimbar (stair & pulpit) Image: © Matt Rowe
The opening event on March 5, 2023, gave us the first inkling that the pavilion might create shifts in what diasporic Muslim spaces in Britain could be. The event saw around 200 people filling the courtyard, exploring and engaging with the pavilion, turning it into a public space for sitting, talking, interacting. When the time came for prayer, a muezzin climbed the mimbar, gave the call to prayer and almost imperceptibly the pavilion became a mosque, people arranged themselves in rows, and a congregational prayer was performed. With the prayer over, the congregants again rearranged themselves into casual visitors, conversing together and children playing; the rules governing it as a religious space dissipated.
On a daily basis, the pavilion served as a stopping point for visitors to the museum, of which there were 156,000 passed through the courtyard during the pavilion’s run. People would wander through it, sit, converse, and take photographs, and children would play around and over it. The elements usually invested with religious meaning in a mosque, the mimbar and mihrab, became backdrops for selfies or climbing spaces for children. It was a place where the architecture of the mosque offered itself up for all to inhabit and enjoy and where the usual gender separations were suspended.
Friday congregational prayer at the Ramadan Pavilion Image: Acacia Diana
A Friday congregational prayer was held at the pavilion as a public event Image: Acacia Diana
Halfway through Ramadan, a Friday congregational prayer was held at the pavilion as a public event. Worshippers came and arranged themselves on mats spread out across the courtyard. The call to prayer was made, an Imam gave a sermon and led a fully functioning Friday prayer. The pavilion had shifted again to fulfil a fully religious function, transforming its meaning and that of the courtyard into a religious space with the requisite codes, though open to anyone visiting and passing through the museum. For the duration of the prayer, the boundary between museum and mosque, between the embedded religious practices of a minority community and the hegemonic institution that the museum represents, were blurred.
Somali drumming and dance performance at the pavilion Image: Acacia Diana
On its final weekend the pavilion hosted a drumming workshop, and then a day of activities, starting with a fashion shoot for Eid outfits, a Somali drumming and dance performance, and storytelling. Just as the architecture of the pavilion was a reinterpretation of historic mosque elements documented in the museum collection, the use of the space became a reworking of what a mosque space could be. Here the meaning of the mosque was not fixed on a specific religious function but was now malleable to include enjoyment, leisure, culture and learning.
Details of the installation Image: © Matt Rowe
There has always been a driving question at the heart of this pavilion; how do postcolonial diasporas imagine themselves outside of the European gaze? The structure’s ebullient architecture was a move to reclaim the colonial image and demystify colonial Europe’s authoritative claims over the historical narratives of its colonies.
However, it is the life that has been given to the pavilion which has sparked its contemporary potential; it has served as a space to experiment with new engagements, and interactions and ask what future diasporic Muslim spaces could be. A friend said that I had taken risks in designing this pavilion, but it is clear now—as the courtyard is cleared again—that we all took risks, the museum, Ramadan Tent Project and the incredible visitors who took the pavilion and made it their own.
The pavilion was on Exhibition Road Courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum from March 5 to May 1, 2023.