Gulf Modernism

BY Alex Aubry / Mar 16 2017 / 18:19 PM

Bazaar speaks to the women behind a thought-provoking cultural experiment in Bahrain, one fusing tradition with modernity

Gulf Modernism

Shaikha Mai bint MohammedAl Khalifa, President of Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiques and founder of the Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research, standing in front of Bahraini artist Abdulrahim Sharif's series of abstract paintings entitled Space, Time, Now

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research, its founder Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, turned to German-born curator Melissa-Enders Bhatia, who commissioned 15 established and emerging Bahraini artists to create site-specific works displayed within 15 historic homes in Muharraq and Manama. The result is 15/15, an intriguing exhibition that takes visitors on a cultural treasure hunt through winding streets and narrow alleyways, where they encounter past commissions by the center along the way. “Placing these contemporary works within a traditional context, allowed us to explore issues shaping contemporary Bahraini identity, such as the environment or social structures,” says Melissa, in her role as the Shaikh Ebrahim Center’s curator and director of exhibitions.

Melissa-Enders Bhatia at the Shaikh Ebrahim Center’s Bin Matar House in Muharraq, where she serves as the curator and director of exhibitions. She wears a top by Bahraini designer Amal Al Mulla

“Our goal is to transform these restored houses into venues that showcase heritage, while functioning as contemporary art spaces to encourage alternative forms of cultural dialogue,” says Shaikha Mai of the historic buildings, which currently feature works by a group of women artists shaping the island’s contemporary art scene. Among the pioneering artists taking part in the exhibition is Balqees Fakhro, who is considered one of the most prominent abstract painters in the Gulf. “My paintings often revolve around themes of belonging and memories of place, and for 15/15 I created a painting called Saffron Shore, which explores the role food plays in triggering memories. Saffron is a key ingredient in Bahrain’s culinary traditions and I wanted to reflect that connection in an abstract composition that captures the spice’s distinctive yellow hue and aroma,” says the Bahraini artist, whose painting can be seen at the House of Coffee, the Sheikh Ibrahim Center’s atmospheric café.

Among the pioneering artists taking part in 15/15 is Balqees Fakhro, captured in the House of Coffee, where her painting Saffron Shore is on display

While most of the art works on display can be viewed throughout the day, others only appear after the sun has set. Among them is multi-media artist Hala Al Khalifa’s piece called Light, which has been projected onto the façade of the Shaikh Ebrahim Center. Resembling floating clouds of abstract Arabic calligraphy, upon closer inspection the text reveals the hundreds of bold-faced names and cultural figures who passed through the center’s doors during its 15 years. “I was attracted to the multiple meanings of light, particularly as a symbol of knowledge and enlightenment, which I felt perfectly encapsulates the center’s mission. By projecting their names onto the building I wanted to recall the many personalities who contributed to this tradition of intellectual discourse,” says Hala, adding that her installation for 15/15 was a very personal one. “I also wanted the piece to be a homage to my great-grandfather Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, after whom the center is named, to honour his legacy of learning and intellectual curiosity,” adds Hala, who studied at Boston’s Tufts University and the Slade School of Fine Arts in London.

 Writer and documentary photographer Haya Al Khalifa at Memory of the House in Muharraq, where her photo-installation, Disappearing, is on display. She wears a coat by Bahraini designer Lulwa Al Amin 

Steps away from the Shaikh Ibrahim center one will find Memory of the House, the only surviving room of a once grand townhouse that has been fully restored by the center. It is within this lone surviving relic of a past household that writer and documentary photographer Haya Al Khalifa chose to explore the theme of memory and loss through her photographic series entitled Disappearing. A large screen at one end of the room displays Haya’s images of dying and decaying palm trees that are both a symbol and metaphor for Bahrain’s evolving environmental and cultural landscape. “There is an irony to these images because Bahrain was once known as the land of a million palm trees, yet today palm trees have become a minority in an era of rapid urbanization and industrialization,” notes Haya, of the humble palm which has long played a role as a symbol of Bahraini culture. “Through these images of neglect, I wanted to bring attention to this important heritage and natural resource that we risk loosing,” says Haya.  

Hala Al Khalifa in the courtyard of the Nuzul Guesthouse. Behind her, a painting by Bahraini artist Ebrahim Bu-Saad hangs in the courtyard’s alcove

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of these artists are exploring issues of identity in a region that has witnessed rapid social, economic and environmental change in just a few decades,” observes Aysha Al-Moayyed, who was born in 1988 and earned an MFA in Fine Arts at London’s Goldsmiths University in 2015. For 15/15, she installed her mural Fast Cars within Muharraq’s Al Nukhida House, named after the captain of a ship that took pearl divers out to sea for several months. “Before the discovery of oil people of different socio-economic backgrounds lived side by side in close-knit communities such as this. The difference between the poor and wealthy wasn’t as pronounced back then and children of different backgrounds attended the same schools together; creating links that lasted generations, which isn’t necessarily the case today. Inevitably something gets lost on the road to modernity,” observes Aysha, whose mural Fast Cars, alludes to the rapidity at which traditional human values have been replaced by materialism.

London-based Bahraini artist Aysha Al-Moayyed with her mural Fast Cars, at the Al Nukhida House in Muharraq

At the Ibrahim Al Arrayed House of Poetry, once home to one of the region’s leading poets, literary figures and educators in the early part of the 20th century, award winning documentary photographer and artist Ghada Khunji created an installation reflecting her talent for deconstructing the cultural codes that surround her. While exploring the house, she came across Al Arrayed’s gold-trimmed bisht, a traditional men’s cloak hanging in his study, as well as a framed verse from the Holy Koran’s Surah Al Noor or the Chapter of Light, which both formed the basis for her piece titled The Word Whisperer. To create her installation, which is suspended like a canopy from the house’s interior courtyard, the artist turned to Saleh Al-Zari, Bahrain’s oldest bisht and men’s tailoring establishment. Its craftsmen set about embroidering the sacred verse in the form of a medallion at the center of the tapestry. While a constellation of square openings edged in traditional patterns sprout cascading tendrils of fragrant flowers imported from Cochin, India, as light streams through from the skylight above.

Dividing her time between New York and Bahrain, award-winning documentary photographer and artist Ghada Khunji, pictured with her installation, The Word Whisperer, at the Ibrahim Al Arrayed House of Poetry in Manama. She wears a look by Bahraini designer Amal Al Mulla

“I’m interested in how art can have multiple interpretations depending on the context and who is viewing the piece, especially in a multicultural society like Bahrain. To an Arab viewer the bisht may conjure images of male authority or wisdom, while the use of light in the piece in relation to the verse from the Koran also alludes to the sacred importance of light in many religions,” observes Ghada, who often touches on universal themes to bridge a perceived cultural and geographical divide between individuals of diverse backgrounds.

Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.